In 1932, this monument was erected in memory of the Scoutmaster and Scouts who perished at the site of the flood. (Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga BSA History)
Cabin Wrecked by Cloudburst with twenty boys inside
On Friday afternoon, March 22, 1929, an excited group of boy scouts left Rockwood for a weekend camp at the Tarwater bungalow on White's Creek, which is located at the Roane-Rhea County Line. This trip turned into a tragedy that left a Scoutmaster and seven scouts dead. Headlines like the one below ran across the front page of newspapers all across the county
Below is a first-hand account of what happened, written by one of the surviving scouts, Tom Douglas in 1978.
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A Night of Terror Remembered
March 23, 1929
Tom E. Douglas never liked to talk about the tragedy, which he survived as a young child. It was only during his old age and after the many pleadings of his family that he decided to give his “account” of that day which brought such grief to so many. The story was documented as he told it and the result was one of great poignancy. Here is his story.
Motorist who cross the James Tarwater Wright Bridge, which crosses over Whites Creek at the Rhea-Roane County line, frequently look to the east and try to read what is written on a memorial cross engraved with the insignia of the Boy Scouts of America. The bridge is old and narrow and there is barely room for two modern vehicles to pass, especially if one is a big truck. So they pass and repass and unless they stop and go down to the site, they only know that the cross is in memoriam to something.
The bridge is generally known as White’s Creek Bridge, but the name of James Tarwater Wright is on the overhead structure in memory of a brave scoutmaster who lost his life on March 23,1929, along with seven young scouts. Tom E. Douglas, who was the youngest of the group, escaped with his life, but he was critically injured and stayed seven and a half months in a hospital. The emotional scars of the tragedy have colored his life, but he has risen above it all with the incredible courage and stamina he experienced as a lad in overcoming the physical effects of the event.
Tom, the son of the late Mr. And Mrs. Sam Douglas of Rockwood, had just made first class with the Boy Scouts. His half-brother Willie Evans was also a Boy Scout. For about two months the camping trip had been planned but something always came up. The young guys were eager and impatient with the rainy weather. James T. Wright, Scoutmaster, set the date for March 8, and called it off on account of rain. He set it again for March 15, and again called it off on account of the rain, promising that they would go on March 22, rain or shine. They planned to use a cabin on Whites Creek, owned by the Tarwater family.
Tom and Willie started walking from home to meet the others at the Christian Church and were picked up by a cousin, Clarence Rader, and taken to the church. They went on to the cabin. When they reached the cabin, they made camp, ate supper, which was prepared by Dick Gilbreath and was having fun.
They started the Delco System so they could have light and built a fire. After the meal, they had wrestling matches and contests and other different kind of games until they were exhausted. Mr. Wright decided they should go to bed. Two of the scouts, Howard Brown and Walter Polston, had to go back home, planning to return the next day. Dick Gilbreath accompanied them, and the others made their beds on the floor. They usually had a “watch” all night on their trips, but on this occasion, perhaps because all were so tired, they did not keep a watch. A slow, steady rain was falling.
Water coming into the cabin awakened Willard Staples and he got the others up. The water was rising fast and was already in the cabin when the boys awoke. There were no lights except for their flashlights so they took them and went out on the porch into the water to hold to while they tried to reach the creek bank. But it was useless to try to get across the swirling water.
The creek was normally about 60 feet wide but now it appeared to be more like 600 feet, already filled with tossing debris from upstream. The Scoutmaster’s car, the Delco System and the garage had already washed past the cabin. The Scoutmaster calmed the boys and told them to climb to the roof of the cabin. There were bars on the windows, and they used them as ladders to climb up on. They sat on the roof for about two hours. Mr. Douglas thinks that time was from 4am until 6am. Men from Rockwood came to the railroad trestle and looked helplessly at the marooned group. They had no way to reach them in the raging torrent.
