Spurgeons Island Was Scene of Harrowing Experience

In a previous column, I described Spurgeon’s Island near Gray, TN as having been a popular “lovers’ lane” of yesteryear. Kathy Reed sent me a September 25, 1936 Johnson City Beacon newspaper clipping bearing the title, “Gray Station Folk Hearing Again of Miracle of 1901.” 

The account referenced a yellowed-with-age June 13, 1901 Johnson City Staff newspaper article, saved by Mrs. George Bowser, concerning a May 21 destructive flood around Spurgeon’s Island. On that momentous day, nine people were on the island, including Professor T.C. Garst, who was setting his fishing lines just below the confluence of the Watauga and Holston Rivers.

Those present noticed that the waters of the Holston River were rising quickly but saw little cause for alarm. However, the gravity of the situation soon became apparent when the men became fully encircled on the 25-acre island. One individual, Clinton Woods, had his boat with him. He hastily put his group – Charles Martin, David Denney, Abraham Hale and Alex Berry – into his craft and slowly and treacherously steered it to the mainland.

The four remaining individuals – Garst; Robert Berry and his ten-year-old son, Fuller; and William Hale – made camp, built a fire, ate supper and anxiously waited for the floodwaters to recede. By nightfall, the rising river forced the fishermen to relocate their campsite to higher ground. Before long, they were forced to take sanctuary in nearby trees; the nightmare was about to begin.

The Beacon vividly described the enormity and horror of their precarious tree clinging experience: “The waters continued to rise higher and higher, forcing them to drop into the flood and swim for other trees, which they heard and saw dimly as the raging howling flood swept most of the trees up by the roots and carried them away. They heard the horses neigh – then drift away to their death in the swirling stream. The hack, tied first to a tree, was also washed away. There were deafening crashes; trees sped by; debris, driftwood, logs, even houses, came down with the flood, and crashed against the cliffs opposite them. It was toward morning when a jamb of logs and drift above them broke. It was wedged across the river. With a thundering blast, it broke, but providence intervened, and sent it to the right and left, barely missing the tree where the four men clung.”

Twelve more hours transpired before the river began to recede. A woman standing in the doorway of her mud-splattered home suddenly spotted the exhausted sportsmen. Soon, a crowd of spectators and rescue personnel arrived on the scene; the weary quartet was quickly transported to their homes.

The newspaper continued: “Professor Garst devoutly considers their rescue a miracle. He refers to the prayers they sent up from their perilous perch during the moments when it seemed all was lost. The old legend is still there. There are some other trees growing there, some few that were left from the torrents of that night, in whose branches someway, something – undoubtedly a Divine Providence – found safety through that night of terror – and live to tell the tale.” 

Thanks to Kathy Reed, a miracle that occurred over a century ago at remote Spurgeon’s Island can now be retold to a new generation of area history lovers.