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1. The Flood of 1861-1862

The first flood of record occurred in December 1861 and January 1862. Torrential rains hammered the Humboldt Coast in late December. Devastating floods ensued. At high tide, the breakers forced themselves over "drift-wood, bulk heads, and break water, into the streets of Crescent City." Huge logs were carried onto the sidewalks, crashing into Front street buildings, breaking windows and doors, and wreaking havoc. On the beach, debris was piled to great heights. Forest giants were swept in by the flood tide. From one end of the beach to the other, huge redwood, spruce, and fir were piled one upon another. [1]

But the losses at Crescent City were slight when compared with the loss suffered on the Klamath. Fort Ter-Waw and the Wau-Kell were engulfed by swirling flood waters, and most of the buildings swept away or wrecked. Damage was so great that the post and agency were abandoned. [2]

Many conservationists argued, following the disastrous floods of 1955 and 1964, that heavy logging on the watersheds was the cause of the great amount of redwood and other timber being uprooted and swept downstream into the ocean by flooding rivers. Much of this timber and debris was deposited by the breakers along the beaches. If these individuals had studied the flood of 1861-1862, which occurred before there was any significant logging on Klamath and Smith rivers, they would have found that floodwaters have always been an enemy of redwoods.

William H. Brewer, a professor of Agriculture in the Sheffield Scientific School, visited the area in the autumn of 1863, almost two years after the floods. He found that the swirling waters had brought down a tremendous quantity of wood, much of which was cast up onto the beaches between Crescent City and the Klamath. He reported that it looked to him as if there were enough timber along the ten miles of the shore "to make a million cords of wood. It is," he wrote, "thrown up in great piles, often a mile long, and the size of some of these logs is tremendous." He had measured at least 20. Although they were worn by water and their bark was gone, it was not uncommon to find logs 150 feet long and four feet in diameter at the small end, without the bark. [3]

According to other contemporary accounts, the beach at Crescent City for eight miles was covered to a width of 200 yards and a depth of from three to eight feet with debris. One large officers' tent from Fort Ter-Waw had been picked up. Winter squashes "in good order" were found. Goods of all sorts, but badly damaged, were often seen. There was enough timber on the beach to supply the California market for years. [4]

2. The Flood of 1881

The next major flood on the Humboldt Coast occurred in January 1881. Morgan G. Tucker reported that in January heavy rains caused the Klamath to rise to an unprecedented height, "sweeping everything within its reach." Enormous trees, which had been up rooted from the banks, "came crashing down the river, some of which were deposited on the farms, while others found their way to the ocean." Houses were swept away, and livestock drowned. Morgan, who had been living on the Klamath during the last flood, assured the editor of the Del Norte Record that the river was "higher than in '61 and '62" [5]

3. The Flood of 1890

Heavy rains in late January 1890 caused the Klamath to spill over its banks. Water from the river inundated the Hunter Creek bottom to a depth of ten feet in places. South of the Klamath, Jim Regan's and W. Norris' ranches, located on the flats, had suffered heavy damage. At Martins Ferry, the Klamath rose 100 feet, the highest the oldest resident could recall, and carried away the suspension bridge. The river at Orleans Bar was higher than it had been in January 1862, while at Turwar it crested three feet higher than 28 years before. [6]

4. The Flood of 1955

There was high water on the Klamath several times during the next 65 years, but not until December 1955 did the Humboldt Coast again feel the full fury of the elements. Rains which pounded the area relentlessly during the third week of December sent the Klamath surging upward. The low ground at the mouth of the river was flooded, and more than one thousand persons driven from their homes. Traffic over U.S. 101 south to Eureka was stopped by the high water, as the south approach to the Douglas Bridge was washed away, and earth slides loosened by the rain blocked the Redwood Highway. Damage ran into the millions of dollars in Del Norte County.

The communities of Klamath, Klamath Glen, and Orick were evacuated and suffered fearful damage. Klamath was inundated. On the morning of the 22d, only the second stories and roofs protruded above the churning, muddy water. A reporter from the Triplicate, who flew over the area, observed that it was

a horrible, sickening sight, as the highest flood waters in the history of the great Klamath river smashed and swept all before its wild, muddy flow.

