Appalachia Logging

Norwegian Wharf Rats in the Smoky Mountains?

Logging Company Houses in Elkmont Credit: NPS Archives
Logging Company Houses in Elkmont Credit: NPS Archives

“Summer brought a phenomenon never seen in the mountains. We awoke one morning to find the camp filled with huge rats. Black rats, brown rats, and spotted rats ran wildly from the river. They were into everything. Baby chicks were killed and partially eaten. Food for the livestock was scattered. Holes gnawed in the feed sacks left grain pouring onto the ground. Before morning was over, they had found every hole and weak spot in our homes. They ran across the floors and under the furniture. Women forgot their squeamishness and were battering them with brooms and mops. Men got guns and clubs to try to herd them away. Every time one was killed, two more showed up to take its place.

All our metal and glass containers were used to protect our food. Lamps stayed lit all night. We didn’t dare step out of bed in the darkness. There was no place to keep the livestock food away from the rats. Hundreds were killed. We took sticks, clubs, hoes, or any weapons available when we went outside. I was thankful I didn’t have a tiny baby to watch constantly. When we fed the pigs, the rats came in droves to the troughs. They were so greedy, they tumbled into the swill and ate while they swam. The pigs squealed helplessly as food was taken out of their mouths.

The invasion lasted about a month before they went en masse on up the river. We felt a great plague had been called down upon us and was now lifted. Men no longer carried guns every time they went out the door. Sunday afternoons, which had been used as hunting days for the rats, were once again silent and peaceful.

We heard they were Norwegian wharf rats, which had come from a seaport in Louisiana. It was thought that they came up the Mississippi River, The Tennessee River, and eventually into Little River. Almost like one of the plagues in Egypt, they came and went without warning. In spite of the rat invasion, we felt everything was going well on the job.

We hadn’t had any serious injuries, but our luck was about to run out. Hobert Proffitt was sitting beside the skidder, eating his lunch with the crew. Above him, the cable holding a newly cut log snapped. The log swung free and crushed him against the skidder. A sad crew brought him home. Ma went to his home to help the family and to prepare him for burial. They dressed him in his overalls and laid him on the bed. Friends and relatives came to comfort his family and to view his body.

Before the shock of Hobert’s death wore off, we lost another crew member. Pete McCarter had his neck broken by the handle of a jack. Having lost two men in so short a time was a blow to us. Mountain people believe deaths occur by threes. Who would be the third one, we wondered?”

Excerpt from Dorie: Woman of the Mountains pgs 173-174 (1924-1937)


I’m probably drawn to this excerpt from the book because I’m terrified of mice and rats. I cannot fathom an invasion of rats like the one Dorie experienced. On one hand there’s the terror aspect and on the other the weirdness of an army of rats showing up in the mountains far away from cities and towns.

The excerpt is also memorable in its raw up-close look at the dangerous, even deadly, working conditions loggers experienced throughout the book. The bit of folklore in the last line about deaths coming in 3s is still alive and well in my neck of the woods. I’ve witnessed the lore myself, so I guess I’m helping perpetuate the belief for the next generation.



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  • Reply
    April 29, 2018 at 6:50 pm

    I haven’t had the rat experience, but I have experienced a rain of tree frogs, the tiny little ones called peepers. I’ll take them over rats any day. I like to think myself knowledgable in Nature’s ways, but I’ve never understood how even tiny frogs could rain down out of the sky. I thought maybe the wind blww them out of trees, but we were at Douglas Lake, and there just weren’t enough trees around. I’ve also heard other reports of this.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    I’m an X pest controlman, had 6yrs experience with the little devils.. Didn’t know they were so invasive until we were hired to do a rat job on a hog farm, these were mostly roof rats and they climb like squirrels, never seen so many rats in my life.. would have made a good horror film.. My first job out of high school was at Ingalls Shipyard and on that river were giant rats, had one stand on it’s hind legs and watch me eat my sandwich one day at lunch, I took a rock and tried to hit it,,nasty thang..

