Looking Back at the Flood of 1916

Estate History 06/28/16

Written By Judy Ross

While many of the moments we celebrate in estate history are joyous, some of the most critical dates are solemn occasions that served as a turning point for Biltmore. 

One such event was the Asheville flood of July 16, 1916. With waters that reached historic levels far beyond the banks of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers, it was a natural disaster that caused widespread damage across Asheville and much of Western North Carolina and affected the future of the estate.1916 Flood View

On the centennial anniversary of the flood, we reflect and discover how one event changed the future of Biltmore forever. Above: Swannanoa River cutting off Biltmore from Asheville, 1916. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina.

The End of an Era

Prior to the flood of 1916, Biltmore’s Nursery was one of the top nurseries in North America. Founded in 1889, it was established to supply the wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other ornamental plants that Frederick Law Olmsted required to complete the estate’s industrious landscape design.

It grew to be a beacon within the horticultural world as it opened to public buyers and supplied customers across the United States with unsurpassed variety, quantity, and quality of ornamental plants. The nursery also contributed to George Vanderbilt’s vision of a self-sustaining estate, and provided income at a time when the estate was still under construction.

Uncontrollable Changes

On March 6, 1914, the estate experienced a crushing loss with the untimely death of George Vanderbilt. Left with a large estate to manage, Mrs. Vanderbilt was already considering downsizing various estate operations, including the nursery. She was also pondering the donation of the Biltmore Herbarium, a subsidiary of the nursery, to a small local educational institution.Biltmore Greenhouses

However, before decisions could be made and implemented, the flood of 1916 provided the last word. Above: Biltmore Greenhouses, 1916. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

The ruin from the flood was so wide scale that it closed the doors of the nursery’s large-scale commercial operation, destroyed three-fourths of the Biltmore Herbarium, and ruined many rare botanical volumes that were part of the estate’s botanical library. Lodge Gate in 1916 flood

Chauncey Beadle, estate superintendent and head of the Biltmore Nursery wrote after the flood that “We are heavy losers, something like 85% of our nursery stock having been destroyed.” Above: Biltmore's Lodge Gate, 1916. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina.Field in 1916 flood

Above: Flooded field, 1916. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

A Legacy Withstanding the Test of Time

While the flood’s damage was permanent, the legacy of the Biltmore Nursery was timeless. The specimens grown at Biltmore before the flood found homes on the estate’s grounds and outside of Biltmore’s gates thanks to the nursery’s commercial success. 

In particular, the North Carolina Governor’s mansion in Raleigh received a donation of various shrubs and plants in 1898 for the beautification of the Executive Mansion Square. Then in 1908, a shipment of roses and sequoia trees were delivered to Dr. Booker T. Washington at what is now Tuskegee University.

Various plants and trees were shipped across the country and overseas before the flood, and continue to thrive at botanic gardens, public parks, universities, and private landscapes. Beadle and Edith Vanderbilt arranged for the surviving parts of the Biltmore Herbarium and botanical library to be salvaged and donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

While the flood may have ended the business side of the nursery, the landscapes at Biltmore and beyond serve as a living testament to the vision and business acumen of Frederick Law Olmsted, Chauncey Beadle, and George Vanderbilt.

The Story Continues with a Look Back

Discover more about the flood of 1916 with a free symposium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College on Saturday, July 16. The panel discussion, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., features Bill Alexander, Biltmore’s Landscape and Forest Historian.

Main Photo

Greenhouse damaged by flood waters, 1916. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina.

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