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The Power of the Pacolet River

January 29, 2012


At Melrose Station on the old Saluda Grade, I took a side road toward Pearson’s Falls.  My blue pickup truck followed the north fork of the Pacolet River past the falls and up a gravel road winding through the Blue Ridge.  At a wide place I stopped and walked through the misting rain along a fishing trail.  I had not come to fish but simply to enjoy the wintry woods and the mountain river tumbling over rocks and boulders toward the city of Tryon.

The Pacolet River Basin is one of the most important water courses in the Upstate.  It provides much of the water for Spartanburg County.  The river feeds both Lake Bowen and Lake Blalock, assuring local residents of an adequate water supply for the foreseeable future.

Textile manufacturing in the Upstate is inextricably tied to the history of the river.  By the early 1900s textile mills had been built all along the stream from Tucapau to Lockhart.  Water flowing over the rocky shoals provided the power needed for operating the mills.  By 1907 Pacolet Manufacturing had become the largest textile plant in Spartanburg County.

Of the many stories about the Pacolet River, none is more tragic than the flood of 1903.  My friend Gary Henderson tells of his grandfather who witnessed the deluge.  At the age of seven Gary’s grandfather started working at Clifton Mill #3 in 1901, earning a dime a day. According to Gary, his grandfather had to stand on a crate in order to reach the machines he operated.

On June 6, 1903, the young boy sat on the front porch of his aunt’s mill house and watched the building where he had worked crumble into the river.  That flood washed away sixteen houses in his village.

The first week of June 1903 brought steady, sometimes torrential, rainfall to the Upstate.  Before daylight on the morning of June 6, the river burst its banks.  Upstream at Tucapau, the ground floor of the mill flooded, drowning the sixty-five people working inside.  Downstream at Converse, Clifton, and Pacolet, the water rose to forty feet above flood stage, heavily damaging Clifton #1 and Clifton #2 and completely destroying Clifton #3, Pacolet Mills #1, and Pacolet Mills #2.

Most estimates of fatalities are considered to be far too low.  Scores of people died trying to save others, but most could only watch helplessly as friends and family members were swept away.  In Pacolet raging water killed seventy people and left 600 homeless.

The flood washed away at least seventy-five houses – all of them duplexes where two families – most with three or more children – lived in the same residence.  Hundreds of people died. Many were women and children.

The damage ran into millions of dollars at a time when the average wage of a textile worker was only a dollar a day.  Debris was carried downstream and deposited along the riverbanks all the way to Lockhart.  The economic impact was severe. More than five thousand people lost jobs.

Many individuals made heroic attempts to save others from drowning.  A pitcher for the Converse mill baseball team in the old Textile League threw a ball of twine tied to a rope to a man being carried downstream.  Clinging to a limb of an uprooted oak tree, the man caught the twine, gathered the rope, and was pulled to safety.

Among the most compelling and oft-told stories is one I heard while having breakfast with George Mullinax at Dolline’s Restaurant in Clifton #2.  As flood waters rose at Clifton #1, workers crowded together in desperation on the top floor of the mill.  A black man heard the cries for help.  Using a bale of cotton as a life raft, he paddled across the rushing water to the top floor of the mill, rescuing one person at a time.  He went back and forth ninety-nine times from the mill to the safety of the bank, saving a trapped mill hand with each crossing.  As he made one more trip, the waterlogged cotton bale overturned, dumping the hero and his hundredth passenger into the torrent.  Neither was ever seen again.

The high watermark from the flood is still visible on the stone pilings of the railroad trestle where Highway 29 crosses the Pacolet River at old Converse Mill.  On the opposite side of the highway is a memorial created by Ron Longsdorf and dedicated on November 15, 2011.  Rising twenty-two feet in the air, it symbolizes the smokestack from the old mill.  The top of the sculpture marks the crest of the flood waters on June 6, 1903.  It commemorates the tragic event that occurred more than a century ago. It stands as a stark reminder of the power of the river.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 1903

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