Episode 06: Frozen
The Mountain Mysteries
The Mountain Mystery of Frozen
It’s triumph over tragedy. Spirit over poverty, and above all, a resolute faith that keeps the people in the heart of Appalachia together, through loss, comes an inevitable consolidation of people that know what struggle, real struggle is. Such pain from loss may very well be the reason that some say the spirits of those lost in one of the Nations worst floods, that took place July forth and fifth and severely affected Breathitt, Lewis and parts of Rowan counties with seventy-nine lives lost, are still wandering this world. It’s said by many that there’s a place in Breathitt county that one can go and will leave just as quickly. You feel like your being watched, and can still hear the screams of the victims, especially the children. These are The Mountain Mysteries, Episode 6, Frozen.
Like echoes through time, some memories are too hard to let go, too painful. It was and still is considered to be one of the worst flash floods in this nation’s history.
If life is hard in these mountains now, then it was nearly impossible in 1939 when infrastructure was much less advanced than it is today. Narrow winding roads were the way most got around back then, there were no four lane highways, and it wasn’t that uncommon to see horses making their way through the region that many called home…in these mountains. It was July fourth, 1939 and the nation was wrapping up its one-hundred-and sixty-third birthday party, and the party came to an end, in a way that would bring years of suffering, nightmares and torment to the people of the small communities located in Breathitt and Rowan counties especially, but there was more to come. More heartache, more tragedy.
It’s said that when the rain began to fall, it was like a sheet of water, and that you couldn’t see a foot in front of you. (clip)
That was George Walter Atkins, who lived in Rowan county at the time the cloudburst happened. The national Weather Service said that between two and a half and nine inches of rain fell in that short period of time, a span of only four hours. I’ve heard before that some people are … gifted. The seem to know things before others, and maybe at times we should listen. The paranormal isn’t all about ghosts, creatures and UFO’s, oh no, the paranormal may be defined as denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding. Well, if that is indeed the case, then it’s a good thing that Christine Barker’s mother finally broke down and gave in to a tantrum her daughter Christine, who was only seven years young at the time threw when she knew… they couldn’t stay where they had planned that night… (Clip Christine 001)
At the beginning of this episode, you heard from Stanley Taulbee in an interview conducted by William E. Ellis in May of 1990 for the oral history center of Eastern Kentucky University, and how he said his father had commented that he had never seen anything like this. I don’t know that I can even imagine what was witnessed on Frozen Creek that night, or should I say in the earliest morning hours of July fifth, 1939, as a new day’s promises were washed away, so lives would be as well. These people knew each other, helped one another as much as they could, some were considered family, some…actually were family. Stanley was only 14 at the time the skies opened, and water poured out in biblical amounts. But even at the time of that interview, some fifty year later, his memory of that was as clear as it could be.
Out of each tragedy heroes are known to come to life. It isn’t the absence of fear that defines a hero, not at all. But rather, what one does in the face of that fear, that would paralyze so many other’s in the challenge of confronting insurmountable odds and even death. Eighty-one-year-old Gilly Ann Prater lived with her daughter, Lona Tolson, and son, Amos Malone. When the flood came it was clear that their only hope was to leave the house before it was washed away. Gilly Ann insisted that she was too old to fight the current and that Amos must save his own life and not worry about her. Unwilling to leave her, but knowing that she was correct, finally, he jumped into the water and was washed down the creek and to safety. Gilly Ann lit a lantern and held it up so he could see where he was going, and he made it. Later, he said that his last glimpse of his mother was of her holding the lantern in the air as the muddy water swirled about her. Seconds later the house, his sister, and mother were swept away. Mrs. Prater's body was found at Lock No. 13 near Beattyville. She and Lona lie buried together at the Puckett Cemetery in Vancleve.
Earl Howard's house was up on the hillside. Earl and his wife had two boys, Ray and Forest, and a newborn baby girl. One of Earl's neighbors went to his house and told him that the creek was rising, and he should get out. Earl said, "Oh, it will never get this far," and went back to bed. At 3:30 a.m. that morning the house was swept away. Only Ray, the eldest son, survived. The next morning Ray was found sitting on top of Big Rock crying. Ray said that the last time he saw his father, his arms were outstretched as far as he could … holding his baby girl's head above water. A one-room house was tearing down the stream with a little boy on the rooftop crying out for help. No one had anyway to get to him. An elderly lady at the scene fell to her knees and started praying. The house hit a tree and stopped long enough for the boy to climb to safety on a tree limb. Mary Bradley, with her children and sister, Verna, lived just across the road from the river. The water got up so high in their house that they had to climb on top of the roof. Several men climbed the hill behind the house with ropes and got them off the roof and to safety.
Walter Rose operated a big general store at Wilhurst. Walter managed to swim to safety but his wife, Evelyn, and daughter, Ola Ruth, vanished in the churning, murky water. All he had and everything he cared for was swept away in a minute.
