It had already been a particularly wet August in and around Tom Green County. The ground was saturated. On the night of August 23, 1882 more heavy rains fell along the South and Middle Concho River watersheds as well as on the Dove and Spring Creek basins. Sixty-six people died in Ben Ficklin the next day when the rain water aggregated and made its way down the South Concho River toward the town.
The following is a transcription from the August 26, 1882 edition of the Tom Green Times newspaper published in San Angela, Texas.
GREAT DESTRUCTION OF LIFE
Thousands of Dollars Lost in Seething Waters
BEN FICKLIN ALMOST WHOLLY RUINED AND SAN ANGELA PARTIALLY INUNDATED
Some Particulars of the Disaster
A great affliction has fallen upon our country, and it is our duty to chronicle the details of the calamity, whose general results and special incidents bring sorrow and loss to all.
At 8:30 p.m., on Wednesday evening the 23rd inst., A cloud gathered in the west and promised rain, and at 9 o’clock it came in torrents for more than an hour. Then the moon shone out clear and indicated that the storm was exhausted. Many were attracted by its brilliancy and turned in for the night with no thought of further wet weather. But at eleven rain began again and the thunder, which pealed across the skies, made sleep impossible. The frequent flashes of lightening blinded those who ventured to look out, and the ceaseless roar of water from roofs and gutters made old Texans anxious for to-morrow and what to-morrow would reveal. All the night it continued its impetuous fall, and when day rose there were no signs of change. By the early light the Middle Concho was seen to be 30 feet above its level and rising with great rapidity. The rain poured; it seemed to have come for all time; nor was it till eleven on Thursday one might reasonably hope for fair weather. At noon the blue sky appeared, the clouds drew off, and the telegraph office register (at Fort Concho) measured a rainfall of 5.85 inches, full one inch more than the average of rain in this section for an entire year.
Anxious parties were out all the morning watching the river, which quickly rose above the banks, and made immense currents on the plains two and three hundred yards beyond. It was filled with drift, and every conceivable species of property. Chairs, goods, trunks, boxes, and furniture of all kinds made their appearance. Hundreds of sheep floated down the torrent, and roofs of houses, quantities of planks, sills and doors dashed against the very tops of the tallest trees which skirt the banks of the stream. It was certain, not only that immense loss of property was entailed, but that life itself was endangered by so terrific a rise, and what made the situation more destressing was the absolute inability to rescue property or extend aid to sufferers. There was no boat at hand, and it is doubtful if any boat could have lived in so headlong a current. The largest trees, measuring from two to four feet in diameter, were torn up by the roots, and hurried along as if mere toys in the fierce element. The river reached its highest point at about 4 o’clock Thursday evening, and, by the estimate of experienced men, it measured a height of at least 45 feet above its ordinary bed. Such a rise has not been known to the oldest dweller on the frontier, and Heaven grant such another will not be seen by this generation. A little after 4 it began to recede; by 7 it had fallen 2 ¼ feet, and all during the night it continued to go down. When morning of Friday, the 25th, broke, it showed a decrease of 20 feet, though it is yet an angry current, which will hardly be fordable until Sunday.
