(The Dominion Post)

ROWLESBURG, West Virginia

The rain slowed. Wednesday dawned.

In the new light, everyone stepped out of their homes or the homes of neighbors and found the world in two colors: the gray of the sky that brought the deadly clouds and the brown of the river mud that covered everything now.

Cars were upside down. Trees lay flat. A house was in the middle of East Main Street. Other houses had just… vanished. No one believed the Cheat River could swell so high. But now, gazing across the wasted banks at daybreak, from Parsons clear up to Albright, the survivors couldn’t help but wonder who was dead.

Barbara Snider dreaded her family was. She hadn’t heard from her husband, Fred, or her son, Adam, since the phone lines crashed. Barbara and her daughter, Sarah, had left the barn earlier that evening and drove into Rowlesburg. The barn was upstream, on a river island. But by the time Fred and Adam tried to leave, they were already trapped.

She and Fred talked by phone as long as they could, and now, peering across the wasteland of her town, choked in mud, she had heard nothing from them. Deep down she knew it: That barn was gone.

Up the gentle slope of the town center, Mayor Margaret Schollar’s house still stood, but half her constituents were now homeless. As the new mayor of Rowlesburg, this was her mess, but doubly so because she was also its new postmaster. The first place she went was the post office. When she opened the door, dirty water gushed out.

Farther upstream, Betty Bell had left her house around 9 p.m. The storm was so terrible that her cat, Pyewacket, was mortified to be outside. As Pyewacket meowed, Bell decided to let her stay. Spare her the anxiety. “Even if water comes in, you can climb the furniture,” she thought.

That morning, from her daughter’s house in a nearby town, she didn’t yet know how bad it really was.

(The Dominion Post)

The Flood of 1985 was one of the worst floods the United States has ever seen. The hurricane that broke against the Gulf Coast on Halloween left an enormous amount of warm water vapor in the air. The vapor condensed en masse, hurling torrents of rain across the Mid-Atlantic. Experts later calculated that at the height of the storm, the equivalent of two olympic-sized swimming pools tumbled down the mountains around Rowlesburg every second.

Rivers in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland overflowed so fast on the night of Nov. 4 that some had no time to evacuate. Others refused or were overcome as they tried to save others. When it was all over, 62 people were dead.

Some of the worst damage was in Rowlesburg, where residents received no official warning at all. Volunteer fire departments initiated evacuations, as a precaution, only after the Cheat began to spill. As the hours wore on, and reports of the damage carried uphill to the outside world, the Preston County sheriff felt a sinking realization: Everyone in the valley must be dead.

In the beginning, the river created the town.

The Cheat River’s oxbow, where a frontiersman cleared his homestead in 1775, forms Rowlesburg’s edges. The railroad, built in 1851, traces the Cheat’s curves and brought the industry that made Rowlesburg a town seven years later. Soon, the river powered the sawmill, and the sawmill powered Rowlesburg until more than 1,500 people called it home.

Rowlesburg, western Virginia, from an 1861 sketch in Harper’s Weekly

Eventually, the sawmill went the way of all sawmills, and people left with it. But by 1968, the river was still attractive to people like Betty Bell, who moved that year from Pennsylvania to its peaceful banks with her husband, Bill. She liked the breezes in the summer that rolled over the water and kept her white mobile home cool. The house sat up on a crest, and she could look down at the tourists from all over the country floating by on their rafts.

Bill took a job at the new Comsat station in nearby Etam. It was a good job, and Betty went to work there, too, as a secretary earning union wages for non-union work. They bought a car, a conversion van and two animals: a happy doberman named Shotzi and Pyewacket, named for Kim Novak’s cat in Bell Book and Candle. The station promoted Betty to data-processing clerk. Her grown children from her first marriage lived nearby. It was a comfortable time in her life until June of 1985, when Bill fell and hit his head.

A hematoma formed, and even though he wasn’t conscious, Betty drove an hour to the hospital every day for a month until he died. She didn’t give herself time to grieve. She had Shotzi and Pyewacket and her children, so she wasn’t alone, and she worked harder at the station.

That was the year Rowlesburg elected its first woman as mayor, a whip-smart native named Margaret Schollar, Rowlesburg High School class of 1950. Born the oldest of 10, Margaret had a type-A personality and was accustomed to leadership. She became the town recorder, the post office clerk and a town councillor before she ran for mayor. By the end of July she’d won the election and been promoted to postmaster.