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    October 21, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Yikes!!! Pretty scary. I like C. Ron Perry’s explanation of where the rats are now, and they just keep multiplying!
    I knew someone in Virginia who got a good deal on a house because it was infested with snakes (my worst nightmare)! I believe they got them all out but not without being bitten multiple times (again with the nightmare)! I would NEVER be able to live in a house with ONE snake I can’t imagine many snakes! Well I sure hope I don’t dream about them tonight.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    When I was about 10 or 11, my
    grandpa’s brother (on my daddy’s
    side) use to come spend the night
    with us. His name was Arthur and
    I liked him cause he’d stay up with me at night, not go to bed with the chickens like most old folks would.
    Arthur was about 78 then and he
    lived over at Hayesville somewhere. About 10 o’clock at
    night I’d get the .22, open up
    the door to the kitchen, and
    pull those big sink bottom doors
    open. We always had flashlights
    around for lizard fishing, so
    we’d place a 6 volt lantern in
    the doorway, adjust the light so
    it’d shine into those sink door
    ways. I’d take a short range .22
    shell, cut most of the lead off,
    and get ready. Soon as a rat with
    those beady eyes would hit the
    light, it would stop and BANG.
    Arthur would say “that’s one that
    won’t be back no more.” Gosh, that was fun!…Ken

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Rats and mice and any other creepy crawly are definitely not in my book for likable critters. I just can’t imagine how people handled this invasion.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Those rats are still around. The food warehouse I worked in has to be really careful not to let them come in the building. A small amount of rat infestation is considered normal by the FDA but if they find anything over that they will shut you down in a heartbeat. Every month or so a former FDA inspector will come through and make sure everything is up to snuff. They had one man full time whose job was to set and check traps (the building is huge, almost a million square feet, like 21 footballs under roof.) They inspect inbound trailers for signs of mice and rats and send them back with their load if they find any. Even inside the freezer where is was -20° a few rats were caught. The freezer rats just grow fuzzier coats like a horse in winter.
    The rats are about the size of a possum and look sorta like them. Now I’m wondering if some of those bumps we feel on the road might be big rats. Maybe we don’t have to keep their population in check with brooms, sticks and guns. Maybe we are controlling them with cars.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 21, 2015 at 11:56 am

    The plaque of rats reminds me of the invasion of stink bugs we had here last year. This year I’ve seen only a few live ones but desiccated corpses of last year’s hordes are still around in their millions. Every crack and crevice is full of them. The panels over the fluorescent lights in the post office are sprinkled with them. There is even one who managed to crawl into the little window where you see how much you are getting at the gas pump. At least the vast majority of them are not alive now and only crunch a little when you sqush them instead of that horrid odor the live ones omit.
    Yes, that is sqush, as opposed to squash or squish.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    October 21, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Rats are nasty animals and I do not understand their purpose but I’m sure they have have one.
    Logging is a dangerous business for sure. My uncle was crushed by a huge tree while logging in the Cohutta Wilderness. He had logged just about his whole life and had been broken up a few time but there was no escaping the big tree that took his life. I also lost a friend who grew up in the logging business. They were loading trees onto the truck when his coworker swung a tree wide and hit my friend. His father was in a wheel chair due to a tree breaking his back. It’s hard and dangerous work but the men who do it seem to love what they do.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 11:47 am

    That was a nice story, a good one
    to get us ready for Halloween. I’ve never been afraid of rats but me and my little dog Whisky really got some big boogers one year here at the shop. (Dope heads live on both sides of my shop, and I think they came from their unclean-ness.) I had huge rats one Fall, we killed
    16 big as squirrels. Finally, I
    got a couple of Cats and they did
    away with the last two…Ken

  • Reply
    C. Ron Perry, Sr.
    October 21, 2015 at 10:58 am

    Tipper, the rats didn’t die, instead they swam North until they came to the Potomac River and then into the halls of the Senate, the House and the White House where they remain until this day, having developed a taste for money and power.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 10:12 am

