The flood of 1867 is the most significant flood ever recorded in east Tennessee. The Upper Tennessee Valley was especially susceptible to flooding thanks to its location between the Smoky Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Plateau to the west. The valley gradually slopes from southwest Virginia to Chattanooga, TN, with nearly all precipitation runoff from across the region flowing through Chattanooga.
Meteorological data was scarce in 1867, but one attempt by the Tennessee Valley Authority to reconstruct the precipitation event resulted in the following isohyetal map.
Estimated total rainfall, March 1-7, 1867. Taken from “Floods and Flood Control,” Tennessee Valley Authority, Technical Report No. 26, 1961, pg. 30.
The map above shows that during the first 7 days of March 1867, upwards of 12 inches of rain fell across an area extending from Lookout Mountain in northwest Georgia, to Maggie Valley, NC. Rainfall is estimated to have easily exceeded 6 inches across the remainder of the Upper Tennessee Valley and its drainages. But the heavy rainfall was not the whole story. The rain produced rapid snowmelt across the higher elevations, which contributed to the total storm runoff. The course of the flood through the Upper Tennessee Valley was described as follows by the Report of Chief of Engineers, 1875-1876:
“The flood of 1867 far exceeded all precedents for the past 90 years. It consisted of one great rise due to furious rain storms which covered its entire valley, particularly the mountain region. At Kingsport, on the Holston, rain fell nearly continuously from February 28 to March 7. At noon on March 7 the river attained its highest point, being 30 feet above low water and 4 feet above any other flood. In 20 hours it fell 10 feet. At Strawberry Plains [northeast of Knoxville] the freshet [flood waters] rose 52 feet above low water and 11 feet above any other flood. At Knoxville the river rose 12 feet above the high-water mark of 1847 and was over 50 feet deep. Near Harrison the Tennessee rose 15 feet above any known water mark. At Chattanooga the rise began on March 4, overflowed the banks on March 8, and attained height on March 11, being 53 feet above low water and 15.5 feet above the high water of 1847, the highest on record. The river fell with equal rapidity to the usual level. Rains were incessant for four days before the highest water…. The destruction of property and life occasioned by this flood was beyond parallel in the history of the Tennessee Valley. [Taken from “The Chattanooga Flood Control Problem,” 76th Congress, 1st Session, House Document No. 91, 1939, pg. 71].”
The web link below will take you to a more detailed description of the Flood of 1867 that quotes numerous newspaper articles and official reports from the era. You will also discover whether such a flood could ever happen again with all of the flood control systems now in place. You may be surprised.