HISTORY CORNER: The Great Flood of 1862 devastated much of the West

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  • PUBLIC DOMAIN Lithograph of K Street in Sacramento during the Great Flood of 1861-62.

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    USGS Expected flooded areas in next mega-flood like the one in 1861-62.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Scientists say devastating mega-floods like in 1861-62 are expected to occur in the American West every 100 to 200 years.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Sheet music cover depicting Sacramento flooding of J Street in Sacramento (1861-62).

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    CAMBRIA HISTORY EXCHANGE Flooded areas of California during the Great Flood of 1861-62.

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    CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY Floodwaters in Sacramento along K Street looking west from Fourth Street (1862).

  • PUBLIC DOMAIN Lithograph of K Street in Sacramento during the Great Flood of 1861-62.

  • 1

    USGS Expected flooded areas in next mega-flood like the one in 1861-62.

  • 2

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Scientists say devastating mega-floods like in 1861-62 are expected to occur in the American West every 100 to 200 years.

  • 3

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Sheet music cover depicting Sacramento flooding of J Street in Sacramento (1861-62).

  • 4

    CAMBRIA HISTORY EXCHANGE Flooded areas of California during the Great Flood of 1861-62.

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    CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY Floodwaters in Sacramento along K Street looking west from Fourth Street (1862).

In the days of Noah, “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights,” and the entire world was destroyed.

For 43 days, the heavens opened up from December 1861 to January 1862 and poured rain and snow down from moisture-laden air streams high above, drowning huge areas of the American West from British Columbia to Mexico.

The rain melted the snow and the water roared down the Sierra Nevada Mountains, filling rivers, lakes and valleys.

In California’s fertile Central Valley a huge inland sea — 300 miles long, twenty miles wide and up to thirty feet deep — was created; swamping farmlands and towns, drowning people, some 800,000 horses and cattle, and washing away houses, buildings, fences and bridges.

Even Idaho was hit, with Boise Basin flooded from the swollen Boise River and waterways that flowed into it.

One source said that homesteading rancher Isaac N. Coston “near the present site of Barber … stated that all the land in the river bottoms extending from bluff to bluff and from the present site of Boise westward to the canyon near the present site of Caldwell was completely under water on the 4th of July that year.” In the fall of 1862, an emigrant party rested their animals and camped for three weeks on Dry Creek against the hills north of present Eagle.

Enough driftwood piled up to provide locals with free firewood for years.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley was drowned by the flood. Some communities ceased to exist. An Oregon Historical Quarterly article said, “…a morning dawned when there was not a sign of civilization left to tell where Champoeg had stood.” It’s now a ghost town.

Near Oregon City, floodwaters were 55 feet above base level and rushing at 590,000 cubic feet per second.

A 2013 “Scientific American” report by U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Michael D. Dettingeris and paleo-climatologist B. Lynn Ingram from the University of California, Berkeley stated that “Downtown Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown water filled with debris from countless mudslides on the region’s steep slopes. California’s legislature, unable to function, moved to San Francisco until Sacramento dried out — six months later.”

Newly elected California Gov. Leland Stanford had to row a boat from the governor’s mansion and back from the state Capitol for his own inauguration. The mansion was flooded up to the second floor.

Below Mt. Diablo 50 miles east of San Francisco, residents abandoned their homes in the middle of the night. Some made it to safety, while others drowned.

A big landslide killed seven at the town of Volcano in the Sierra foothills.

Similar stories abounded in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and northern Mexico.

Idaho got off easy.

But scientists say it could all happen again.

“Geologic evidence shows that truly massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California about every 200 years,” according to Dettingeris and Ingram. “It has now been 150 years since that calamity, so it appears that California may be due for another episode soon.”

Sean Kane wrote in Business Insider that “The storm was caused by an atmospheric river, a large concentration of water vapor that can cause devastating storms.

“A famous example is the Pineapple Express, which, propelled by the jet stream, carries vapor from the waters near Hawaii all the way to the American Pacific coast,” he wrote.

Kane said those atmospheric storms can carry “more than 10 times the average amount water that passes through the mouth of Mississippi River.” Another report says 20 times.

In a letter dated Jan. 31, 1861, botanist William Henry Brewer wrote, “Thousands of farms are entirely under water — cattle starving and drowning. All the roads in the middle of the state are impassable; so all mails are cut off. The telegraph also does not work clear through.

“In the Sacramento Valley for some distance the tops of the poles are under water.

“The entire valley was a lake extending from the mountains on one side to the coast range hills on the other. Steamers ran back over the ranches fourteen miles from the river, carrying stock, etc. to the hills.”

With 16 feet of water over the streets, steamships and smaller boats also sailed through Old Sacramento and parts of downtown, rescuing people from their homes.

It’s estimated that as much as a quarter of California’s taxable property was destroyed — bankrupting the state.

“Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone,” Brewer wrote. “America has never before seen such desolation by flood as this has been, and seldom has the Old World seen the like.”

California’s Salton Sea didn’t exist at the time, but the 1862 Flood created a lake there more than five times the size of the one today.