It’s not easy being mayor of Rowlesburg, then or now, because there’s never much money. The population had dwindled since the Depression. Although the train still came through, it didn’t stop much anymore. Not since the sawmill shut down.

But there were school jobs and government jobs, coal jobs and churches, the bank and the grocer. You didn’t have to leave Rowlesburg if you didn’t want to, and some of the elderly residents never did.

After the flood that autumn, though, hundreds cleared out. Many swore they’d never live by a river again.

Back in the days when Preston County had more than one high school, Rowlesburg always fielded a pretty tough men’s basketball team. They often had a shot at the county title, and the town rallied around them on Monday nights. There was a home game on Nov. 4. But whether they won or lost is another one of those things swept away by what happened next.

As people spilled out of the high school and scampered home under heavy skies, others gathered down on the grassy bank of the Cheat, a few hundred steps away. Whenever it rained like this, residents, especially the older ones, liked to gather and plunge a stick into the water. “How high do you think it’ll get?” they’d ask, marking the inches and consulting their watches. “It’s coming up fast.”

Bobby Goff was standing there with them. As the fire chief and as one of three town police officers, the emergency management folks often asked him to monitor the river when it rained. So that’s what he was doing. Then, at 9 p.m., the first big call came in.

The 911 dispatchers in Kingwood had a report of a pickup truck turned on its side on a small bridge over Saltlick Creek. Two soldiers from Camp Dawson were inside, and one of them was still trapped in the vehicle with the water rushing over him.

That’s when Goff got his first clue this wasn’t going to be a normal flood.

He and his nephew, Richard, climbed into his SUV and drove from Rowlesburg across the river to the creek.

Saltlick Creek is so low on a normal day that it never merited a proper bridge — just some pavement and a culvert. But now the water was rushing over the surface of the road so fast it had tipped over the pickup truck. The hood pointed upstream, and some nearby residents were frantically trying to free the driver, whose foot was jammed in the door.

“Get me the hell out of here!” he screamed.

The guy was scared. He’d managed to stand up a little, so at least he wasn’t going to drown in place. But the creek was moving faster and faster. The truck could wash away any minute, and that would be the end of it.

Goff and the others stood on either side of the vehicle and started heaving. It wasn’t easy because the creek was slippery, and it tried to sweep them off their feet. But in the mud and driving rain, they took just enough pressure off the man’s foot that he could slip out. And just as he did, Goff and Richard slipped, too — down the creek.

“Hang on!” cried the people on the shore.

“We’re hanging on!” Goff cried back.

He and Richard clung to each other’s coats. They couldn’t touch the bottom. They couldn’t swim, either. Not really. But they guided themselves little by little toward the bank.

The others hustled to catch up, and when the moment seemed right — when Richard and Goff had got themselves a bit closer to shore — they jumped in, latched on and yanked. Everyone spilled onto the bank in a heap.

For the moment, everyone was safe.

As an ambulance ferried the Camp Dawson boys uphill and to the hospital, the empty pickup truck drifted silently down stream.

Preston County Sheriff Jim Liller went to bed on Nov. 4 like it was any other Monday night. He knew it was raining, sure, but nobody yet had any idea this would be a record-setting event. There was nothing on the news.

The National Weather Service folks down in Charleston, the state capital, were monitoring the river and rain gauges as best they could. The day before, and again that morning, a young forecaster named Ken Batty had put out a flood watch for much of the state. But one thing about rain is this: You can’t know exactly how much of it will fall until it does.

Goff didn’t need a weatherman to tell him it was time to start rousing people from their homes.

Groups of volunteer firefighters and neighbors were already gathering to help evacuate low-lying areas. The most vulnerable spot seemed to be the two dozen mobile homes that nuzzled up to the Cheat, north of town. Goff and others went door to door. Some people were just heading to bed. Some left their homes readily. Some put up a fight, citing previous floods that didn’t even reach their doorstep.

It wasn’t easy to argue back; Goff himself couldn’t be sure what would happen. But wouldn’t it be better safe than sorry? Eventually everyone did leave the mobile home park, and good thing: Later that evening Goff stood on a hillside and watched the structures fold like playing cards. Anybody still in there would’ve been battered to death by debris or drowned.