We are at a loss where to turn in our attempt to speak of the effects of this immense storm. Perhaps the greatest interest of the community is excited over the unhappy fate of the family…
…At the Old Stage Station, between this town and Ben Ficklin. Unfortunately this place is situated on a small eminence between the river and the cliffs, about 300 yards from the latter, whose base is skirted by a deep ravine. Escape from such a position is extremely difficult in any direction a horse would swim long before the house is endangered. Mrs. M. J. Metcalfe and her family of five, Mrs. Kate Arden and two of her children, Mr. B. Taylor and daughter, Mr. Frank Lerch, who was luckily absent, and Mr. S. C. Robertson and wife, of San Angela, reside at the station. Early in the morning they discovered that their houses were surrounded and water was making rapidly toward them. Mr. C. D. Foote appreciating the danger, drove from Ben Ficklin to the station, and brought off Mrs. Arden and her two children, Miss Taylor, Misses Fannie and Amelia Metcalfe, and the two sons of Sheriff Spears. Mrs. Metcalfe, thinking the water had reached its highest point, declined to leave, and her daughter, Miss Zemula, resolved to stay with her, saying: “My place is with mother.” But the waters rising, induced Mr. Robertson to drive his wife to a place of safety, which he did with some difficulty. He then returned to aid Mrs. Metcalfe and others at the station, whom he induced to enter the hack. They started but the horses balked, and no progress was possible. At Mrs. Metcalfe’s suggestion they turned , and by means of a ladder, climbed on the roof of her dwelling. In this position Mr. Terrell Harris and Kerby Smith, a colored man, who had nobly resolved to rescue the unfortunate party and had left Ben Ficklin in a frail boat for that purpose, observed and passed them. Upon that roof were Mrs. Metcalfe and her daughter Miss. Zemula; Mr. S. C. Robertson; Mr. Blake Taylor, Sr.; George Robinson, chainbearer for Mr. Leach; Anselmo, a Mexican; and Red Evans, a Negro cook. The heavy boat, half full of water, capsized within ten feet of the house. Its occupants, Harris and Smith, made desperately for a grove of pecan trees, a place on the tallest of which they luckily secured. Nearby at the same time the roof with its human freight broke in two, the ladies clinging to one half and the five men to the other part. The screams of George Robinson were distinctly heard and the actions of all seen by Harris and Smith from the tree tops. Mr. Taylor lost his hold on the roof in a few seconds and was swept beyond human aid. The ladies bore down upon the pecan clump and were engulphed…
…Screaming as they disappeared beneath the drift which had rapidly accumulated within a few feet of Harris. Mr. S. C. Robertson was shaken from the roof, but caught a tree and held on through as terrible a day and night as any one ever endured. Once the wreck of the house knocked him from his position, but he swam until he secured another. All of the party on the roof but this gentleman were lost. On Friday morning at about 6 o’clock, Judge Joseph Spence espied Mr. Robertson in his tree and took steps to rescue him. An hour later Captain Rose, U.S.A., found and relieved Harris and Smith. They were bruised and sore from contact with the drift and from their super-human exertions. The station itself an utter ruin. All the houses and walls have disappeared in a current before which stone walls melted like snow in June.
Ben Ficklin, our county seat, is almost wholly destroyed. The water rose to a height of 15 feet upon the court house, which with the jail and Mr. Elliot’s residence alone remains upon the flat. The majority of its inhabitants have lost everything. The stone buildings Jno. Engel and William L. Wahrmund, the frame or adobe houses of Pollock, Wishert & Brown, Hotz, Sanderson and Halfin, together with Foote’s office are swept away, and all their contents are lost as far as we were able to judge. Further we are unable to report, since communication is impossible. Provisions were forwarded from this place and the post, but could not be sent across the river. The people, however, have enough to last until supplies reach them.
At San Angela the scene was exciting in the extreme. The North Concho was not affected save by the backwater. But for this circumstance our town would have perished. Yet the backwater frightened all and ruined many sending the still element into our streets, and rising forty feet above the river bed. The whole bottom was covered, and exhibited a large inland basin, four hundred yards wide. At its highest point it circled around the Nimitz coral, stretched away in a constantly expanding line until it embraces G. W. Westbrook’s residence, sunk Keyser’s saloon to the eaves, lapped the back of the Great Western Livery Stable, and becoming holder it swept by Patton & Lungkwitz’s tin shop, and rose more than two feet above the first gallery of the Concho House. All adobe houses touched by the water are ruined. The livery stable has lost its back wall, the tin shop is dismantled and its roof uplifted by a number of props, as the walls disappeared. The Concho House, lately built at a cost of $11,000, yet stands, but it is wholly unfit for further use. The adobes where the water reached them dissolved as by the touch of magic. Immediately doors crashed in, windows gave way and plaster and portions of walls fell in. It is a question of time only when the entire building will go to the ground. Most of the furniture was saved. Mrs. Frary’s home, east of the hotel, is destroyed, while those of Mr. E. E. Deaton, Dave Kearse, Bob Fairbanks, Frank Lungkwitz, Tom Brown and W.B. Cain, are abandoned and ruined, while not a Mexican habitation on the river is left. The store and house of W.S. Veck escaped injury, but his stable, lately built, entirely collapsed. The cost to our city will probably reach $50,000, a low estimate.