Dr. Lucy Jones, chief scientist of USGS’s Multi-Hazards Project, which created a study model called the ARkStorm Scenario that simulates what would happen if and when the next Big Flood occurs — a disaster they say would cost California $1 trillion.

The study was conducted by 117 scientists, engineers, lifeline operators, emergency planners, and members from private and public sectors.

They attribute $300 billion to flooding, $600 billion in business interruptions, and $100 billion in landslides and wind damage.

A quarter of California’s homes would be impacted.

Other states will be hit too — but not as badly as California.

Cause of this weather nightmare is an “atmospheric river” flowing about a mile above the surface.

“An atmospheric river is a massive ribbon of water vapor that flows off the Pacific Ocean and combines with strong, low-altitude winds,” according to an article by Rachel Becker in The Verge — based on information from Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the University of California, San Diego.

“They stretch about 250 to 375 miles across, but can reach from 1,000 to more than 2,000 miles in length,” Becker says. “When it hits the coastal mountains, the stream of warm, wet air is forced upward, where it cools and condenses into massive rain clouds.”

The researchers predict that in California, Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, San Francisco Bay area and other coastal communities will be clobbered by hurricane-force winds from 60 to 125 miles per hour.

Though California may not be in mega-flood condition yet, there are signs that something big could be on its way. Other states in the West that were hit in the 1862 flood are also in danger.

The expected damage will be worse today because the growth of infrastructure and population since 1862 puts more at risk, and the ARkStorm team questions whether existing federal, state and local disaster planning agencies can handle it.

The Native Americans knew the Big Flood was coming.

A story in the Nevada City Democrat on Jan. 11, 1862, said, “We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come.”

United States Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt called the scenario “hypothetical but very plausible.” Her colleague Lucy Jones agrees. “This has to happen at some point,” she says. “How prepared are we? That’s essentially unanswerable. No flood control system can be or should be built to withstand every possible storm.”

Californians are already worried about “The Big One” earthquake along the San Andreas Fault — expected to be 8 magnitude or higher on the Richter Scale, but should be more worried about a far more devastating mega-flood.

The 1906 earthquake that wrecked San Francisco and took 3,000 lives was 7.8 magnitude, by comparison. Mark Jackson of the National Weather Service says the expected “Big One” quake would be more localized — but still hugely devastating.

Far worse would be ARkStorm, which he said, “is not just what happens in your backyard. It would have a domino effect all the way through.”

No reports predict that the next big flood would impact Idaho and its neighbors — instead predicting California as Ground Zero.

Don’t tell friends and family in California.

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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After the Deluge…

“The death and destruction of this flood caused such trauma that the city of Sacramento embarked on a long-term project of raising the downtown district by 10 to 15 feet in the seven years after the flood. Governor Stanford also raised his mansion from two to three stories, leaving empty the ground floor, to avoid damage from any future flooding events.”

— Scientific American

Geologic Survey study…

“The ARkStorm storm is patterned after the 1861-62 historical events but uses modern modeling methods and data from large storms in 1969 and 1986. The ARkStorm draws heat and moisture from the tropical Pacific, forming a series of Atmospheric Rivers (ARs) that approach the ferocity of hurricanes and then slam into the U.S. West Coast over several weeks. Atmospheric Rivers are relatively narrow regions in the atmosphere that are responsible for most of the horizontal transport of water vapor outside of the tropics.

“Using sophisticated weather models and expert analysis, precipitation, snow lines, wind, and pressure data, the modelers characterize the resulting floods, landslides, and coastal erosion and inundation that translate into infrastructural, environmental, agricultural, social, and economic impacts. Consideration was given to catastrophic disruptions to water supplies resulting from impacts on groundwater pumping, seawater intrusion, water supply degradation, and land subsidence.”

— USGS

In Utah…

The early southwestern Utah settlements were nearly destroyed by flooding of the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers caused by the Great Flood. Survivors of Fort Clara established the modern town of Santa Clara — near St. George — a mile east of the old fort on the Santa Clara River. Springdale, Rockville and Kanarraville were founded in 1862 by settlers flooded out of nearby communities. The flood also washed away most of the adobe walls at Fort Harmony and the survivors established New Harmony.

Oregon flooded…

“Tuesday evening a gloom settled on a scene such as probably never was witnessed in our Valley before. The ceaseless roar of the stream made a fearful elemental music widely different from the ordinary monotone of the Falls; while the darkness was only made more visible by the glare of torches and hurrying lights, which with the shouts of people from the windows of houses surrounded by the water, all conspired to render the hour one of intense and painful excitement.”

— Oregon City Argus, Dec. 14, 1861

The next Big Flood…

“A comparable episode today would be infinitely more devastating. The Central Valley is now home to more than 6 million people…Scientists who recently modeled a similarly relentless storm that lasted only 23 days concluded it would cause $400 billion in property damage and agricultural losses. Thousands of people could die unless preparations and evacuations worked very well.”

— Michael D. Dettinger and B. Lynn Ingram, ARkStorm scientists

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