Sixty-five years ago, nearly to the day, more than 60 students from Mantachie High School stood on the new Mantachie Creek Bridge at Pearce Crossing and peered down as Supervisor Truman Wilburn pointed out the strength and safety of the new structure.Up to that point, students had been traveling across a bridge in perilously poor condition. But on that day in mid-March 1955, Wilburn told those present he aimed to replace as many of the unsafe structures as possible each year he was in office as Second District Supervisor of Itawamba County.
But neither Wilburn nor anyone else could have predicted the disaster that would fall upon Itawamba County just days later.
According to the March 24, 1955 edition of The Itawamba County Times, local weather reporter A.D. Graham said 9.08 inches of rain fell in less than 48 hours. The torrential downpour brought the total rainfall for the month to 11.79 inches and triggered unprecedented flooding across the county.
“Probably the most spectacular damage was at Donovan Creek in the second district, where a newly constructed state-aid bridge was left standing nine feet up in the air with no approaching levees for over a hundred yards in either direction,” The Times reported.
Much of the hard work Wilburn and his fellow supervisors performed to bring “permanent bridges and high-type roads to Itawamba County” was washed away in a matter of days.
“Property damage in what well might be the record flood on the Tombigbee River and its tributaries had by Wednesday night been reported in the thousands of dollars,” The Times reported. “To repair the damage done to Highway 78 in the Tombigbee bottom just west of Fulton will run more than $50,000 according to the reliable informant.”
Families along Twenty Mile, Donovan, along Highway 78 at Fulton, at Beans Ferry, and several other points were forced out of their homes. Probably the heaviest damage was suffered on Highway 78, west of Fulton, where a section of the highway west of the first bridge from Fulton washed away. A gaping hole 65-feet wide and about 10-feet deep was all that was left. The southern edge of the highway was left carved out for long stretches.
The TVA sub-station for Fulton was under approximately three feet of water, but power was never out. Manager Virgil Dozier kept a careful watch on the station trying to do everything in his power to restore power should it fail.
High floods were reported from all the tributaries of the Tombigbee in the county. The highest water reported was on the Twenty Mile just north of Mantachie, where water reportedly rose to the highest level in history.
On Boguefala, just north of Evergreen, flooding washed away the levee, which abutted that new bridge.
Bull Mountain Creek rampaged, sweeping over hundreds of acres that had never previously been flooded. Reports said Highway 78 towards Alabama from Fulton was the only artery never cut.
Local government-issued “travel at your own risk” across Bull Mountain Bottom levee on Highway 25 near Smithville. The water ran a few inches deep across the highway. The water was about 3 feet deep across Highway 25 between Sulphur Springs and Beans Ferry at its crest.
The Mississippian Railway used one of its engines to help evacuate refugees from the Tombigbee Bottom along the lower end of its line in Monroe County until waters covered the tracks. The line’s other engine was stranded in Fulton.
Itawamba Junior College turned back buses as they got to the campus. County schools remained open throughout the ordeal but reported heavy absenteeism.
Itawamba County Times Editor Delmus Harden made arrangements with H.D. McGee and Charles Grimes to meet him at the washout to ferry the papers across in their boat. Fortunately, the water had resided enough that game warden Roy Chatham could walk around on a six-inch ledge and get the papers. He delivered them to Dorsey Post Office so that subscribers on the west side of the river would get their papers on time.
The citizens of the county were facing uncertain days coupled with months of recovery after being blindsided by the disaster, but it was reported that officials had “went right to work regardless of personal convenience and cost.”
Owen Spearman, President of the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors at the time of the great flood, told The Itawamba County Times, “This is undoubtedly the worst disaster we have ever had, but we are going to make the best of it.”