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Oregon Trials: Famous Floods

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ASHLAND, Ore. – The heavy rains of the past several weeks has many people flashing back to other wet seasons when the rivers rose and floods caused extensive damage to Southern Oregon and Northern California and while this wet weather pattern is not normal, it’s nothing compared to past storms.

For most Southern Oregon residents, their most recent recollection of a major flood event was the New Year’s Flood of 1997. The heaviest damage there seemed to be along the Siskiyou’s, around Ashland and in Siskiyou County. The recent storm that dumped almost a year’s worth of rain in Jackson and Josephine County caused creeks and rivers to rise, but little serious damage was done. Every few years there seems to be a big wet storm about this time of year. And it usually is caused by heavy rain on deep snow.

Leon Hunsaker made a name for himself by forecasting the storm that produced the legendary 1964 floods all around Oregon and much of northern California. It’s the storm by which most current Rogue Valley residents measure other similar events.

“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,” Hunsaker explained, “and in 60 hours it was approaching the dateline. 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.”

It was something very similar that happened in 1955, which many consider the second worse flood event in our region of the 20th century. Here savage rapids dam is producing barely a ripple in the rogue river. But for real old-timers, the flood of 1927, also a rain on snow event, caused a lot of problems as well. This old copco newsreel footage shows riverside avenue in medford flooded and bear creek is a raging torrent. Jacksonville highway, west of medford also showed some big washouts by flooding jackson creek.

In 1891, another series of warm rains on top of heavy valley snow led to the rogue river coming to the edge of Gold Hill and flooding into what is now the white city area. The Ashland Tidings reported that at gold hill “the town is full of miners and travelers weather bound. Rogue river is falling today. Two bents of the railroad trestle and eastern approach to the county bridge here have been carried away.

A San Francisco paper reported that “a phenomenal rainstorm has prevailed in southern Oregon since last Friday, which, in connection with the melting snows in the mountains, has caused the greatest flood known since the country was settled.”

But by most accounts it was a series of storms in December and January of 1861 that may take the record. Contemporary newspaper accounts tell of Sacramento being under ten feet of water. Bridges and levees broken every where. Thousands of heads of cattle washed away. In central California, more than a hundred Chinese miners swept away and lost. A local diary lists days of rain in the days leading up to Christmas 1861.

The Klamath River reportedly rising 140 feet! The Southern Oregon Gazette of Jacksonville sums it up when it said, “this is certainly the most extraordinary winter ever experienced in this region, or we believe, upon the coast. We have had more rain, deeper floods, harder times, and greater distress, that ever before. We are now having about the coldest weather.” They then report temperatures up to 20 degrees below zero and snow.

“I saw a number published in the local paper in the Courier a few years ago. And as I recall, it was an estimate of somewhere between 170,000 and 175,000 cubic feet per second in Grants Pass and the December of 1964, as I recall, was around the 152,000 mark. So we’re talking about something that was about close to 15% larger than December 1964,” Hunsaker.

The high water last week at Grants Pass was 42,000 cubic feet per second flow or about one fourth the estimated size of the 1861 flood, there’s not doubt about it. The wind, the rain and the high water of the past couple weeks is probably something to write home about. But it’s nothing like some of the storms and the high water that really plagued the pioneers and the early settlers 100 or 150 years ago! But thanks to flood control dams like Applegate and Lost Creek, maybe those days are now over.