December 20-28, 1926 was one of the wettest periods in Nashville's history. During that stretch, 10.38 inches of rainfall were measured1, making December, 1926 the rainiest December on record. The result, known as the "Great Flood of 1927," was the most severe to hit the city since 1793.
Shelby Park was transformed into a lake as the Cumberland River crested at Nashville on January 1, 1927 at 56.2 feet -- a remarkable 16.2 feet above flood stage. Before the water receded, the Cumberland River had at one point enlarged to three miles wide. Two persons were killed, 10,400 were left homeless, and business losses escalated into the millions of dollars. The Ryman Auditorium was pressed into use as a shelter, along with two National Guard armories and an American Legion post.
Mail for Old Hickory had to be delivered by airplane. One young man, whose Old Hickory girlfriend lived a half-mile across the river, had to drive 110 miles around the flooded area to get to her. Water reached as far inland as Third Avenue, so many stores had to be evacuated. Two steamboats along what is now Riverfront Park floated onto First Avenue, close to buildings and utility poles. With 60 square blocks under water, prostitutes in one house in the red light district fled to the attic. Grocery shopping in some cases was done Venetian style -- by rowboat.
Former Tennessean feature writer Max York recounted the disaster with these details and more in a May 16, 1971 article in the newspaper's magazine section. One photo published then showed the Cumberland within inches of the awning above the entry door for the C.B. Ragland & Co. building, a wholesale grocery on Second Avenue. Another depicted a pile of rubble from the collapsed American Steam Feed Co. building on the same street.
A series of dams built since those years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including Old Hickory Dam (1954) on the Cumberland and Percy Priest Dam (1966) on Stones River, provide river control to make such flooding almost completely preventable.
The Great Flood of 1927 ranks as Nashville's second greatest flood of record. Pioneer records detailing spots reached by the 1793 flood indicate it crested at what would have been a river stage of 58.5 feet.
(Most of the information in this summary was taken from an article by George Zepp, which appeared in The Tennessean on September 25, 2002.)
1 With 10.38 inches of precipitation, December 20-28, 1926 is the second-wettest nine-day period in Nashville's history. Between April 29 and May 7, 1984, 10.64 inches were recorded.