Debris was in sight everywhere. Logs, trees, sides of houses, propane tanks, in fact almost everything, was observed being carried down the river. [7]

South of Crescent City more than 300 refugees from the flood, most of whom had fled the Klamath Glen area on the 21st, were huddled at the Arrow Mill. Another 300 had been evacuated south of the Klamath and taken to the old radar site, when high water blocked their movement up U.S. 101 to Crescent City. An equal number had fled to the safety afforded by the mill of Simpson Redwood Co., at the Glen. About 100 were quartered at MacMillen's Ranch, just north of Klamath, while scores of tourists had remained in their cars which had been stalled by mud slides. [8]

The rains providentially ceased on the 21st, and the Klamath crested the next afternoon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Christmas Eve proclaimed the flood-ravaged region in the Pacific northwest a "major disaster area." He called on all Federal agencies "to grant every aid as rapidly as possible." [9]

The local people, assisted by the Red Cross and Federal and State authorities, were able to cope with the situation. Within a short period, the physical damage to roads and buildings wrought by this calamity, the worse that had ever visited Del Norte County, had been repaired. The thousands of redwood and other trees uprooted and swept downstream by the flood could not be replaced, neither could the top soil that had been washed away.

5. The Flood of 1964

Residents of the Humboldt Coast who believed that it would be impossible to top the flood of 1955 had only nine years to wait. During the Christmas season of 1964, the Pacific northwest was sent reeling under the "greatest natural disaster" it had ever experienced. Torrential rains, along with a warm spell that caused the snow in the Siskiyous to melt rapidly, sent the Klamath and Smith rivers surging. The former crested much higher than in 1955, though it was impossible to establish an "official" high-water mark, as the flood gauges were swept away. Rivermen estimated that the flood crest was eight feet higher at Klamath than it had been nine years before.

Hundreds of people in Del Norte were driven from their homes, as the Klamath and Smith rivers flooded the flats and lowlands. Even the Gasquet area, which had heretofore escaped damage, suffered. Emergency relief facilities were set up at the Del Norte Fairgrounds by the local Red Cross for the reception and care of victims of the flood. Granges and local residents opened their doors to many of the evacuees. The Seventh Day Adventist School was employed as a clearing house for clothing donations. [10]

Much of the damage was caused by the debris (trees and wreckage) swept downstream by flood waters. Once again, as in 1862, the Crescent City beaches were obstructed by huge log jams. Tons of mud and sand (gook) were dumped into homes and over roads, making rescue efforts difficult. Bulldozers were used to reopen the road into Klamath Glen, where several hundred were marooned. Most of this equipment was manned by personnel from Simpson Timber Co. That firm's Klamath mill served as a rallying point for persons fleeing the surging water. Many trailers were pulled onto high ground at the mill, but for others rescue came too late and they were swept out into the Pacific. [11]

Del Norte boat owners risked their lives on the Klamath and Smith to save persons stranded in and on their homes. Jet boats were employed in the most dangerous areas, "but the heavy flow of logs and other materials made rescues hazardous."

For a number of hours it was feared that Del Norte would be isolated by the flood. U.S. 199 to Grants Pass, Oregon, was closed when several bridges across Smith River were washed out. The Douglas Bridge, across the Klamath, was carried away. Two spans at the south end of the structure were crumbled, a third span was left wobbly, and the north approach washed away. The golden bears, however, held firm and stood guard over the ruined bridge. Huge slabs of highway and street pavement were visible to airmen, protruding "here and there above the water." The two service stations that had formerly stood on either side of U.S. 101 at the north turn into flood-ravaged Klamath were gone.

Fears were voiced at one time that the bridge carrying the Redwood Highway across the Chetco, near Brookings, Oregon, was doomed. It was saved, however, and this remained the only route into Crescent City. [12]

President Lyndon B. Johnson, on Christmas Eve, declared the flood-stricken region a disaster area. By this time the rivers had crested. A survey of the Red Cross disclosed that in Del Norte County there were 3,000 homeless and that about 850 homes had been destroyed. Damage was estimated at $40,000,000. [13]

The lumber industry in Del Norte and Humboldt counties had been hard hit by the flood. A survey of the 15 mills in Del Norte County, which in 1964 had accounted for 90 percent of the business, was undertaken in mid-January. It was found that four of the mills were shut down, while three others were operating with a skeleton force. Of the 2,300 employees in these mills, 433 had been laid off.

Mill operators told a reporter for the Triplicate that although U.S. 101 north was open, the extra cost of trucking to the railroad at Coos Bay would cause additional lay-offs. [14]

As in every flood of which we have record since 1861-1862, thousands of redwood had been uprooted. On hillsides that had been denuded of timber in the years following World War II, the rains had caused frightful erosions. The wholesale removal of the ground cover by man had undoubtedly contributed to making the flood of December 1964 the worst on record.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004