Surviving the Great West Virginia Flood of 1985
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, marked the 25th anniversary of the devastating floods that washed through West Virginia in 1985, killing almost 50 people. Below, is the first part of a two-part personal memoir of the flood, written by Matthew Burns, and reprinted from his blog Appalachian Lifestyles, devoted to “stories, tales, lies, musings and daily life in the mountains of central Appalachia” and “dedicated to the education of the American public on the unique culture of Appalachia.”
By Matthew Burns
November 4, 1985, may just be another day to most of you, but it will forever be imprinted in my psyche as the day that defined my life.
It all happened in 1985 and I was in the 3rd grade at Circleville Elementary. It had been raining for a few days, and they tell us that the remnants of a hurricane got caught in our mountains and that’s what caused all the flooding. I remember we all went to school on November 4th just like any other day. It was raining, cold and dreary but otherwise we didn’t think much more about it. My mom and granddad were planning a trip to Elkins that day and they left as soon as we got on the school bus that morning.
Floodwater in Franklin. This was early on Nov. 4. This road was destroyed later in the day.
About 10 a.m., word came to the school that some of the hollers were starting to wash out and the river was getting up pretty high. As a precaution, the principal of the school released classes at 11 a.m. We were all tickled about that, of course. At the time, we didn’t realize just how much of our lives were going to be changed. By the time the buses arrived at the school, the river was still rising and the water was licking on the underside of the bridge going out of Circleville.
Since our bus driver had to come from Franklin, across the mountain, we were the last bus to get out of school that day. By the time we left, the little bus that was supposed to go up Teter Gap had returned and said the river was already over that bridge and they couldn’t get those kids home. The teachers were frantic by this time and a few of them decided to open up the school as an unofficial shelter for those kids.
Finally, Joe, our bus driver arrived and we hurriedly got on the bus. He told us the water was almost over the road in Friends Run and he didn’t know if he’d be able to make it back home or not. The river was a raging torrent by the time we crossed the bridge. You could see garbage and trees floating amid its mighty current. It looked like Pike Gap road was going to be washed out from the looks of the river eating at its banks.
The bigger kids made it fine, but about halfway up, a big rock slammed into me as it was being forced down the holler in the floodwaters.
As we got on out of Circleville, we could see the river better, it runs adjacent to the road for a few miles, and it was almost even with the road as we were heading home. The river had already flooded all of the giant fields in the valley and we fully expected to see Noey and his ark go a-floatin’ by at any moment. There was a feeling in the air of doom as farmers and residents were hectically scrambling to open ditches and run beds in order to save their homes and property.
We finally made it to the Judy Gap junction and started up the mountain, but not before noticing that the water was almost up to the bridge there… the bridge that we knew Mom and Granddad would have to cross in order to get home. Joe then speeded on up the mountain and we all hurried home, and waited and wondered what was happening down in the valley.
As the morning gave way to afternoon, we still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Mom and Granddad, so we all decided to go to Granddad’s house up on the hill and have lunch. It was then we noticed that the creek was covering the holler road all the way up Burns Holler. The water only covered the road about a foot deep so we decided we could make it anyway and started trudging through the flooded out holler.
The bigger kids made it fine, but about halfway up, a big rock slammed into me as it was being forced down the holler in the floodwaters. It caught be right in the shins and I went down. I hollered as I fell and the floodwaters were sweeping me away toward the old culvert. Just as I went under, I felt someone grab me by the ankle and pull me up on the creek bank. It was my Aunt Tam and I am convinced that she saved my life that day.
After that, we frantically climbed along the hillside, clinging to trees and trying to make it up the holler. We did make it to Granddad’s house and noticed that the power had went out. This was relatively common in our neck of the woods, so the older girls cooked us lunch on the wood cookstove. We all dried our clothes and warmed ourselves by the fire.
About 2 o’clock, my Uncle Tom came home from work. He worked over above Franklin and said it took him a couple of hours to get home because the water was over the road in Friends Run and that it was really bad over there. We were relatively safe and secure high up on the mountain as long as we stayed out of the holler, and the older kids told us to stay inside. Uncle Tom then went down around the hill to check on Grandmaw Mary to tell her what was going on and for her not to worry about anybody and that we were all fine.
But in the backs of our minds we were wondering where was Mom and Granddad, if it was as bad as everyone was saying – would they be able to make it home?
About 4 o’clock, word came from the Lime Plant where my Dad worked that he was going to just stay there for the night. The roads were out going in and out of the holler and he was just going to sleep on the bench there at work rather than try to make it home. It was getting dark when we saw Mom and Granddad topping the hill and we all ran out to meet them. They said they had made it to Elkins but people told them it was flooding back in Pendleton County and the schools were letting out early. They said they left Elkins at 10:30 that morning and tried to make it home but the roads were washed out. They got the idea to go along the back roads up on Cheat Mountain, then through Gandy and up over Spruce Knob. They said the road was washed out in several places but they knew they had to get home. So, they put the truck in 4-wheel drive and took a lot of chances.
Mom told Granddad that she had to get home, that us kids were all alone and she didn’t care what they had to do, but they needed to get across that bridge.
They said the worst part was the Judy Gap junction bridge. They said the state had closed the road and there was a State Police man there stopping traffic. They said the river was literally moving the bridge and everyone expected it to get washed out at any moment. They went back down the road to the Riverton bridge and it was washed out already, so they speeded back up to the Judy Gap bridge. Mom told Granddad that she had to get home, that us kids were all alone and she didn’t care what they had to do, but they needed to get across that bridge.
With the policeman stopping traffic there, that seemed impossible. So, as they neared the swaying bridge, revved the engine and raced by the policeman and the “Road Closed” sign and onto the bridge. Mom said she got a funny feeling in her butt as they were crossing the bridge, and they crossed it as fast as they could in 4-wheel drive since about a foot of water now covered it. They were hoping that all of the bridge was still there. Sure enough it was, and they headed on up the mountain. After they crossed, we were later told that the policeman parked his cruiser long ways across the road to prevent any rogue passersby from crossing. Sure it was a chance, but Mom never was one to let anything to stand in the way of her and her kids.
Later that night, we heard a loud rumbling in the holler and someone went out to the turn to see what the clatter was about. The old stone cow barn had washed away and nothing was left in Burns Holler except the muddy brown floodwater.
We all went to sleep that night wondering what all was happening all throughout the North Fork Valley. We didn’t know. Uncertainty is a horrible thing, and especially so when it is likely that your whole world has been forever changed.
Tomorrow: Part 2: Will Sweet Polly Purebred survive the onslaught of the freight train that is bearing down on her? Is there time to save her? Read more of Matthew Burns’ writing at Appalachian Lifestyles.