CANYONVILLE, Ore. — As dry as this winter has been, it may be hard to imagine that four decades ago, drenching rains were causing floods and landslides that blocked highways and cut communications in our area. It also brought tragedy, and a massive rescue operation in southern Douglas County.
You wouldn’t know it today looking at Canyon Creek that this time of the year in 1974 this was a raging river, washing out roads and communications lines. It was a blow out for a long distance phone line that drew dozens of Pacific Northwest Bell and Sage pipeline workers on January 16th, 1974 to repair the line.
After several days of heavy rain, a temporary cable was in place when the mountain behind a small concrete block repeater hut was hit by a wall of mud, rock and trees from above. 20 years ago, NewsWatch12 talked to Jim Ogburn who was pulled out of the hut when it all happened.
“It was a disaster,” recalled slide witness Jim Ogborn. “I mean it was nothing but mud, and broken trees and rocks, and vehicles setting out in there. And all forms of upside down, standing on end.”
The slide gave little warning that it was coming. Apparently, some trees cracking up in the darkness was the only hint of trouble, and then: disaster. One man was thrown onto the freeway, but nine others were buried or swept down the swollen creek. Former Jackson County Commissioner Tam Moore was a local reporter who rushed to the scene to get the story.
“It was a jumble of shattered trees and mud. But it was just awesome as you look at the hillside now and you see the memorial there and the trees have grown back up. You can’t really comprehend what the mess was that night,” said Moore.
Digging in the mud and scouring the creek and rivers downstream. One victim was found in the south Umpqua River more than 8 miles away. Ray Bell of Myrtle Creek has never been found. Dick Straus of Medford learned that his brother-in-law, Bill Centers, was among the missing. He was found a couple days after the slide.
“Everything was pretty somber around there for a couple months. It affected a lot of people. There’s a couple three people from Roseburg, and two or three from here. Had one guy from Portland,” said former Bell employee Dick Straus.
Center’s daughter, Jeanne Connors, recalls the family hoping that her dad might still be alive, somewhere in all that debris.
“But when they actually were digging down through the slide, they realized the whole hut had one into the creek, you know, right from the base of it, and so they knew that’s where he probably was,” Jeanne recalls. “But they did find him under rocks, after they started digging down deep enough. He actually didn’t go down the river. But he was one of the last ones they found, on Sunday after the slide.”
A story in the news-review tells the story of one of the lucky survivors, whose pause for a cup of coffee probably saved his life.
Ken Kelly said: “I was on the far end of the cable break and headed for the hut when the Medford superintendent said, ‘Are outgoing to run off with the coffee? Wait and pour me a cup.’ I waited, and that’s what kept me from being in the slide! As I poured the coffee, I saw our temporary cable snap and knew what had happened. I ran around the rocky point and the Medford manager stumbled out of the mud and said, ‘Good God, Kelly, get some help!’ Then came another slide and covered up everything we had for landmarks. The entire canyon was full of mud and it was still coming from the top of the mountain. We tried to find someone in the vehicles but had to give up as the mud kept coming down.”
After a week, exhausted search teams called of the search for the last missing worker. Today, a memorial at the slide honors him and the others who died that dark, rainy night in 1974.
In the nearly 40 years since the Canyonville slide took the lives of 9 workers, this hillside has pretty much healed itself, overgrown with trees. But for those who had family and friends who died here, it may take longer than 40 years. Friends of the victims and family members continue to place flowers at the memorial where the slide occurred. It can be seen along the east side of northbound I-5, about a mile south of Canyonville.