But the Country Around has suffered terrible, and the loss of life has been great. Hundreds of carcasses of sheep and other stock are scattered over the prairies, wagons, blankets, clothing and all sorts of furniture strew the banks, while the baser sort of Mexicans are pilfering. We confess we are unable to estimate the losses in this county; all sorts of rumors prevail, and our citizens are endeavoring to find the remains of all the unfortunates who drowned. D. Carter went at 12 o’clock, Friday, about eight miles above Ben Ficklin and learned that a Mexican lost his wife and five children just opposite that town. Twenty persons are missing from W. S. Kelly’s ranch, on Spring Creek, and ten from Tankersley’s. Three at Mr. David McCarthy’s, who is now in California, are lost, and all his sheep are gone. Dr. Owens and child, living on Levy’s ranch, are drowned, and his wife was taken from a tree on Friday morning at the same place. Mrs. H. K. Mathis was swept from her home with a child in her arms.
Mother and Child were hurled upon drift and separated; the latter sinking, the former clinging to a tree, from which she was taken Friday morning. The body of the infant has been recovered, and we learn that the remains of Miss Zemula Metcalfe have been found. The body of Red Evans, the station cook, was discovered near the Post lime kiln. Parties are searching the banks all Friday for the drowned, and will continue to search. Not fewer than 100 lives were lost in the county. The telegraph wires east are broken. As we go to press the citizens are organizing search and relief parties, our citizens have responded liberally, and have opened their houses and purses to the suffering.
Notes of the Flood.
Mr. Terrell Harris, who made the heroic attempt to save the Metcalfe family, says that when his boat capsized that he was caught under it, that he raised it off, got on top and pulled off his boots as a preparation for life and death struggle. Such presence of mind is truly remarkable.
Mr. S. C. Robertson appeared on our streets yesterday evening looking haggard and bruised. He received the congratulations of his friends.
Judge Spence and Mr. A. G. Nason were detained at the Post by the merest accident. Had they gone to the station where they designed to pass that night, it is possible they would have been lost.
David Welch, on Main Concho, lost his thoroughbred bucks, for which he had recently paid $700.
Mr. C. E. Hicks estimates the injury to his stables at from three to five hundred dollars.
Following are the names of a few of the lost: Mrs. Metcalfe and daughter, Zemula, Mr. B. Taylor, Geo. Robinson, infant son of H. K. Mathis, Anselmo (a Mexican), Red Evans, and five Mexicans opposite Ben Ficklin.
Our report closes as we go to press. Such sickening details and horrid suspicions of death we do not often meet in life. Our reporter is out hunting up the news, and our next issue we will give full particulars of the disaster. As it is we feel a relief in closing the initial chapter of so terrible a calamity.
Mr. Charles Lackey, wife and children are reported drowned.
The body of Mrs. Metcalfe has been found , sixteen miles below, at the mouth of Crow’s Nest.
From Ben Ficklin we learn that the records are destroyed, and the court house is injured to such an extent that it will probably fall.
Mr. Stonehouse and family, at the head of Spring Creek, are lost.
The bodies of three women were found in the road by Mr. Van Flores, above Ben Ficklin, who failed to recognize the remains.
The body of George Robinson, one of the station victims, was found this afternoon and brought to town on horseback by a Mexican.
The body of a Mexican woman, drowned opposite Ben Ficklin, was also recovered to-day.
The funeral for Mrs. Metcalfe was held to-day at Ben Ficklin.