The '64 flood

Forty years ago this week, a 100-year flood struck the Rogue Valley, causing $16 million worth of damage and stranding nearly 1,000 people. Shady Cove, pictured, took the brunt of the hit. Southern Oregon Historical Society photos

Raging waters of Dec. 22, 1964, reshaped the landscape, tested the residents of Southern Oregon


Shady Cove logger Bill Littlefield figured it was time to skedaddle to high ground when floodwaters started shoving his D-8 Caterpillar around.

After all, the bulldozer the catskinner had been using to haul Shady Cove residents to safety was no pushover, weighing in at roughly 50,000 pounds.

And darkness was settling on Dec. 22, 1964, when the Rogue River roared over its banks.

The last time I went through there the water was moving the cat sideways, he said. I'm guessing the water was three or four feet high and real swift. We got that big surge right after it got dark.
— There we were on pavement (Highway 62), sliding sideways in the current, he added. I probably had eight to 10 people on that cat.

The 60-year resident of the river community nosed the big cat onto dry land and parked it for the night.

A portion of the bridge over the Rogue at Shady Cove washed away at about 8 p.m. Logs from a local mill rushed past, en route to the ocean. The power was already out, leaving the town in the dark.

What experts would call a 100-year flood had arrived.

Littlefield, now 69 and still working in the woods, had never seen the like.

We had hard rain for, gosh, I don't know how many days, he said. That river kept coming up and coming up. Some people lost everything.

Fellow Shady Cove resident Virginia Rasmussen, 78, can attest to that: She and her late husband, Charles Mathis, and their seven children lost their home near Trail to the river earlier that day.

When the river started coming up, we got out with just the clothes on our back, she said. We put all our Christmas stuff upstairs and left.

The two-story house along Meadow Lane had survived the 1955 flood, she said.

But logs from a holding pond in Prospect floated down, lodged in the gorge to dam up the water, then broke loose, she said.

That's what tore out everything, she said.

The flood took the Mathises' house, barn, garage, even many of the trees. Like most residents, they didn't have flood insurance.

But good Samaritans in a boat were able to reach the house to rescue the family pet, a three-legged pooch named King.

Someone told me later they saw our house float down under the Shady Cove bridge, she said. They said it went around the corner, hit a rock pile down there and just blew up.

The last time she saw the family freezer, filled with holiday larder, it was floating downriver.

But the family did find their sofa a few miles downstream. It was sitting on a pile of logs about 30 feet above the river, she said.

All that was missing was one cushion, she said. It looked like someone had just set it there.

Unfortunately, it was ruined by the floodwater, she said.

But we managed to survive, she said. It was just material things. Nobody got hurt.

Farther downstream, Jean Estremado Beck, 66, watched flotsam pass her home near where Sardine Creek Road intersects with Highway 99.

I remember seeing rooftops bobbing down the river, she said. You could hear the roar from the river that night.

Believe me, I had two little kids and I had the suitcases packed, she added. I was ready to go across the field and up the mountain if the river got up to our house.

It didn't, but it nearly claimed one man at the intersection earlier that day. Local resident Henry Paulson was driving his Willys jeep when he drove off Highway 99 into the flooded railroad ditch.

Fortunately, Beck's husband, Bert, her brother Jim Estremado and the late Ralph Slover formed a human chain to pull him out of the swamped jeep.

It wasn't any big bravery thing, recalled Jim Estremado, 64. We joined hands and got him. He was only in six or eight feet of water.

Paulson was heading home from Gold Hill when the highway was covered with about a foot of water, Estremado said.

The problem was, he couldn't see where the highway was, Estremado said. He knew the river was to his left and he sure didn't want to go there. He kept crowding to the right until he went off into the ditch. That jeep was turning sideways when we got to him.

Before the river was through, it had climbed four feet up the walls of the small Estremado house normally located about 250 feet from the river's edge. Floodwaters stood four feet deep in the basement of the Estremado ranch house some 600 feet up from the river.

Down in the city of Rogue River, barber Cliff Bigham knew the high water was approaching his River View Barber Shop on the south side of the Rogue River bridge.

I moved everything out, wrapped the shop up in (plastic) seven feet high and sandbagged it, he said. It was what probably saved my windows but it sure didn't keep the water out.

He estimates 7&

189; feet of water filled his shop.

But he says he was fortunate: a log went through the front of the restaurant next door and out a window.

We got about four inches of water in our house, which is about a quarter of a mile from the shop, he said. But an old two-story house across from where we lived broke loose, hit the bridge and came out the other side as flat boards.

Three weeks after the flood, Bigham, who had no flood insurance, reopened the shop he continues to operate today.

Up in the Bear Creek Valley, Ashland resident Walt Hoffbuhr, manager of the Talent Irrigation District during the flood, worked around the clock that day and night.

Our biggest concern was that Emigrant Lake would fill, said Hoffbuhr, now 80. Both Emigrant and Bear creeks were already real high.

The district rode out the storm without major damage, he said, noting the district was able to release what it needed after the rains slacked off.

But I remember being up all night, Hoffbuhr said.

Even without waters from Emigrant Lake, Bear Creek overflowed its banks, flooding portions of Talent and Medford before merging with the mighty Rogue.

Grants Pass resident Don King, 66, a retired forest biologist from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, recalls gazing in awe after the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois rivers retreated to their beds.

He recalls seeing houses torn apart, roads removed without a trace, slices cut out of hillsides.

People don't understand the power of water, King said. But pick up a five-gallon bucket filled with water. It's heavy. Think of the millions of gallons coming down the river.

The impact of that much weight will tear anything apart, he added. It doesn't matter if it's the side of mountain, a home or a bridge. Everything will give way.

King, who was born in Grants Pass and reared in the Illinois Valley, shakes his head at the thought of homes now built on sites that were submerged during the 1964 flood.

The old-timers understood that you didn't build down on the flats near the water, he said. They built up on the hill. But a lot of new people have moved in. And people are attracted to water.

Although flood-control dams have been built in the main stem of the Rogue and Applegate rivers since the 1964 flood, he questions how much good they will be come a 100-year flood.

No dam will stop that kind of thing, he said. When they fill up they have to release that water.

If you didn't see it, it's hard to imagine that it really happened, he added. I guess we need those wake-up calls periodically to make us realize the power of water.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at


COUPON OF THE WEEK