Tennessee State Library and Archives
Disasters in Tennessee
Panorama of East Nashville after the Great Fire, 1916, Library Photograph Collection
IntroEpidemicsNew MadridWeatherRiotsFiresSultanaFraterville Train Wrecks

Disasters in Tennessee


Adams Express Company

Adams Express Company

Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1896

Library Photograph Collection

Tennessee has a long history of adversity. The state has faced horrifying natural disasters — diseases, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes — as well as such man-made catastrophes as fires, shipwrecks, train wrecks, and riots. Learn the details of these fascinating events in the Tennessee State Library and Archives' latest exhibit: Tennessee Disasters. Go back with us to some of the state's most trying times, from the New Madrid Earthquake in 1811 to the recent flooding of May 2010. Images and stories of Tennessee's past from TSLA’s extensive collection of photographs, records, and manuscripts illustrate the multitude of calamities that have befallen the citizens of this state . . . but you will also learn much about the volunteer spirit of Tennessee's citizens and their determination to help themselves and their neighbors recover from unthinkable misfortune.


Ruins of Mr. Anthony's Factory

 Ruins of Mr. Anthony's Factory after the fire, April 1856 

Library Photograph Collection

Defining Disasters
Disasters may be broadly defined as events causing great destruction and/or multiple deaths and injuries. Such a subjective definition is necessary since not all disasters kill or maim. For example, slow-rise flooding, particularly before the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed dams and initiated other flood control strategies on Tennessee's major streams, caused immense economic impact. However, with some notable exceptions, these floods were relatively bloodless. Conversely, until the acceptance of modern "germ theory," the identification of vectors of transmission (such as mosquitoes and fleas), and the advent of modern medicine, epidemic diseases took countless lives but resulted in little environmental damage. Between slow-rise flooding and epidemics there are other kinds of disasters that have brought about varying degrees of destruction, carnage, and misery.

Wreck of the Dixie Flyer

Wreck of the Dixie Flyer, 1906

Library Photograph Collection

Why Are People Drawn to Disasters?
There is something of the macabre in all of us, something that compels us to slow down and gawk as we approach the scene of a traffic accident and other such incidents. Perhaps it is a media account that catches our attention and our imagination. Some psychologists suggest that there is a need for excitement that may be gained vicariously-and hence safely-through the misfortunes of others. Perhaps it is a celebration of "save but for the grace of God, there go I." Violence and tragedy have always been an innate part of the human experience, and Tennessee has an unfortunate and varied heritage of disasters and other tragedies.

What Is the Worst Disaster Ever to Occur in Tennessee?
One could make a case for several incidents to be listed among Tennessee's worst. However, perhaps the ultimate answer to that question is that the worst disaster ever to strike the state has not yet occurred.



Allen R. Coggins, East Tennessee author of Tennessee Tragedies: Grim Reapings of Our Past (due for release by the University of Tennessee Press in the spring of 2011), contributed to the introduction. The book will chronicle some 900 tragic incidents that have occurred in Tennessee over the past two and a half centuries. It will delve into the concept of disasters in general and provide details of the worst 150 such incidents.



Special thanks to Kathy Lauder, Lori Lockhart, and Dr. Kathleen M. Therrien for their assistance.