Shortly after midnight, on the morning of August 20, 1969, the crew of a southbound local freight train notified the Southern Railway dispatcher at Greensboro, N. C., that it was encountering extremely heavy rain south of Charlottesville, Va.
What the train crew could not know at the time was that it was reporting the onset of what the U.S. Weather Bureau has indicated was probably a world record rainfall. A figure of 27 inches of rain falling in about a three - hour period has been accepted as official. Other unofficial readings of as much as 32 inches during the night are considered to be correct.
Hurricane Camille had created the meteorological conditions that stacked heavily moisture laden clouds over a small area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then came the deluge. The downpour centered largely over Nelson County, Va. Southern's main line runs through the county, crossing a number of small streams and rivers. The track supervisor in charge of the territory was alerted as soon as word was received in the dispatcher's office. He headed north from Lynchburg for locations where probabilities of trouble were greatest after having called other maintenance personnel to make spot inspections near their homes.
Very shortly, a large washout near Faber, Va., was reported and orders were issued immediately stopping all traffic on the railroad between Charlottesville and Lynchburg. Passenger train No.41, then proceeding south from Charlottesville, was stopped north of the flood area. Later, it was returned to Charlottesville and passengers were rerouted to their destinations by other means.
It was to be many hours more before the full story of the flood damage would be apparent. This was a night of terror for many people and about 200 would lose their lives, thousands more would have homes and property destroyed or lost.
Track Supervisor Elmer C. Hodge was trapped between two huge earth slides which blocked the highway over which he was trying to reach the threatened parts of his territory. Unheard from for more than 30 hours, he was believed to be among the hundreds of casualties that would be reported as the extent of life and property loss became known.
Highways were blocked everywhere in Nelson County. Communications were knocked out. Gradually, though, word began to come in from many sources and Southern knew it was confronted with a major rebuilding job. Typical of the confusion prevailing everywhere in the affected area and of the lack of communications was the fact that it was 8:30 a.m. before the Southern learned that its bridge over the Tye River had been washed away about 4:30 a.m.
Senior engineering officers headed for the flood area as rapidly as ways could be found to get there. Calls went out to several who were on vacation. Aerial inspection by helicoper and surface inspection as maintenance of way people could reach isolated parts of the line established the magnitude of the task facing Southern.
There were nine major washouts of track ranging, with one 30 - foot exception, from 100 to more than 500 feet in length. These were on fills from 20 to 50 feet high. Existing drainage structures at these points had been largely washed alway and required replacement. In addition, there were 56 other locations where slides in cuts required clearing, where sides of fills partially had been washed away or ballast had been washed away from ends of ties over long stretches of track even though no complete washouts, breaking track, had occurred.
Even as the survey of this damage was going on contractors with earthmoving equipment were being hired to begin restoration work. Equipment began to flow toward the damage zones and a few pieces were actually at work on the Wednesday of the floods. It was to be several days before some of the work sites could be reached because access to them over highways was impossible.
Also, on that Wednesday, Southern's chief bridge engineer was trying to work his way into the site of the Tye River bridge accompanied by the representative of a bridge construction company. Talking their way through police roadblocks and seeking guidance from anyone who might know of back roads that could still be negotiated, they were finally successful.
Aerial inspection had already told the worst of the story, 480 feet of the bridge was gone of the 630 that was its total length. Bridge height was 95 feet from the stream bed to the bottom of the rail. The part undamaged by the flood was on the south side of the stream although a pier on the north bank had also held against the flood waters and could be reused.
All of the pedestal piers which had supported the old bridge had been tipped and washed out of place. Crumbled masses of steel downstream told of the force of the flood waters. Heavy structural sections had actually been carried across a low - level highway bridge spanning the stream about a third of a mile below Southern's Tye River crossing. Ties had been torn loose from the rails and all of the bridge decking was gone. Some of the heavy girder spans could be seen lying along the stream but their condition could not be inspected in the still-high waters. But it was evident little was recoverable and reusable except for the probability, later to be confirmed, that several of the 60 - foot - long girders could be salvaged.
A very busy few days were ahead for Southern's bridge designers. Plans for reconstruction were discussed at the site. It was known that three deck plate girders were available that were 100 feet long. These would come from a bridge made surplus when Centralized Traffic Control had been installed on a double-track line crossing the Tugaloo River north of Toccoa, Georgia. Add three shorter girders from the old Tye bridge and the gap of 480 feet over the river could be spanned. Design of the footings and steel towers was completed by Sunday night, August 24. Disappointment was to come the next day when it was learned that steel could not be obtained and fabricated to erect a new bridge using conventional methods in an acceptable time period.
