Brush Creek drains a 16-square-mile watershed, which is about 10 miles long and 2 miles wide. (Some gallery photos contributed by the city of Johnson City, others by Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
When Henry Johnson appeared on the scene in the mid-1800s, he knew the railroad companies would lay tracks in Johnson City along the low-lying areas of Brush Creek.
It was a no-brainer back in the days of the steam engine. The Iron Horses needed water, and the creek could deliver plenty. The engines could only make it 17 miles without another drink, and that is why the city originally was named Johnson Tank.
The historical winding waterway has provided Johnson City with aesthetic and functional benefits. Its current has soothed weary travelers and carried waste. Its contents have been used to quench thirst and fuel industries. Over time, commercial enterprise has restricted its capacity, and a lethargic response to dire flood forecasts nearly 100 years ago have city officials hustling to make up for lost time.
Different year but concerns remain the same
Brush Creek drains a 16-square-mile watershed, which is about 10 miles long and 2 miles wide. It was there before Johnson City existed, and it remains both a delight and an occasional deliverer of watery grief, especially for residents and businesses located near downtown.
In 1923, O.K. Morgan, a Johnson City consulting engineer, issued a report to Mayor W.B. Ellison on which to base recommendations to prevent serious flood damage from the frequent and sudden rises in Brush Creek.
The report may be dated, but it is absolutely on target in its description of what happens when a creek is squeezed by development. City officials are still working to alleviate that problem today.
“Our local conditions grow worse in this respect and the city should at once take measures to prevent further encroachment, to remedy the hazards already existing and to provide for safety of the future, for a stream will not be denied its right to its full area required to carry off its largest flood,” Morgan wrote.
Those in elected positions, as well as investors and builders, were given fair warning that they were encroaching more and more into a long and relatively narrow flood plain. Large walls were erected on the creek’s banks, and the expansion continued around, next to and over the liquid pathway in an effort to maximize profits from increased commercial development.
“Anyone reading the daily papers cannot fail to be impressed with the growing frequency of flood disasters and wonder why better precautions are not taken,” Morgan wrote 81 years prior to the city’s formation of its Storm Water Task Force in 2004. “Some claim that the denuding (clearing/making bare) of the forests is increasing with the speed with which the water flows from the land, thereby raising the height of the flood waters, and no doubt this is true in part.
“On the other hand, the primary cause is the encroachments on the banks and channel ways by industry and commerce and the restriction of areaway, causing the natural flood heights to be higher and the incident damage greater. Neglect of precautions is frequently followed by loss of life and damages far in excess of the cost of prevent; and unless improvement is made such may recur from time to time and be multiplied again and again.”
The majority of Johnson City’s sewage was dumped into Brush Creek out of convenience. Virtually every city mapped its master plan around streams, creeks and rivers until the late 1940s when 60-inch pipe was installed, diverting sewage in Brush Creek to the city wastewater treatment plant. The engineering achievement addressed one issue, but it did nothing to help control flooding.
A creek flows through it
Some may think Brush Creek’s starting point is a large, established body of water. Far from it. In fact, the creek begins just south of Walmart on West Market Street in the Sunrise Valley subdivision, where underground springs and rainfall roll into a channel no wider than the average shovel.
“It begins as a ditch, more or less,” said Andy Best, the city’s storm water manager. “And after about a quarter mile, it becomes a stream.”
The creek runs along L.P. Auer Road for 1.75 miles and pops out under the former Burlington factory. About a mile and three quarters of a mile downstream, Cherokee Creek, a fairly large tributary, flows into Brush Creek from the south.
It then flows under the State of Franklin Road/ Walnut Street intersection before running between Mary Street and State of Franklin — all of which is an open stream to this point. The creek flows under Leonard Street(Bojangles is across the street), and another major, yet unnamed, tributary flows into Brush Creek around Cherokee and Lone Oak roads.
At this point it goes underground, flowing through pipes on the East Tennessee State University campus, opening back up again at Mountain Home Drive — 2.4 miles from its origin. The creek is now on the north side of State of Franklin and runs parallel to the railroad tracks behind the Millenium Centre all the way to University Parkway.
Brush Creek continues following tracks. At the Watauga Avenue/State of Franklin intersection, it goes under the railroad tracks then flows under Watauga Avenue. It continues behind Church Brothers Family Fun Store, then goes underground at Kelly’s Foods, traveling underneath Sevier Street and emptying into Founders Park.
The creek exits Founders Park through an underground culvert that parallels railroad tracks. Water enters a large box culvert, where it flows underneath Buffalo Street and past Northeast State Community College. This is where King Creek flows into Brush Creek — at a point across the street from the college’s parking garage exit near the former John Sevier Hotel.
We’re now about 4.1 miles downstream, and several smaller tributaries have emptied into the creek from ETSU to this point. It now opens up just north of South Roan Street across from the old power board building opposite Princeton Free Will Baptist Church.