About 6am the steel bridge across the creek on the highway washed away, and the load of debris backed up behind it, washed down the cabin. The cabin moved out from the foundation and broke apart, throwing some of the scouts into the angry water. The cabin separated into two sections with scouts on each section. Tom was on a small section of the roof when he caught sight of his brother, Willie and other scouts on another section of the roof just a few feet away. The terrified youngster jumped across the water to join them and missed. He fell into the water. Willie and another scout caught his hands and pulled him from the water, but his leg had been broken. Mr. Douglas said, “I’m not sure what happened after that. There was so much water, debris, trees tossing, steel from the bridge and broken cabin all around us, but I do know that my brother stayed with me and helped me onto two trees that washed away. He helped me on the third tree where I managed to hold on until I was rescued.”
Willie also rescued Jack Hamby and was later awarded a gold medal for life saving by the Boy Scouts of America. Mr. Douglas said, “I remember sitting in the tree watching the blood drip from the wound in my leg where the bone came through the flesh. I told Willie it looked like I wouldn’t make it and I begged him to go on and leave me, but he wouldn’t go.”
At the bottom of the third tree in which Willie had hoisted Tom, the steel and other debris from the bridge and flood had lodged and some of the Scouts were on that. L.G. McCluen, Jack Hamby, Clifford Seward, Carl Mee Jr. and Joe Brashears were on the debris until they were rescued. Joe Brashears was cut on the face and Jack Hamby’s little finger was cut off at the first joint. All along the creek, scouts climbed into trees only to have them uprooted by the flood and washed away. Mr. Douglas said “The screams of the scouts could be heard all the way up and down the creek. I remember that when the cabin first broke apart, Mr. Wright jumped into the water to rescue one of the boys and was not seen again. He died trying to take care of his boys.”
Mr. Douglas stated that L.G. McCluen said, “He and the other boys with him were rescued when George King, Sam Chevrost and Charles Fulks came in a boat and picked them up.” Wallace Raulston and Charley Acuff rescued me, (Tom Douglas), and Willard Staples, by boat about 1pm on March 23rd. Wallace Raulston who spent most of his life on the river was quoted as saying” The water was the roughest he had ever been in and that he made five attempts to get to the boys before he succeeded.”
Mr. Douglas stated that he was taken to the hospital where it was determined that he had a compound fracture of the left leg, close to the hip. He said that he was in the hospital for seven and a half months. Mr. Douglas said that Willard Staples had a broken knee and was in the hospital for about three months. When asked how they could afford such a long hospital stay, Mr. Douglas said, “The rooms were about three dollars a day, and that Mrs. Wright, the mother of the Scoutmaster, used his life insurance to pay the bill for him and the other scouts”.
Mr. Douglas said he was unconscious the first three or four days, because he took pneumonia. We did not have the drugs to fight infection the way we do now, he said. I spent months in agony while the doctors tried to get my leg bones to knit back. My leg was full of dirt, trash and leaves and such that got in when it was broken, said Mr. Douglas. The doctors kept lancing the infected place on my hip for a long time. The hospital did not have an x-ray machine then, so I had to be taken back and forth to the doctor’s office for x-rays. The doctors did the best they could and were amazed that I survived, said Mr. Douglas. After about three months, the bones started to knit but they were crooked, and the doctors said that I would never walk again. They waited until they built me up so that I could stand an operation, and with my family’s permission they re-broke the bones and took about half an inch off each end of the bone. They re-set it leaving my leg an inch shorter than the other, but when I got well, I could walk, said Mr. Douglas.
Mr. Douglas went on to say that it was an experience that he would not want to ever live through again and I have been through some bad times since but never anything like that flood. Mr. Douglas stated, “I give credit to the good doctors, nurses and to my God for the care they gave me that I lived to tell this story of a tragedy most people have forgotten.
When you cross the bridge, which we expect to be replaced before too long with a wider more modern bridge, look up and down the valley, marked by a now narrow, shallow and placid creek and remember that there are some things that happen which neither the scouts nor we can “Be Prepared” for.
White’s Creek Flood Fatalities
James Tarwater Wright, Scoutmaster
Lawrence Montgomery, Scout
Woodrow Kerr, Scout
Roy P. Green, Scout
Ed Burnette Jr., Scout
Fred Burnette, Scout
Jack Shamhart, Scout
James Clarence Hill, Scout
Jack Tarwater Jr.
Carl Mee Jr.
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