Mary Ellen Wiles stood helplessly on a hill in the dark and listened as rising flood waters ripped through the houses in her neighborhood.
“We just stood there in the pitch black while everything went under water,” said Wiles. “We listened to the dogs just bark, bark, bark, and the houses break up because that’s all you could hear—all of this crashing and banging as the wood came apart sending houses down the river.”
A black line in the old high school marks how high the water got inside: 18 feet. Areas closest to the river were covered by 20 feet of water.
“I left with nothing and came back to find water up in the second story of my house,” she said. She’s not alone. Most people were left with no belongings or place to live when the Cheat River roared over its banks and swallowed the town of Rowlesburg 31 years ago.
Except for some slightly higher spots, the entire Preston County community was under water. It’s surrounded on three sides by the river.
But when the floodwater receded, many of the town’s residents refused to leave. They choose instead to repair and rebuild.
Wiles and her neighbor that night, Lucille Grimm, are just two of them. “Devastation like this is never all out of your head or heart,” Grimm told us on a recent trip to the town. “My heart goes out to anyone who’s involved in this kind of flood, especially since these people lost lives in their communities. The hurt will probably never go away completely.”
Parts of southern West Virginia are still in a state of emergency after flooding hit hard there after a massive rainstorm on June 23 and 24. That state of emergency continues until Aug. 22 for a dozen counties.
In addition to destroying homes, businesses and infrastructure, the high water also killed 23 people. It was the seventh most deadly flood to ever hit the state.
The Election Day Flood of 1985 that hit Rowlesburg was the third most deadly. It killed 47 West Virginians. It left some 18,000 homeless across West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. And it caused over $1.5 billion (in 2015 dollars) worth of damage in West Virginia alone.
But it was the people who stayed behind—and the people who came home—who saved Rowlesburg after that devastation. And they hope their story can help the people of southern West Virginia, who are just now beginning the long process of rebuilding.
“Going forward is the only option. You keep putting one foot in front of the other” – Rowlesburg resident Lucille Grimm
Tim Weaver was teaching in Boston when he came back to help his elderly mother recover from the flood. He was shocked to see washing machines and refrigerators in the tops of trees as he drove toward town. Downtown was even worse.
“It looked like a bombing raid had hit this community, because there was nothing but rubble,” he said. Each trip home lasted longer than the last. “There was a calling in my life to be back here.” His family’s roots here date back to the late 1700s when the railroad was a primary employer.
Weaver, whose mother has since passed, now owns and operates the River House Lodge, but also devotes a lot of his time chairing the town’s Tourism and Economic Development Commission. “You have to have a vision for your community, and you have to fight to move forward,” he said.
When you’re rebuilding from a flood, it’s not easy and takes a lot of time.
Moving forward together is the key, and faith is vital. “Expect to be bewildered, and not know which way to turn at times when you look out and see all the devastation,” she said. “But also thank God because so many people will be there to help you, and accept that assistance. He will give you the knowledge to go where you need to get help, because you can’t do this alone.”
Mayor Barbara Banister knows all about the new challenges that appear as life returns to normal. Although the town still needs a gas station, there hasn’t been a suitable site due to government floodplain regulations. Folks must still drive several miles for a fill up. At the same time, infrastructure upgrades and expansions–including work on the town’s water system–must also continue, she said.
Some houses and apartments were built after the flood. Approximately one-third of its residents left after the flood and never returned. But the housing stock needs to be enlarged if the town hopes to grow again. Floodplain regulations govern what can – and can’t – be built locally, and where.
Weaver said he understands why people object to the restrictions. Much of the town is on a floodplain and its recovery hinges on redevelopment. “This is a terrible impediment to river towns like us, and those in the southern part of the state now looking at trying to rebuild.”
The rules make buildings more expensive and don’t appeal to many potential homeowners. “It is difficult to try to talk someone into buying a house that’s 10 feet off the ground. Plus they have to walk up all those steps every single day, not to mention how it looks,” Weaver said.
Today’s visitor sees little to indicate the record high waters, aside from a high-water plaque at City Hall marking the flood level.
Katie Wolfe also returned to Rowlesburg with a dream to help her hometown. “If you grow up in the mountains and along this river, it never leaves you. The mountains will call you back,” she said. She and other Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee volunteers have successfully focused on making the town a tourist destination.
And in this small town, they are trying make something for just about everyone, whether they want to enjoy the mountain scenery, kayak on the river or enjoy some good food at the annual Labor Day weekend ox roast.
Downtown attractions include the Szilagyi Center for Visual and Performing Arts (housed in the former high school) which is billed as a cultural hub. Visitors can visit a World War II museum, research library, 4-H history center, B&O bridge exhibit and an arts studio, courtesy of Revitalization Committee members.
The town garden will soon be home to a flood monument. Right up the street is the B&O Depot and museum offers a variety of railroad memorabilia, pictures and trains. Even local Civil War history has come alive again. A special spot on Cannon Hill marks the Battle of Rowlesburg.
A local family donated the land to the Rowlesburg Area Historical Society, and members took Grimm’s suggestion to sell homemade hard tack candy to raise funds for building a road to the mountaintop site. “I think I stirred and measured every bit of sugar to make it for all those years. Every cent, we usually made $1,500 to $2,000 on that candy every winter, went into the road for the site on Cannon Hill,” she said.
Local leaders are proud of their success, and see hope for flood-stricken communities now trying to rebuild.
But those floods still haunt.
Margaret Schollar was mayor for just four months when the flood hit. Even today, a heavy rain can make her nervous. “I’m just afraid it won’t stop,” she said.
Make no mistake though, Rowlesburg is here to stay. It will always be home to Wiles, who served as the city recorder for 22 years, and refuses offers to move south to be with her daughters. Days spent swimming with them in the river are a favorite memory.
“In good times, the river is a friend. But it can also be a foe,” she said, gesturing toward the glistening water flowing behind her house. “This is where we used to have a garden, and this spot would have been the tomato patch. But that’s gone because the flood took all my good topsoil. I guess it is probably in Morgantown by now.”