South of town, upstream, Betty Bell was having the same ambivalence: stay or go? “Aw, what the heck,” she thought, “the water comes up all the time.” Plus, she had to be at the Comsat station at 6 a.m. the next morning. So she got in the bathtub to get ready for bed.

When she got out of the tub, she could tell just from looking out the window that the water was much higher than it was when she got in. Her daughter, who lived 20 minutes up the road in Tunnelton, had gotten word that the river was flooding and called Bell. “I’m sending my husband to come get you,” she said.

When the husband, Danny, arrived, the truck couldn’t make it up the driveway, and Bell had to wade out to it.

“What about the cat?” Danny asked.

“I’m going to leave the cat here,” she said.

(The Dominion Post)

Soon the Cheat covered Diamond and Connif streets. Elm and Buffalo streets had vanished, and even Chestnut Street was submerged. You could walk down Main Street, but by the time you hit the eastern stretch, you’d quickly be up to your chest in the slow-moving eddies that were once Rowlesburg.

And people, mostly elderly residents, were still in their homes.

Mayor Schollar gathered with Goff and some other volunteers who were evacuating the town. Together, they scrolled through a mental checklist of residents. Mary Short was safe. And so was 83-year-old Mary Hager, who refused to believe her eyes (“I listened to the radio and watched the news, and there were absolutely no warnings for the Cheat!”). Goff tied her to a chair and hoisted her uphill.

Bertha Nasiff was out of town, Schollar thought, but Jess Buckingham said, “No, she came back Thursday.” And sure enough, she was still home when Buckingham went looking for her; he carried her out on his back. They remembered almost everybody.

Everybody but Fleta Uppole, an elderly woman who watched the water rising into her house from the attic window all night. She survived, but to this day Schollar still feels bad. “We forgot about her.”

Upstream on the little river island, things were getting bad for Fred Snider and his 6-year-old son, Adam. The family lived in the loft of the barn, so they had plenty of provisions. Maybe that’s why they thought they would be fine to wait out the rain.

Fred’s wife, Barbara, and his father, Richard, were getting worried. “You’d better get out of there,” Richard said.

They couldn’t, Fred said. The water was already above the bridge. But he reassured his dad: “It’s no big deal. It’s up one hour and down the next.”

In truth, it was more up than down. The water had risen to cover the island and was climbing up the first floor of the barn. As Fred and Adam hunkered down in the loft, Fred called his wife Barbara, who was at their second house in Rowlesburg anxiously awaiting updates.

“I don’t have a way out,” Fred said.

“I feel like I’m helpless here,” Barbara said. “I wish I could come down to help.”

In Rowlesburg, the water was still moving relatively slowly. Many of the sturdy houses were still in place, and you could still wade through the water in the streets if you had to. That was because of the railroad bridge.

The tracks crossed the river upstream from town. As debris piled up against the steel bars of the heavy structure, it acted like a dam that inhibited the Cheat downstream and built a reservoir upstream. Normally, when a downpour was coming, the railroad company would park a train on the tracks to keep the bridge from washing away. This time, for some reason, the company didn’t.

Sometime after midnight, the ambulance crew finished transporting the Camp Dawson soldiers and was returning to Rowlesburg. By now, of course, there was no driving across Saltlick Creek. The water was too high. So they abandoned the vehicle and waded through the creek on their toes. Then they walked across the highway bridge, downstream from Rowlesburg.

No sooner had they gotten back to town when, around 1 a.m., everyone heard a tremendous noise, louder than the patter of a million raindrops. From the darkness of the valley came an unnatural crunch as the railroad bridge twisted off its foundation and unleashed the pent-up fury of God.

The Cheat was free to flow. It gushed downstream and leveled anything in its path, including the highway bridge the two men had crossed minutes before. Power lines sizzled and popped. The water treatment plant flooded, and topsoil eroded down to the water lines, which crumbled away.

And, of course, the phone lines went down, severing Barbara from her husband and son. Everything was black. More alone than ever, Fred knew he had two options: try to live or wait to die.

In the loft there were two Igloo coolers about 16 inches wide and 30 long. He tied them together with wire into the crudest raft and summoned Adam to the window. Dark sky above and watery death below, father and son clung to their last hope and to each other.

Then they gave themselves to the Cheat.

(U.S. Geological Survey)

The silver light of dawn was just peeking through the windows when the sheriff’s wife roused him. It was Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1985.

