Driving up Virginia 151 in Nelson County less than two days after the gentle countryside had been subjected to the fury of the remnants of Hurricane Camille, the scene was surreal.
Bright sunshine belied evidence of the dark storm clouds that had gathered over the county overnight on Aug. 19-20, 1969. Those clouds had produced up to 31.5 inches of rain on parts of the county in six hours.
Fields of hay and corn suggested nothing was amiss — until you reached a point where a once nondescript little stream had turned into a raging torrent of water. Violent floodwaters from those streams and rivers claimed the lives of 124 county residents during that night of horror and destruction.
Looking at old photographs of the ravaged land, I am still struck with awe by the force of the water that came crashing down the mountainsides around communities such as Tyro, Massies Mill and Roseland on the Tye River. Farther north, other communities along the Rockfish River, including Woods Mill and Rockfish, were devastated.
Working as a photographer with The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, I had been out that Tuesday night covering the Democratic primary runoff between Henry Howell of Norfolk and William Battle of Charlottesville. Battle’s victory made the photo at his campaign headquarters important for other papers across the state.
Bright flashes of lightning danced across the thick skies as I drove home from the newspaper office, but I dismissed the rain as just another summer storm. The six inches of water in my basement the next morning told me an unusual amount of rain had fallen.
At the office later in the morning, I heard reports of serious flooding along the James River at Scottsville. Another photographer went down to cover that and I drove south down U.S. 29 to where a small bridge had been reported washed out near Covesville. Highway crews were repairing it. No big deal.
Incredibly, as I think back on it, we didn’t begin to get any indication of how serious the devastation in Nelson County was until late that Wednesday afternoon. By then, the afternoon paper had come off the press, so there was no rush for us to go down there at that point. CNN wasn’t around then and we didn’t really compete with any surrounding papers.
Nonetheless, since I knew the area, I was assigned to go with a reporter up Virginia 151 to Massies Mill early the next morning. That was to be the first of five straight days covering Nelson County from Massies Mill on the Tye River to Davis Creek — where there was so much death and destruction — to Norwood on the James River.
We had no idea what lay ahead of us on that Thursday morning. Part of a house hanging from a bridge railing over Stony Creek near Wintergreen was the first evidence of the fury of the storm.
A swollen creek had gouged out a huge chunk of 151 as we approached Brent’s Mountain, making it impassable. From there, we were on foot over the mountain. Massive trees had been tossed into piles like matchsticks. With no highway crews anywhere around, we were aware there were far more serious problems elsewhere.
The debris-choked road and devastation along Hat Creek on the other side of the mountain was the next evidence of the killer torrents produced by so much rain. One family’s car was sticking up on end in a pile of trees and boulders the size of a chest of drawers. Their house had been spared.
By mid-morning, we were beginning to hear stories about the destruction at Massies Mill, a community of about 150 on the Tye River. At Kidd’s Store, we caught a ride in the back of a pickup truck that took us by way of a couple of back roads to Fleetwood Elementary School, a mile or so from the stricken community.
The raging river had flattened it. The asphalt on Virginia 56, which runs through the community, had been peeled away by the rushing waters. Concrete steps that once served a house led to nowhere. A check of clippings from the disaster reminds me that of the 30 buildings in the community, only two or three escaped undamaged. Of the 150 people who lived there, 23 died in the flood.
I recall the dazed, forlorn expressions of some of the people I photographed and the feeling of helplessness that permeated the scene. Rescue crews from all over the region poked here and there through debris and mangled houses hoping to find survivors. They knew at this point, however — some 30 hours after the floodwaters had begun to recede — that there wasn’t much hope.
By mid-afternoon, we had to begin thinking about getting a ride back down Virginia 151 to the car and back to Charlottesville. In terms of today’s standards of electronic journalism and digital photography, we were in the dark ages. No portable terminals from which to write or laptops from which to e-mail photos, not even black and white photos. Nonetheless, we hustled back with what turned out to be the first photos from the ground of the devastation in Massies Mill.
The next two days we spent up on Davis Creek, where the death toll was the greatest. Of the 124 who died that night, more than 50 were from the area known as Davis Creek, which runs into the Rockfish River at Woods Mill north of Lovingston. Normally, the creek is nothing more than a trickle of water. That night it became a killer. And two or three days later, the by-now familiar evidence was everywhere. Boulders. Massive trees. Piles of debris, some of which had been rounded up by bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Denuded hillsides, a few of which are still visible today. Body bags and the smell of death rounded out the scene.
That Saturday afternoon, I recall a rescue crew report that a tractor-trailer had been located barely sticking out of the sand and mud in the Rockfish just downstream from the bridge on U.S. 29 that crosses the river at Wood’s Mill. A front-end loader dug dramatically for an hour or more uncovering the trailer and then the tractor. The body of the driver that some expected to find inside was not there.
Dozens of stories of bravery and heroism and heartbreak and sacrifice emerged in the days and weeks and months that followed this natural calamity that befell Nelson County that August night 40 years ago. It was a horror the survivors will never forget.
Hurricane Camille, called “the greatest recorded storm ever to hit a populated area of the Western Hemisphere,” had indelibly changed the face of Nelson County and its people.