Caught in the eye of the storm

Fifty years ago, the Columbus Day storm left a vivid memory for Southern Oregonians.

"I can't believe that we all lived through a piece of history," wrote an anonymous Medford resident. "I was 8 years old, and I remember watching the wind and rain blowing across the road and I remember looking out of my bedroom window and watching my dad out in the pasture trying to make sure the corral gates were closed, which didn't do a lot of good."

Although it had been an unusual month, with more than 6 inches of rain falling in just 11 days, it was a near-normal autumn weather forecast for Friday, Oct. 12, 1962: "Cloudy with rain and a gusty southerly wind in the afternoon."

Jackson County

was lucky

Fifty years ago, the Columbus Day windstorm wreaked havoc on the Pacific Northwest from Northern California up into Washington.

In Southern Oregon, trees and telephone poles fell, cars were smashed, roads were blocked and power was out, but life returned to normal within a few days.

Portland, however, had wind gusts up to 116 mph, true hurricane strength. In all, 38 people were killed in Oregon and property damage reached $800,000 in today's money.

"The Rogue Valley was exceedingly lucky," wrote Mail Tribune Editor Eric Allen. "There was some damage, of course, and considerable excitement, and quite a number of people without electricity for hours on end. The fruit orchards suffered most heavily.

"But these events pale to insignificance in comparison to what happened in the Willamette Valley, the Portland area and along the coast."

The great Columbus Day storm might be over, but as Allen said, for thousands of people, "the memory will remain a vivid one."

— Bill Miller

"Gusty" was a meteorological understatement. What Jackson County got that afternoon was the closest thing to a hurricane that anyone in Southern Oregon had ever seen.

At the Medford airport, the barometric pressure suddenly dropped to one of the lowest levels ever recorded in the area, and at 2:40 p.m. the wind gusts peaked at 58 miles per hour.

Meteorologist called it a remnant of a Pacific typhoon, but for local residents it was an unwelcome and frightening ordeal.

A few days earlier, Charleen Brown and her husband, Warren, had just celebrated their second wedding anniversary.

"I was in college at the time, at SOU," Charleen said, "and I remember I was between classes at lunchtime, eating in the Britt Hall. That's when I first noticed it.

"I had some time between classes and was sitting in the lounge area, looking out the window, and realized that the wind was blowing pretty hard. All of a sudden, a roof from a shed went flying across the campus. It looked bad."

Because Charleen lived in Butte Falls, surrounded by a lot of timber, and she was 45 miles from home, she decided she needed to get home right away.

"By the time I reached Medford, it was like I was in what I imagined the eye of a hurricane to be. It was clear and sunny, but dark clouds were all around the perimeter of the valley. I just wanted to get home before the other side caught up with me."

Warren was out in the woods working two choker setters and about ready to hook up a turn of logs.

"The wind suddenly picked up and started blowing hard," he said. "We could see and hear trees falling all around us. We knew it was time to head for the landing."

With the entire crew assembled safely at the landing, they decided it was just too dangerous to stay.

"We got into our crummy and got the hell out of there! We all made it home safely, and the next day we found quite a few trees down, but no damage to any equipment."

The crummy, for those who don't know, is the vehicle that hauls loggers to the work site. It was often dented, pretty well beat up, and consequently it looked kind of "crummy" to a logger's eye.

"I made it home without incident," Charleen said, "and I don't remember there being a back side to the storm. "… I've lived in the timber all of my life and I've never experienced a wind like that."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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