Like many others whose houses weren’t washed away, Sheriff Liller had slept through the worst flood in the history of West Virginia. There had been nothing on the news. But this morning, from their house in Kingwood, the county seat, Liller’s wife got word there was damage.

So he got in his car and drove to the power plant on state Route 26, where he could look down on the Cheat River and the little town of Albright. The scene was surreal. A giant band of brown water was coursing over the place where the town used to be. He spotted a home that belonged to a friend; it was sliding to the left. House by house, Albright was coming apart.

His deputies gathered there on the hillside.

“Holy shit,” one of them said. “What do we do?” asked another.

Liller didn’t say what he was thinking: “We’re going to be picking up bodies.”

Fred and Adam had been missing all night. The last thing their family heard was that Fred was going to tie two Igloo coolers together, jump from their submerged barn and float down the river. Then the phone lines went down around 2 a.m. Fred’s wife, Barbara, and his father, Richard, were left to wonder what became of their boys.

“I’m the guy who goes and gets people out of trouble,” Richard said later. “That’s what dads are for. And now I’m sitting here, helpless.”

It wasn’t until about 9:30 a.m. that they found out what happened.

Fred and Adam abandoned the doomed barn for the rapids. The water alone would have been dangerous enough, but this river was full of snapped branches, pieces of houses, vehicles and other objects sharp and heavy. They rode the river until they grabbed a sturdy tree. A barn door carried on the current slammed into Fred’s back. But he held on. They groped and climbed for six straight hours.

Then a helicopter came.

They spotted Adam first. He was higher in the branches and waving his arms. The helicopter was from Camp Dawson, which had been undergoing military training maneuvers at the time. It was a lucky coincidence the chopper was there at all. A rescuer descended on a rope and pulled Adam and Fred, one by one.

A couple of hours later, the two reunited with their family.

They both had hypothermia, and Fred had a sprained back from the barn door. But otherwise they were fine. They were safe. And they were exhausted. When the hospital let them go, they went to Richard’s house in Kingwood and fell sound asleep.

Mayor Schollar woke up on Nov. 5 and was shocked. She didn’t recognize her town.

But there wasn’t time to grieve. She was the mayor and the postmaster. The phone and power lines were down. Chunks of the main roads were gone, and the other streets in town were buried deep in mud. In the post office, some of the parcels were soggy, but no mail was lost.

That seemed to be the only good news. Otherwise, Rowlesburg was a disaster — officially. Though the town was cut off from the rest of the world, news of the devastation was filtering out.

Al Lisko was a senior official in the West Virginia emergency management office, and his job was to tour the damage around the state. “It was numbing,” he recalled. “It was hard to conceive of the amount of water that could do something like this.”

In Rowlesburg, at least 72 buildings were destroyed. Two-story houses didn’t wash away, but their furniture and cabinets were ruined. Their floors were covered in a thick layer of mud.

Much of the town gathered at the Baptist church, which became a makeshift command center and supply depot for donations of food, clothing, medicine and water.

NBC Nightly News sent a reporter to Rowlesburg.

The days that followed were a blur. Schollar doesn’t remember sleeping. Goff, the police officer, doesn’t remember taking a shower. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross came. The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up field offices and took down the names of people who were homeless to offer them housing subsidies. Alcohol distributors filled their beer cans with water and shipped them out for free.

Even though parts of Virginia and Maryland also flooded, Rowlesburg was already gaining notoriety for the scale of the devastation. Several weeks later, Sen. Ted Kennedy would arrive and tour the towns with his sons. He compared the damage to Europe in World War II.

“People saw their whole life savings disappear before them,” he said.

Betty Bell didn’t know what to expect when she drove toward Rowlesburg that morning. She’d spent the night with her daughter and son-in-law, and she was eager to check on Pyewacket who’d weathered the storm alone in her house.

A couple kilometers from town, she couldn’t get any closer because the river had washed away the road. There was a crowd of people standing at the intersection.

“How bad is it?” she asked them.

“Well, they’re out in boats now trying to assess the damage,” a man said.

“I’ve got a house up there.”

He replied, “Your house is gone.”

Bell knew what that meant.

She tallied her other losses: antique jewelry that had belonged to her mother and her aunt, a lapel watch encrusted in pearls, her china, a silver turkey platter and other wedding gifts, and a metallic box. Inside were some of her brother’s letters home from Vietnam and dozens of sepia photographs, the only tangible reminders of her ancestors and her parents. All the acquisitions of a lifetime, items dear and forgotten, were lost forever in the mud.