Curt Childers lived in Jackson. Curt didn't know that his wife had given permission for their 14-year-old daughter, Irene, to spend the night with her cousin who lived on Frozen. Irene Childers, age 14, and her cousin, Irene Spicer, age 12, had spent the July Fourth holiday visiting Natural Bridge at Slade, Kentucky, and now the two girls were spending the night together. The Spicer family lived on the J. C. Hurst farm. A creek ran behind the house and Frozen Creek ran in front of the house. They never had a chance. The next day 14-year-old Woodrow Spicer stood at the coffins of his father, Richard; mother, Esther; sisters: Arlene, Irene, and Roxie; Roxie's baby; and little eight-year-old brother, Sherman. Woodrow remembered the last words he heard his father speak, "Lord be with us."
For a brief moment in time, over in Jackson, Curt Childers and his wife didn't know there had been a flood until someone hauled their daughter's body home in the back of a pickup truck.
Blanche Perry, a 22-year-old college student, had returned to the Kentucky Bible School at Vancleve only the day before to spend the summer completing missionary work. The following is her account of that terrible night.
(Female VO START) (in a daze, solemn and somber)
"There were five of us girls in the dormitory: Mildred Drake, Lorene Hartley, Christine Holman, Elsie Booth, and I. We were awakened by a crashing of timbers, and we rushed into the hall. There was a deafening roar, and the gas lights flickered and then went out. The building lurched and was swept off its foundation. The water rose 20 feet in five minutes. The building shook violently, the windows crashed, and the ceiling began dropping at our feet. Pictures fell off the walls, dishes tumbled across the floor while trunks, pianos, chairs, and girls were lashed from one side of the hall to the other. The floor opened and furniture began dropping through.
"The water kept rising. We rushed to the attic and behind us the steps disappeared immediately. The water was soon knee-deep in the attic. In less than ten minutes we had floated a mile or more. The lightning flashed and lit up the attic. Elsie Booth stood by the window crying. She said, 'If we really belong to God and He loves us, why didn't we have any warning?' I said, 'Elsie we've trusted God to save us and to take us through school, can't you trust Him now?' Heaven was all over her face as she smiled through her tears and cried, 'Of course, I can trust Him. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before, in a few minutes we will all be with Jesus.'
"By this time, the building was too dangerous to remain in any longer, and we decided to jump out. Elsie went first. I saw her swim a few feet in that awful current, then she went down. Christine Holman sat in the window. I can still see her big, blue eyes and face as white as snow. 'Are you going?' I asked. 'I can swim but not in that current,' she replied. 'If you'll move back, I'll go,' I told her, 'We have only a few seconds left.' She moved back, and I jumped into the swirling, muddy water. Christine followed right behind me.
"Since I could not swim, I expected to be with Jesus very soon. I knew the current was too strong for me, and there was no use fighting it. I gave myself to the current which sent me to the bottom. I held my breath, relaxed, came to the top, caught my breath then went down again. I repeated this process for two or three miles. Finally, I crawled onto a very small piece of building and lay there exhausted. My ten-mile journey ended when I picked up a 2x4 and pushed away the trunks, mattresses, chairs, and boards and drifted toward the bank. I caught hold of a willow limb and pulled myself out.
"Daylight dawned and it was still raining. I followed a path which led to a house. A mother and several children stared at me with horror. I explained as best I could what had happened. Then the mother asked, ‘Ain’t ye scared to death?' I said, 'No, I'm a Christian, and I was ready to go.' She gave me some dry clothes, and I walked barefoot two miles across a hill where I was met by the Mt. Carmel workers and taken to the high school."
The remains of teacher Christine Holman were found 15 miles away. The body of Elsie Booth was recovered three days later about 50 miles downstream. Richard Rudd and his neighbors labored for weeks recovering bodies. A make-shift morgue was set up in the Blanton/Vancleve area. One neighbor, 74-year-old George Banks, was found dead lying on a mattress in an open field. Roscoe Riley was one of the many men who worked around the clock making coffins. Steady hands, guided by a faithful heart and tear stained eyes, as the women sewed shrouds.
Twenty feet. That’s how tall the wall of water was that swept through the small area known as Frozen creek in Breathitt county. It took 44 houses, over 60 barns, out buildings and livestock all in a muddy torrent that also claimed 54 men, women and children without discretion, or hesitation.
The question remains, is Frozen haunted by the spirits of those who lost their lives that tragic morning of July fifth, 1939? Many say that the residents had been warned of a tornado, not a flood, and where do people seek shelter during a tornado? In the worse possible place to be during a flash flood.
The internet of course usually runs rampant with rumors of hauntings, creaks and moans and stories that scare kids at the sides of a campfire, but oddly enough, there wasn’t too much that I was able to find on the spirits of Frozen creek. Maybe it’s because this alleged haunted hot spot is overshadowed by placed like Waverly Hills, or maybe it’s because that those who have passed have indeed, passed on to a better place than what this life offers.