A number of natural and technological tragedies, as well as epidemics, have shaped the Tennessee experience. Many resulted in massive property damage and/or loss of life and immeasurable human suffering.
Storms have inflicted terrible damage in Tennessee throughout the last two hundred years. Slow-rise and flash floods have been the most common recurrent disasters. The worst slow-rise floods occurred in 1926-27, 1936-37, and 1973. The great Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi River floods of 1927 gave way to even greater floods in 1937. A number of flash floods have occurred, the worst on June 13, 1924, when fifteen inches of rain fell in an eight-hour period. This flood produced a ten-foot-high wall of water which plummeted down a narrow valley in Carter County, killing 11 people and injuring others. Eyewitnesses claimed that one could not stand out in that rain without strangling.
The state has averaged about six dangerous tornadoes per year since 1916, when the National Weather Service began keeping official records. Both individual and swarms of tornadoes have occurred, some with devastating results. Forty-five people were killed and 600 injured in a series of thirteen East Tennessee tornadoes in April 1974. Six twisters killed 52 and injured 552 in six counties in March 1933. Called the East Nashville Tornado, this storm damaged or demolished sixteen hundred structures in that area alone. The worst ever was in March 1952, when 67 people died and 282 were injured as ten twisters touched down in ten counties. Damages exceeded $5.5 million. That total for damages was topped by the Nashville tornado of April 1998 which left extensive property damage in downtown Nashville and in several East Nashville neighborhoods. Another tornado in early 1999 destroyed large portions of downtown Clarksville, demolishing historic churches, commercial buildings, and homes and leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse in shambles.
Extremes in heat and cold also have affected Tennesseans. Records indicate that sixteen episodes of severe drought have occurred in the past two hundred years. The worst was the decade of the 1980s, the driest overall period in the state's history. A severe heat wave in 1980 took 150 lives when temperatures hovered in the hundreds for days at a time. Most victims were elderly, urban, West Tennessee residents. In other years came record frigid temperatures, snow and ice. The most arduous blizzard seasons of the twentieth century were those of 1945, 1951, and 1993. The landmark winters of the nineteenth century were in 1835 and 1898. February 5, 1835, was called “Cold Friday” because so many cattle and hogs froze to death that day.
The worst series of earthquakes to occur in North America took place in West Tennessee and the Central Mississippi River Valley in 1811 and 1812. Seasonal wild fires have been destructive, especially during periods of drought. Some of the worst were recorded in 1925, 1935, and the 1980s. These fires, usually caused by lightning strikes, have destroyed incalculable acres of cropland as well as wildlife, domestic livestock, homes, businesses, and other structures.
Man-made technological disasters have devastated different Tennessee communities through the twentieth century. Several dam or reservoir failures have occurred. The worst such incident was in Claiborne County, two miles south of New Tazewell, on August 3, 1916. A mill dam failed on Big Barren Creek, sending a giant wall of water downstream and breaching several other smaller dams in the process. Twenty-four people died amidst the immense property damage caused by the roaring water.
Explosions of dangerous materials have made their mark in the pages of history as well. In 1906 a railroad car of dynamite exploded in a rail yard at Jellico in Campbell County, killing 9 people, injuring 200, and leaving 500 homeless. In 1978, the Humphreys County town of Waverly was the site of a devastating liquid propane gas explosion that killed 16 people and injured 97. In 1983 an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory, near Benton in Polk County, killed 11 workers, injured one, and demolished several buildings. Five years later, in December 1988, a liquid propane gas truck overturned and exploded in a gigantic fireball on I-240 in Memphis. Nine people were killed on the highway, and additional lives were lost when the flaming ten-thousand-gallon liquid propane tank became airborne and crashed into a nearby duplex, setting several buildings on fire.
Eleven horrific mine disasters have occurred in Tennessee, all but one within the last one hundred years. Eighty-four out of a crew of 89 perished in an explosion and flash fire in Cross Mountain Coal Mine No. 1, near Briceville (Anderson County) in 1911. Just nine years before that, the worst coal mine accident in Tennessee history took place at the nearby Fraterville Mine when 184 lives were lost.
The state's worst urban fire disaster was the great East Nashville Fire of 1916. Pushed by dry, westerly, fifty-mile-per-hour winds, it destroyed seven hundred homes and businesses within a thirty-two-square-block area of that city. A “million dollar” fire occurred in Knoxville in 1897. It destroyed several warehouses and large retail stores along a section of lower Gay Street. Firefighters came by train from as far away as Chattanooga to fight the blazes. Many individual structural fires have also occurred across the state. One was the Columbia (Maury County) jail fire that trapped and killed 42 inmates and visitors in 1977. During a firefighters' strike in 1978, 255 fires broke out almost simultaneously around Memphis. According to officials, this was either a rash of arson fires or a most extraordinary case of coincidence. Most incidents occurred in abandoned or condemned buildings. On Christmas Eve in 1989, 16 people died, 50 were injured, and 145 were left homeless by a fire at the high-rise retirement home in Johnson City.
Tennessee's worst boat accidents date to the nineteenth century, the heyday of inland marine commerce. The worst such wreck in United States history occurred in 1865 eight miles north of Memphis on the Mississippi River, when the Sultana riverboat exploded and burned to the water line, claiming over an estimated 2,000 lives.
A number of railroad accidents have taken place across the state. The New Market wreck in Jefferson County killed 63 and injured another 100 on September 24, 1904. The worst passenger railroad accident occurred near Nashville in 1918, when 101 people died in the Dutchman's Grade railroad accident.
Commercial airline accidents have also occurred in Tennessee. On July 9, 1984, a United Airlines passenger plane crashed near Newport, Cocke County, killing 39. Ten died in a crash near Tri-Cities Airport in 1959, and two incidents in Memphis, in 1947 and 1944, killed 20 and 21 respectively. A 1932 crash in Smith County caused 5 deaths, and a crash near Oliver Springs a year earlier took the lives of 11.
The single worst automobile accident occurred when 12 people were killed and 50 injured in a fog-related, ninety-nine-vehicle chain reaction pileup on I-75 near the Hiwassee River bridge in 1990.
Epidemics were great killers in the 1700s and 1800s. The worst culprits were smallpox, polio, influenza, measles, cholera, and yellow fever. There have been seven great epidemics of cholera and eight of yellow fever in Tennessee history. The last great yellow fever episode occurred in 1878. Smallpox and measles epidemics were particularly devastating to Native Americans, who had no natural immunity to the diseases brought to the New World by European, African, and Asian immigrants. Almost half of the Cherokee population of Tennessee is believed to have been annihilated by intentional introduction of smallpox in blankets and other trade goods in 1738. At the end of World War I a killer Spanish flu pandemic (a worldwide epidemic) struck Tennessee, killing over 7,700 people. Not since the Black Death of the Middle Ages had a disease killed so many so quickly.