Some of it, however, was under less mud than others, and thieves descended with metal detectors. One man stole an entire case of guns. Liller dispatched his deputies to stand guard over people’s homes and pace the river bank with rifles to scare off looters. He sent one deputy to confront the gun thief, who handed them over.

But for each person who saw an opportunity to behave badly, hundreds more saw a chance to do anything they could to help. Families opened their homes to neighbors. They helped shovel mud from kitchens, and they cooked enormous quantities of food for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And a few days later, Bell’s metallic box turned up after all. The river didn’t harm any of the pictures. You could even read the address on the letters, which is how whoever found the box knew to return it to Betty Bell.

As the people of Rowlesburg gathered and recounted the horrors of the night, they tried to take stock of who was missing. To everyone’s surprise, the answer seemed to be… no one.

Not everyone in the county was so lucky, however. Lynn Taylor and Josephine Newcome, who lived near each other by a golf course downhill from Kingwood, had defied emergency workers who encouraged them to evacuate. Both of them died.

Elsewhere in the state, 36 others died, many of them also because they refused to evacuate when they were warned. Twenty-two people died in Virginia and one in Maryland. Damage to property was estimated to be $1.4 billion.

(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The fact that no one died in Rowlesburg and other towns in the hard-hit Cheat River Basin is alternately attributed to God and to the instincts of proactive residents who hustled their neighbors from their houses.

But why was there no warning on the news? Why did the difference between life and death so often come down to a sturdy tree, the timing of a son-in-law, the ability of the mayor to remember who was out of town or not?

Thirty years later, it’s difficult to measure the human failures. The emergency management director of Preston County at the time isn’t alive anymore. And the National Weather Service does not keep records of weather bulletins from 1985, said Batty, the meteorologist who’s still working in Charleston all these years later. He doesn’t remember what times he sent out the flood warnings that night, either. But in any case, they would have been sent via Teletype machine.

The technology of 1985 may be the biggest culprit. Rain and river gauges were not as sophisticated or plentiful. These days there’s more data to help Batty make predictions. And with social media and instant news alerts, it will be harder in the future to blame ignorance. But technology can’t solve stubbornness.

As Lisko, the emergency manager, said, “Respect the water, and accept the inconvenience. I can help you rebuild your life. We can never restore your life.”

(allison_dc/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The town of Rowlesburg and others along the Cheat were never the same after the flood. Hundreds of people who lost their homes didn’t come back.

Years later, after Bell had moved into a new house high above the river, she was visiting her daughter in Arizona. While she was there, a nearby river happened to flood. It wasn’t a dangerous flood. But as she was riding in the car with her daughter, the water came up through the floorboard. When it touched Bell’s feet, she broke down and cried like a child.

The flood had a traumatizing effect on the people who survived it. One now-prominent member of the Kingwood community lost his home. When asked to talk about it 30 years later, he said, “That was a hard time in my life. I’m not sure if I’m ready for it.”

Schollar remained the mayor of Rowlesburg on and off for decades. On a sunny September day in Rowlesburg, Schollar, now 85 years old, drove up a steep dirt road in her blue-gray sedan. It had rained the night before, and the potholes were full of water. She owns 100 acres here, south of Rowlesburg, which she inherited from her mother. From a meadow on a mountain crest, you can see acres of farms and forest, hills rolling to the hazy blue horizon.

One day, back in 1985, Schollar called her mother to talk about that meadow. She needed a favor.

“Can I have a field to bury the town in?” she asked.

“As long as they put it back the way it was,” her mom said.

So Schollar hired an excavator and a dump truck. For several weeks, men hauled the physical stuff of Rowlesburg to higher ground: roofs, walls, furniture, lawns, nightgowns, antique dishes, televisions, wedding gifts, photo albums, love letters, encyclopedia sets, wind chimes and welcome mats. They deposited these things in a pit and covered the pit with dirt. Back the way it was.

Nothing today marks the spot. No memorial or tombstone. After all this town went through that awful night, the most important thing is this: No one comes here to mourn.

Ben Wolford is the editor of Latterly.

A version of this story appeared in The Dominion Post newspaper, in Morgantown, West Virginia. It is based on interviews with survivors and officials, archival newspaper articles and photos, video footage, and a 1988 report on the flood by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Ben Wolford
Ben Wolford is editor of Latterly. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.