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Oregon Trails: Flood of ’64

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GOLD HILL, Ore. — The dry weather facing Southern Oregon and Northern California all year is in stark contrast to a half century ago when our region was suffering some of the worst floods in history. It’s the flooding that set new standards for land use planning in Jackson and Josephine Counties, and the construction of a series of flood control dams on the Rogue and Applegate Rivers.

Looking at the Rogue River at Gold Hill today, you’d never imagine that a half century ago, it was a raging torrent that caused millions of dollars damage and left at least 9 people dead. Every few years, there seems to be a big wet storm about this time of year that often causes flooding. That was the case in 1964 as well.

“It was triggered by what went on in the North Atlantic, and that energy as it came across from Europe, across Asia and it crossed it in 48 hours,” explains retired meteorologist Leon Hunsaker. “And in 60 hours it was approaching the dateline, and it was in a mood where it was intensifying and turning toward the south. To get that much flooding, it had to be a rain-on-snow situation.”

This is the storm by which most current Rogue Valley residents measure other similar events. So far, Medford is on course to have one of its driest years in history. Almost half of the normal rainfall it would receive in a calendar year 49 years ago, it was an entirely different story when almost that much snow and rain came down in just five days.

On December 19th, 1964, nearly three-quarters of an inch of rain fell in Medford. The next day, another inch of steady rain. On the 21st, almost two more inches fell. Then on the 22nd, a whopping 3.2 inches at the Medford Airport. All on top of several inches of heavy, wet snow, from the valley floor all the way up to Crater Lake. There 14 inches of snow fell in the three days before the rain started.

Almost eight inches of rain in the Rogue Valley in five days. At Gold Hill, the river threatened to sweep away the railroad trestle, and with it the Highway 99 bridge into town. That bridge was built after a similar flood in 1927. Former Gold Hill Resident Wilmer Bailey saw it all. The bridge was under construction then.

“And while we was standing there, just…that whole thing underneath just moved out of there so smooth. Down the river it went. It was all together,” recalled Wilmer.

As a result, contractors had to start construction over once the water went down. But the old bridge is still there, tall and strong, having survived several other floods at least as big in the years since.

After the 1964 flood, the snow returned, adding to the misery of many area residents and those trying to get home from the holidays. Bridges were out. Roads were blocked or washed away up and down the coast, and the new natural gas line that was built just the summer before washed out.

Ironically, it had been placed where an earlier 1911 bridge washed out in a flood. The gas line had to be rebuilt, and was attached to the 1927 car bridge where it remains today. Meanwhile, many houses have been built along the river where a half century ago, there was floodwater rooftop deep.

As a result of this flood and storm, combined with the 1955 flood nine years before, planning was begun on the Applegate, Lost Creek and Elk Creek Dams to reduce high water impacts in Southern Oregon. Elk Creek has never been finished, but Lost Creek and Applegate have been providing flood protection and water storage for nearly 30 years now.