The Camille Flood of 1969, and How Sweet Briar College Helped to Rebuild the Community

Posted on June 21, 2019 by John Shannon

Buffalo River covered the bridge at Boxwood Farm Road with debris, Hurricane Camille Buffalo River covered the bridge at Boxwood Farm Road with debris. The approach at the other end of the bridge was washed out. Photos courtesy of the Amherst County Museum & Historical Society Photo Collection

In late August 1969, Hurricane Camille struck Central Virginia. The storm appeared to have traveled along the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. We would later learn that it had made landfall in Mississippi on Aug. 18 as a Category 5 storm. Over the next 14 hours, it had weakened to a tropical depression as it moved northeast through Kentucky and West Virginia and, finally, Virginia, where a confluence of weather conditions caused massive rainfall.

I remember that night vividly. My family and I were living on а road connecting Amherst to Sweet Briar College, where I taught for the better part of 30 years. It rained throughout that night as I have never seen it rain again in all my 85 years. I went the next morning to the town to get а haircut. The reports were astounding. U.S. 29 was closed north of town because of damage to the bridge over the Туе River. The Southern Railroad bridge just to the east of the highway was completely destroyed, and rumors floated about that the town’s water supply and that of Sweet Briar were in danger. Fortunately, these rumors proved to be false. Access by rail to Sweet Briar from the north was difficult for months.

Damaged house after Hurricane Camille Mountain landslide. Tons of earth and trees from a mountain behind W. O. Tucker’s Store on Route 60 caused heavy damage.

On the Monday after the weekend flood, chemistry professor John McClenon, а very good friend of mine, and I decided to go up to Massie’s Mill, а village on the Туе River reported to be decimated by flood water. By this time the waters had retreated. After а harrowing trip over the back roads, we got to the town. The scene was beyond belief: Dead cattle were everywhere in the fields, houses and buildings clearly showed how high the waters had crept, debris of every kind was strewn about and, in some places, piled head-high by the water. The small Episcopal church, the only church in the town, appeared relatively unharmed from the outside, but in its interior, pews, pulpits, hymnals and all other manner of trash were indiscriminately piled in one enormous heap. It was obvious that many homes in the town were going to require extensive renovation. It was also obvious that what help any of us could provide would be of use and much welcomed.

On the return trip to Sweet Briar, John and I drove up the valley toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. About а mile above Massie’s Mill, we spotted а two-story framed house which appeared to have originated in the early 20th century. It had been flooded up to window height. Inquiry produced the fact that before the flood, it had been inhabited by two elderly ladies. After what must have been а most harrowing experience, they had managed to brave the unlighted stairs and climb from the first floor, where they had been living, to the second floor. There they were rescued. They both expressed the deep hope of returning to the home they loved. Everyone we talked to wanted to make this hope come to fruition.

Bridge on Rt. 60 washed out after Hurricane Camille Approaches at the Bridge on Route 60 at Sandidges were washed out.

John and I solicited help from our colleagues and from а local retired contractor, Carter Ambler. His help and advice were crucial throughout the reconstruction process, which lasted from the flood in August until our ladies resumed residence directly before Christmas. After this long passage of time, I cannot begin to name the host of members of the Sweet Briar community, faculty, staff and most of all our students who volunteered weekend after weekend to the reconstruction. I must also recognize the substantial gift the College made to the reconstruction cost.

Finally, I would like to return to the student contributions, which were nothing less than marvelous. I had often heard comments that described my students and others at Sweet Briar as “spoiled, self-centered, lazy, vain, rich and essentially а drain on society.” I always resented this erroneous appraisal of Sweet Briar students. My experience on the project I have just described proved my resentment was completely justified.

Professor Shannon and students on library steps Prof, John Shannon with students on the library steps in 1960

Every Saturday morning for nearly three months, а group of 20 to 25 students arrived to work. They drove their own cars the 50-mile round-trip to the project at their own expense. They were given the dirtiest and most tiring projects. They cleaned walls, they washed floors covered with а half-inch of grime, they climbed on roofs, they painted, they carried lumber, they leveled gravel on the driveways and they learned to live without indoor plumbing! They were never paid а cent. I never once heard а single complaint. The students could hardly have been more useful or more gracious. Thank God for women like these Sweet Briar students. ln this unfortunate day in which the contributions and aspirations of women are so often demeaned, they demonstrated what it really means to be truly feminine. I hope and know we will have many more Sweet Briar students like them!

John R. Shannon is professor emeritus of music at Sweet Briar College.

This article first appeared in Sweet Briar’s Spring 2019 Alumnae Magazine. It has been edited slightly from its print version to reflect Hurricane Camille’s actual path as the storm moved inland.