Time was critical. Southern had set up detour routes for most of its trains with the helpful assistance of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac from Alexandria to Richmond, and the Seaboard Coast Line from Richmond to Raleigh, where trains got back onto Southern's lines. This called for close cooperation with the other railroads and Southern and they worked out many transportation problems together that kept traffic moving well. (At the same time, Southern was extending similar assistance to the Louisville & Nashville which had experienced serious washouts and other damage when Hurricane Camille struck the Gulf Coast region.)
But even the best of detour arrangements must mean some delays, involve dislocations in motive power assignments, give rise to increased costs. Southern was determined to restore its own line in minimum time and looked for alternatives when it was clear that conventional replacement of the Tye River bridge would involve intolerable delay.
Innovation has been a watchword for years on Southern and it was to be so again.
Southern's bridge designers drew upon their confidence in a design for lower level structures which had proven highly satisfactory in construction of trestles and bridges damaged by fires, washouts or accidents. It involved the use of steel piling arranged to form a supporting structure and had proved so desirable that Southern had acquired an emergency stock of such piling recently delivered to a storage yard at Chattanooga. Here was immediately available material. Could it be used to serve the need for rapid replacement of the washed out Tye River bridge with a strong and permanent new structure?
Men, confident of their technical knowledge and willing to do something never before done, agreed that it was possible and the go ahead was given. Southern was innovating to save time and get the railroad back to serving its customers far more quickly than any tradition oriented company could possibly do.
A contractor was hired and its subcontractors were employed. Steel was loaded at Chattanooga and started toward the job site as the contractors were calling in men from scattered locations throughout the South and Middle West, to be supplemented with welders, carpenters, workmen of many skills, from the Lynchburg - Roanoke area of Virginia.
Huge erection cranes would be required. One was dismantled in West Virginia and started toward the Tye River. Another, in Ohio, was diverted from a job to which it was en route and sent on its way to join the other. Smaller cranes were pulled off other jobs, bulldozers and other construction equipment, likewise. Dozens of welding machines would be needed. They, too, were moved in quickly.
The focal point was a muddy river bottom, with soil still saturated even though the Tye River itself had returned to normal flow, nearly shallow enough at most times for a man to walk across.
Hundreds of tons of crushed stone were trucked in from nearby quarries to stabilize the working area on the north side of the river. A steep rock embankment on the south side prohibited carrying on any of the work from that location.
A steady stream of trucks kept bringing in crushed rock; trailers and trucks were used to haul steel from the nearest rail sidings, grading equipment, welding machines, gas cutting outfits and all the paraphernalia of a major construction project kept arriving. So did the men to put them into use.
Welders began joining sections of steel piling into the 80 - foot lengths that would be needed as legs to the steel towers that were to be built. Others worked on the templates that would be used for proper positioning of the long piles.
Bulldozers worked to clear the river bed of its overburden of earth, getting to bedrock where the piles would be set. Carpenters began fashioning parts of the huge forms that would later be erected around the bases of towers so that concrete could be poured into stabilizing blocks surrounding them.
Work was scheduled in twelve hour shifts, and nighttime was as productive of progress as daytime in a floodlighted amphitheater where a battle against time was being fought.
It was a struggle intended to get Southern back into the business of serving customers not just in the flood - affected area but everywhere there were shippers and passengers normally dependent on Southern service running over its Eastern Division. Similarly, as work went on at the bridge site, phenomenal efforts toward track restoration were accomplishing much more than at first had been hoped. Almost daily, there were reports of major washouts completely restored, of others moving toward being ready to open for trains to run.
More than a half million tons of rock and earth were to be moved before this work was done. More than 600 carloads of ballast would be used. Several thousand feet of prefabricated track panels would be shipped out of Southern's shop at Atlanta bound for flood damage repairs.
As it turned out, the rapidity of track restoration helped solve the problem of how to get the huge bridge girders from the Tugaloo to the Tye.
Studies of access routes for transporting the 100-foot girder spans from an unloading location just south of the Tye had revealed that substantial obstacles - time - consuming obstacles - would be encountered. In order to handle the spans over the narrow winding county roads that were the only ones available, it would be necessary to separate the girders, load them individually on rubber- tired steerable dollies, cut trees and relocate interfering power lines, and inch along until a location downstream of the bridge location was reached. Then the girder parts would have had to be towed upstream to avoid soft ground on the banks, and be reassembled at the work site before erection.