    I daresay there is not much I hate or fear more than a rat. Every small space in a rural home must be sealed to prevent this unwanted creature from entering. This is an instance where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Years ago I started keeping poison in hide-a-way crawl spaces when I caught a rat competing with my dog for its dog food.
    Two mountain beliefs truly seem to have some basis. A bird getting in the house signals an impending death, and through the years deaths always seemed to come in threes.
    Living in the mountains I learned many sayings and beliefs that seemed to not have a logical basis. An old lady once assured us children that ghosts or spirits will knock three times. And, maybe a knocking of limbs or popping of old walls caused this, but we seemed to experience this a few times. We also experienced “warnings” or unexplained happenings where death would follow. Perhaps it was growing up with these beliefs, but to this day I remain confident there are other senses besides the five senses.
    Intuition may just be that the mind actually subconsciously takes information we already know and comes up with a predictable outcome.
    Oops, Tipper, think I better stay out of the coffee this morning–got me thinkin’ too much.

  • Reply
    Doug Bishop
    October 21, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Find and Listen to Jerry Clower’s Rat Killing.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 21, 2015 at 9:48 am

    An invasion of non-native rats, and especially into the mountains, is truly peculiar. I wonder if Knoxville was affected at the same time.
    I read ‘Dorie’ yesterday. I looked Florence up online and found her obituary from 2004. She lived in Knoxville. Her sons Charles and William are each ministers. She was buried back on Upper Middle Creek.
    By the way, I experienced a ‘rain’ of frogs like she tells about. It was in the late 1950’s. There was no storm, just widely scattered single drops of rain. Intermingled with them were sudden appearances on the ground of frogs about one inch long. My brother and I were chasing around on the unplowed garden catching them. To this day I am convinced they fell from the sky but I’ve found that it doesn’t do to say so.
    I really liked ‘Dorie’. It casts light on an era of transition from so many different angles. It helps me understand the stage of that transition I was growing up in during the 50’s and 60’s. In those days there was still a strong tradition of self-sufficiency and self-reliance but it was well on its way to fading out. My grandma was born in 1902 and lived a somewhat similar life to Dorie. Just as the Introduction says, Dorie’s story is the story of many Appalachian families in the first half of the 20th century.

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    October 21, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Very frightening account from the distant past. I often wonder if people who live along the rivers have a problem with river rats. Also, are there any accounts of invasion by snakes? To me, that would be even worse. Thanks for sharing…. Vann

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 8:57 am

    They say God put everything on earth for a reason, but I haven’t figured out the purpose of a mouse or rat. I detest both! We found lots of big wooden rat traps in the barns and cellar when we moved here. I have yet to see a rat and hope I never do.
    My parents believed in the death comes in threes folklore.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    October 21, 2015 at 8:11 am

    One thing this brings out is the danger involved in logging and the number of widows left to raise families in an economically depressed period. My father was five when his dad was killed felling a Chestnut Log, this left my grandmother with two young sons and three months pregnant with their third. She raised their three sons through the depression by farming and earning $10.00 a month as the Postmistress of the Needmore Post Office. Dad and his next oldest brother both served in WWII sending some of their meager pay home to help her since they were not there to work the farm. These women were tough out of necessity to keep hearth and home together. She lived to be 102 years old and lived by herself until she was 101.

  • Reply
    Greg Whitneu
    October 21, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Hi Tipper, I just found and won this book, (autographed) on Ebay. Looking forward to sitting down with it.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2015 at 7:56 am

    How interesting! Awful but interesting. I,too, have always heard that “bad things” (not just deaths)come in threes.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 21, 2015 at 7:44 am

    Yes, bad things/deaths come in 3’s. I’ve heard that all my life.
    That is a really stark section from the book. It show clearly how fragile our existence can be.
    I don’t like rats either, Tip. Their name and means of movement are interesting. I’ve heard big rats called wharf rats but never stopped to think about their origin. They came on the boats, to the wharf then up the river. I certainly would have hated being on a boat crossing the ocean, with rats! Big rats!

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