Water is directed under Interstate 26 and under railroad tracks parallel to Fairview Avenue and City Services. It then flows under New Street, where another tributary turns into the creek underneath the American Water Heater building. At this point, another tributary flows into the creek underneath the building. This tributary carries water to Brush Creek from the Gump Addition.
The creek then goes underneath Broadway Street across from the former General Shale plant. It continues to parallel the railroad tracks and East Fairview Avenue crossing underneath Smith Street. It then begins to run alongside Woodland Road, where the density of homes and businesses begin to thin out and small, unnamed tributaries come in mainly from the southeast.
The creek then flows by Johnson City Airport under the old St. John’s Mill, goes underneath Watauga Road at Riverview Drive, turns westerly and travels about a half-mile before entering the Watauga River near the Johnson City Wastewater Treatment Plant.
From beginning to end, the trip is roughly 10 miles.
History repeats itself
On September 2, 1811, James Nelson deeded to William Nelson, William Duzan, James King, Jacob Hoss and John R. Boring 4 acres to be used by the Methodist Episcopal Church for a house of worship. For many years, a campground for religious meetings was maintained there with a central permanent tent and many family tents. During the Civil War, Col. Robert Love’s 62nd N.C. Regiment, CSA, used the ground as a camp.
The Tennessee Historical Commission commemorated the site by placing a marker at the former Brush Creek Campground site off West Watauga Avenue near Carver Park. Historians, however, have spent more time noting rainfall the creek could not contain, and the damage to Johnson City, which remains the center of attention today.
More than 100 years after the campground was commemorated, Morgan recalled the floods in his report to city officials.
“We’ve already had four substantial floods within 15 years,” he wrote. “On July 4, 1922, and again on August 15, 1922, also August 1919, and May 1908. The 1908 flood was the heaviest, but by reason of growth of the town and new bridges and restricted waterways the flood of July 4, 1922, did the most damage and rose higher at many points in the center of town.”
In May 1908, citizens helplessly watched from nearby hillsides as rampaging waters ran through the heart of the city following days of heavy rains.
Another flood in the early 1920s engulfed several Johnson City landmarks, including the Sam Taylor Livery Stable across from the First Presbyterian Church, the city’s municipal building and a building built by Dr. Harrison Carr known to Johnson Citians of that era as the “White Elephant.”
Morgan dubbed these floods “minor,” and said it was doubtful Johnson City had yet seen its largest flood.
“The city began to spread to the east and west, but most of the activity remained in the flood plain and development continued downtown and near the Founders Park area,” said Phil Pindzola, the city’s current Public Works director. “That’s essentially why we still get flooding.”
Though the creek regularly overflows its banks, causing property damage downstream, the flood in July 2012 was the latest to devastate local businesses due to early morning storm.
A storm hitting the region dumped nearly 2 inches of rain in a short time, but that brought the total amount of rain for that month to more than 12 inches and made July the wettest month in the city’s history.
In the 1970s, a box culvert was built under what is now Founders Park — a 5-acre piece of land where Brush Creek was recently reopened to increase its ability to move water.
“We started to think about how to get water back into the creek when it rains,” Pindzola said. “Why is water sitting on Buffalo and other streets? Because it has no way of getting into the creek. The size of the culvert under Kelly’s Foods is about one-third the size of the culvert that runs into Founders Park today. When water backs up, where does it go? Downtown.”
City officials are negotiating a “land swap” that would allow the city to open up a large portion of Brush Creek and facilitate the movement of floodwater into Founders Park, while also creating a landscaped pedestrian walkway along West State of Franklin Road.
The city is considering buying the vacant Kelly’s Foods property at the corner of Sevier Street and West State of Franklin. Pindzola has said officials would then work out a deal that allows Church Brothers Family Fun Store, now located at 917 W. Watauga Ave., to relocate on the former Kelly’s Foods site.
If the land swap is successful, it would help eliminate a major restriction where Brush Creek runs under Kelly’s Foods, and the Church Brothers property would be used for additional flood detention.
Pindzola said last week the deal is alive and well.
Coincidentally, the $2.8 million Founders Park storm water/park project is complete. The project was identified years ago by the city’s Downtown Storm Water Task Force and the Washington County Economic Development Council as necessary to help alleviate flooding problems at various sections of Brush Creek.
“It improves hydraulic flow and it gives us 5 acres to get the water back into the creek,” Pindzola said.
The same principle applies with what the city plans to do with the downtown U-Haul property at 114 W. King St. — to gain control by allowing water to get into holding basins instead of sitting on top of streets.
The city also is looking at the creation of regional detention ponds far upstream that would help hold water during heavy rain events and allow it to be slowly released into a widened creek. The city also is looking at buying properties, including older residential structures in the Mary Street area, as a means of making room for additional water.
“Aside from these efforts, every developer today is required to build a detention facility, and it wasn’t until about 1980 that we had any storm water requirements for subdivisions,” Pindzola said. “Our decision was to create very restrictive requirements for those who build in the 100-year flood plain. One of the suggestions we’re looking at is to have developers pay in to the cost of the regional detention facilities. They would be buying space and getting more for their money.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the period Henry Johnson appeared in the area.