The pace of track restoration made it possible to consider rail delivery of the girders to the job site at the north end of the bridge. Clearance engineers worked over Labor Day weekend to seek a route and one was found. It was a circuitous move of some 350 miles and clearances were close at a number of points. But the girders could be moved by rail and were - and time was saved.
On Saturday, August 30, the first tower bent was erected on top of the northernmost pier footing, one that had remained in place against the force of the flood waters. It was 55 feet tall. Work had also gone ahead on the building of the first template that would be used to support and align the individual piles that would be placed around it.
Swung into location in the river bed and positioned in accordance with instructions from engineers using surveyors' transits to spot it accurately in place, the template soon began to be surrounded by the 16 steel pilings which had been field welded into 80-foot lengths.
Each was individually positioned and tackwelded into place until all 16 were ready for the welding of crossbracing that would make one strong single structure of them.
So it went until four great steel towers were in place, structures unlike anything that had ever before supported a bridge of such height. Observers, as this writer, could sense a strong undercurrent of pride, of satisfaction, of anticipation, as proof loomed in the air that the never - before - done was being done.
As each supporting structure had been completed, including the four full - height towers and the first shorter one on the north side of the river, girder beams were hoisted into position, preassembled brick decking was placed upon it and anchored in position and track was laid.
"a repetition. ..is not probable more than once in a century, at least." United States Weather Bureau in 1916 reporting on great floods which caused an estimated $1,125,000 damage to Southern Railway lines, especially in North carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Professor Alfred J. Henry of the United States Weather Bureau wrote concerning a sequence of storms' they called them tropical cyclones in those days which came into the continental United States over the Mississippi coast and over the South Carolina coast in July 1916. The tailing off of the Gulf Coast storm brought heavy rains to the lower Appalachian mountain ranges and ground was saturated, unable to absorb the heavy downpours which followed a few days later from the Atlantic Coast storm.
Damage on Southern was very great. The record of the restoration of rail service was in the same proud tradition that marked Southern's recovery from the effects of Hurricane Camille.
Professor Henry might have been a good scientist but was a poor prophet when he wrote: "Tropical cyclones do not, as a rule, synchronize as did these two, and on that fact we would base our belief that a repetition of the'storms of July 1916 is not probable more than once in a century, at least."
He had little idea what could happen after his successors began to call them hurricanes. Camille dumped more rain over Nelson County, Virginia, in less than eight hours, hitting Southern hard, than was the total of rainfall at any point and over several days in the areas affected by the 1916 floods.
Not all energies were directed to restoration of the bridge and replacement of fills at washout points. Men from the communications and signal departments were also busily at work. In as much as the bridge that had been destroyed was a two track structure while the new one would carry only one track, alterations were required in the location and adjustment of signaling through the territory. New signal bridges had to be erected, others relocated. In Centralized Traffic Control territory, this required the quick application of skills, knowledge, and careful workmanship to be absolutely certain when trains were ready to roll again through the flood damaged area they could proceed in safety. Similarly, communications facilities had to be checked out and readjusted in some instances.
And, during the almost three weeks of service interruption, many others from Southern were hard at work keeping traffic rolling over detour routes, adjusting to required change with an eye toward keeping customers' needs met. Sales department representatives kept in close touch with Southern's customers to deal with any transportation problems that might arise. Few did, and customer confidence in Southern was proven by the fact that no measurable decrease occurred in traffic volume despite the widespread publicity given to the problems arising from Camille and the loss of the Tye River bridge.
Railway Age carried a feature story about how Camille affected Southern, giving special emphasis to the building of the new Tye River bridge. Here's how its story began :
"Mention hurricane Camille to a Southern employee, and you may be surprised that the reaction is an easily discerned look of pride.
"True, the flooding that Camille blew into Virginia in August brought operations to a halt on Southern's superbly-maintained, welded-rail main line south from Charlottesville. ...
"What Southern people are beaming about is how they reacted to all that. The water came early on August 20. Southern's announcement of full service resumption came just three weeks later, on September 8."
In actual fact, service was out only slightly over 19 days when measured in hours-from the time of the dispatcher's order halting traffic on August 20 until the first train crossed the new bridge at 4:26 a.m. on September 8, 1969.
It reopened service on a line over which the first trains had run in April 1860 when the Orange and Alexandria Railroad Company, now incorporated in Southern, completed an extension south from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, Virginia.
Generations of dedicated railroaders would have been proud of what their successors had accomplished.
Transloading at John Sevier Transfer, Knoxville. From a car of milk products on its way from Jefferson, Wis., to Columbia, S. C., parts of the shipment bound for intermediate points are unloaded onto wheeled trailers.