Winter in Southern Oregon can be full of surprises, and sometimes the surprise is a devastating flood.

Winter in Southern Oregon can be full of surprises, and sometimes the surprise is a devastating flood.

Many people think the deluge of 1964-65 was Southern Oregon's worst recorded flood — and in terms of property loss, it exceeds anything ever seen before.

But for sheer size — and the very definition of a 100-year flood — nothing topped the event of 1861-62.

In 1861, there hadn't been significant rainfall for nearly three years, but in early November, Mother Nature decided to change her course. A cold, continuous rain began to fall, bringing with it an unusually heavy snowpack in the mountains.

"Week in and week out," said one pioneer, "from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, there is nothing but rain, rain, rain."

At the end of the month, the air suddenly turned humid and the warm rain and melting snow surged into creeks and rivers.

Early in December, all the bridges on Butte Creek washed out, the bridge at Rogue River disappeared, ferries floated away and the fields were all flooded.

When the rains stopped, residents thought the worst was over. Then, three days of an unrelenting downpour began pushing already swollen streams over their banks. The Rogue Valley became an inland sea dotted with countless islands and lakes. What would later become Medford was under water, its shoreline at today's Foothill Road near the base of Roxy Ann.

The southern portion of Jacksonville was submerged under Jackson Creek. The Agate Desert rippled with whitecaps and, in the Applegate, mining sluice boxes and flumes shattered into bobbing toothpicks trapped in a swirling mass of trees, houses and drowning animals.

The bridge at Gold Hill that had stood against the first storm could stand no more, and as it fell it carried away all hope of communication with anyone to the north.

Water rushing down Neil Canyon, southeast of Ashland, pushed uprooted trees into a dam, formed a temporary lake, and then broke loose with a velocity that wiped out everything in its path.

The Rogue River changed course, tearing new channels through fertile farms or covering topsoil in layers of gravel and sand.

January brought cold temperatures and 8 inches of snow. At the end of the month, furious rainstorms washed it all into another raging flood.

For two months, it was rain, sleet or snow, while temperatures hung in single digits.

"Cattle are dying by the hundreds," said the newspaper. "The storm-god seems to have it all his own way."

No one kept track of the lives lost or the value of property washed away in 1861, but once it was over, estimates said at least half the cattle and a third of all horses, mules and hogs were gone.

How big was the 1861 flood? Modern climatologists believe it flowed with 10 times more water than that of the 1964 flood.

That's a lot of water and one whopper of a wet surprise.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at