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Creek project kept Galax above water

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Though flooding persists on a smaller scale, it's nothing compared to a devastating 1940 flood that threatened to drown a booming city's future. An effort to reroute Chestnut Creek saved Galax from going under.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

An August 1940 flood swept in improvements to Chestnut Creek in Galax that continue to keep residential and industrial areas, and even portions of downtown, dry today.
It took until the 1950s for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “straighten the creek,” but an inspection in 2011 shows that the project still works to minimize flooding in the city.
Engineer Randy Campbell from Huntington, W.Va., in 2011 inspected the project that the corps built to see how it was holding up.
Back in the day, Chestnut Creek had three or four “meanders,” the engineer said. The idea of the engineers involved taking those curves in the stream out and make an “open channel” to route the water through Galax as swiftly as possible.
“The channel’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” Campbell said. “This is one of the rare cases where it worked, mainly due to the efforts of the city.”

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Engineers would take a different approach if they would design a similar project today, but the straightening reflected the thinking of the time.
The 1940 storm overflowed Chestnut Creek almost to Caldwell at Shaw Street on the east, almost to Main and Washington downtown with waters reaching into the Vaughan Furniture plant and other industries, disrupting the Norfolk and Western railroad line, tearing out bridges and covering the fairgrounds, according to a map of the flood.
High water from that event “made refugees of about 500 persons,” the report said. In all, 96 homes, four furniture plants, the milk plant, four stores and five gas stations had damage.
The corps put an estimate on the damage from the 1940 flood at $640,000 in its 1949 report.
A 1947 flood, by comparison, caused $243,000 worth of damage.

READ MORE ABOUT THE FLOOD IN OUR SPECIAL FEATURE, ON PAGE 1B AND 2B OF OUR FEB. 15, 2012, ONLINE EDITION

A 1949 corps report describes the project as “straightening and enlarging the Chestnut Creek channel through the town of Galax to provide substantial partial protection to all of the flooded area in the town,” it said. “Included in the proposed work is the improvement of 13,700 linear feet of channel; the construction of a railroad bridge and a highway bridge to replace existing structures to be removed; the removal of a highway bridge without replacement; the relocation of a railroad siding and changes to drainage facilities, utilities and other improvements affected by channel rectification.”
The corps estimated the cost at $760,000, which included an $89,000 local match.
At the time, federal officials believed that $25,300 in spending would bring $62,000 in annual benefits to Galax.
(Campbell estimated that the Chestnut Creek project would cost about 10 times the original amount in today’s dollars.)
Earthen levees originally proposed for the project did not seem economically justified and were deleted, according to the 1949 report. Engineers thought that would have increased the cost of the project to about $2.45 million.
Chestnut Creek had a history of flooding, the corps found in 1949.
“Flood damage stage has been equalled or exceeded on an average of once a year,” the report said. “Eleven destructive floods have occurred since 1878. Two recent floods, those of August 1940 and October 1947, have caused much damage to industrial and residential improvements in Galax.”
The project protected 244 acres in the city, including all of the then-industrial areas.
Because the project was based on the amounts of the 1940s flood, Campbell estimates that it provides protection up to the equivalent of a 75-year storm event.
“It was the flood of records in certain areas of the New River basin,” the engineer said.
In 2011, Galax officials asked the corps to reevaluate Chestnut Creek and compile a report on flood risk management measures.
City officials wondered how changes in the Chestnut Creek basin, like new bridges, might have affected the floodplain. Vaughan-Bassett’s factory, one of Galax’s largest employers, sitting in the floodplain also cause caused concerns.
The engineer’s findings report only minor deposits building up in the stream in the area in question, it said. This “minor shoaling” did not have any significant impact on the channel.
“The City of Galax continues to meet their local sponsor obligations for the maintenance of the existing project and the project continues to function as designed,” the 2011 report says in the summary.
While Galax does have some other water issues in the low-lying “Bottom” neighborhood near the creek, that is unrelated to the capacity of Chestnut Creek, City Manager Keith Barker noted. Water rises in this neighborhood because the stormwater damage is old and inadequate.
Pipes installed 50 or 60 years ago only had 36-inch and 42-inch diameters and some — possibly as much as half — of that has been choked off by sediment deposits, he said. In addition, those pipes are corrugated, which also probably slows down the flow of water.
The Bottom rehabilitation project is being planned, and the city is receiving grant money to fix the stormwater issues and fix up houses in that area. The project would replace the old drainage with 60-inch, smooth concrete pipes to direct the rain runoff into Chestnut Creek, the city manager explained. The project will also provide access points so maintenance workers can get in and clean out the sediment.
All things considered, Barker believes the Chestnut Creek engineering project from the 1950s probably spared the city lots of flooding and additional damages that could have happened without it.
It’s held up well.
“When you add additional upstream development that contributes additional flow for the creek, we end up with issues where Chestnut Creek stays in the channel, but the storm drainage can’t carry the runoff,” he told The Gazette. “Our hope is that the new stormwater system we are looking to install as part of the Bottom Area project will address the undersized and deteriorated pipes.”