When local residents recall major floods that have hit Southern Oregon over the past half-century, they tell tales of tragedies, certainly — but also of triumphs born from people helping each other in their darkest hour.
The most notable floods here in modern history occurred in 1964, 1974 and 1997.
The Christmas flood of 1964 was considered a 100-year flood, meaning a 1 percent chance of happening any given year, but some call it a 1,000-year flood. It followed the typical pattern — a big freeze, then a big snow, then a Pineapple Express storm with a heavy, warm rain. It took 17 lives in Oregon, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, destroyed all or part of 20 towns and went on for three weeks.
Ray Rippey remembers, “In 1964, I stood near the Shady Cove bridge shortly after a logjam took it down. They built a single-lane wooden bridge just downstream. I remember how spooky it was when we would drive over it. My grandmother's neighbor had built his house on a little hill. His house had become an island, and he used his riverboat to get to it. It was exciting and the scariest thing I ever saw. We were standing literally a few feet from the edge. … Then all of a sudden a house came down the river. Hundreds of logs and debris would float by. I may have been 9, but it was seared into my memory forever. I will always have the utmost respect for the Mighty Rogue.”
Commenting on a Facebook flood thread, Patrick Clafin, who lived through the ’64, ’74 and ’97 floods, notes, “My dad took the family to Dodge Bridge (Eagle Point) after the flood of ’64 took it out. We saw a house going down the Rogue. In ’74, I was working with the Talent Rural Fire Department. I drove a big tanker with 8,000 gallons of water. We’d pump water into the Ashland water system, because they were afraid it would collapse with no water in it after they lost the reservoir. It was pretty crazy. We drove 24 hours a day. The owner of the Log Cabin Tavern on the Ashland Plaza ran a rope across the street and tied it to a lamp post. He said, 'We never close,' and offered nickel beer. In ’97, the family was caught in Ashland, so we hit the freeway and were the last car they let into Talent.”
“In ’74, I lived across the street from Lithia Park," says Brook Hodapp, founder of Nimbus, an art and clothing store on the Plaza, "and the creek was a big, smooth river that got raging as it hit the confines of the Plaza. For three nights, I lay in bed and could hear giant boulders being rolled down this river. It was amazing to me, the power it had. Friends on Tolman Creek had a big, 24-inch tree going through their living room, and it was filled with sand to the ceiling. The bandshell in the park caved in and was leveled. It took out tons of trees and radically changed the park’s look and feel.”
Former Ashland City Administrator Brian Almquist notes a huge rain fell on 19 inches of snow in 1974, turning hills to mush.
“It’s something you can’t plan for," he says. "Culverts were too small, and our facilities were inadequate. You need to know who to call. I called Jim Lininger (Construction), and he sent a crew with backhoes, dump trucks. They helped us get back to normal. It’s nice to know people who will help. All basements downtown were flooded to the rafters. The volunteers were great, 300 of them helping clean up the park. Some merchants were angry and said we should have warned them in advance. In ’97, I could see it coming, so at 11:30 at night I went down and told the bars to vacate as soon as possible … and they said, ‘Eh, we’ll keep our eyes on it.’ It was worse than ’74.”
In 1974, Darla Claire was living by the Ashland golf course and a tiny creek turned into a raging river. Neighbors with a tractor saved the bridge.
“I’ll never forget all the large debris, trees, fencing, car tires thrashing down the river so close to our house," Claire says. "The noise was incredible. We had to yell to hear each other. Our shed started to shake, and away it went, along with the ground it was sitting on. My brother and I jumped back just in time."
The New Year’s Day flood of ’97 came roaring in just minutes before cork-popping time at midnight. Advancing technology, teamwork and drills helped cities prepare. Hard-hit Ashland had no water, so it brought in large semi trucks with showers inside, and porta-potties were planted all over town. FEMA set up tables for emergency loans.
“Such a mess with all the mud in Plaza stores,” says Jane Groveman Sterling. “Two weeks without water, but disaster always brings communities together.”
“I filled garbage cans with water at gas stations so we’d at least be able to flush the toilet,” says Deborah Weiss Mokma. “We rented a room at a motel so we could bathe — and shared that with others in need. ... People rallied so beautifully, we made new friends, never felt alone and have great stories to tell.”
“I was horrified by the water damage and stories," says Jane Hodapp Maynard. "It was a very difficult time, but I learned a lot from it, compassion being on top of the list.”
“I kayaked Bear Creek,” recalls Gary Schrodt. “No eddy-outs at all, major tree jams and barbed wire, lawn chairs in trees. Eventual bailout through massive invasive blackberry jungle. Lost a paddle. Long hike with kayak in wet suit and a hitch-ride back. Damn, sure glad I did it, grateful to be alive.”
“The ’97 flood shattered the context ... by going, ‘Here’s something inescapable.’ That flood remains the only time in my life I’ve seen people come together because they must,” says Mateo Geoly.
Carol Ann Garner notes, “I remember crying as I watched the destruction of downtown and thought they could never get it back together, but they did an awesome job and, in Lithia Park, worked with what Mother Nature left them.”
Medford historian Sue Waldron has researched the flood of 1890, which cut off transportation routes. “It isolated the valley," she says. "There was no in or out for almost a month. A big snowstorm came on Dec. 24, 1889, and it snowed for 30 days. There was up to 7 feet in the mountains and 39 inches in Jacksonville, as measured by Peter Britt.”
Some 150 train passengers were stranded in Ashland, unable to get over the Siskiyou Pass, Waldron says. All bridges on Bear Creek were swept away between Medford and Ashland. Jackson Creek flooded Jacksonville, and there were many mudslides.
“People did the best they could and worked with supplies they had. The newspapers ran out of newsprint, but called for wallpaper, poster paper, any paper — and kept valley folk up on the flood news. There was no note in the papers of anyone going hungry. Most had food. It may not be what they wanted. Ashland people brought food to hotels (for stranded people). Housewives and farmers brought in canned food and stored apples. People, especially in Ashland, shared a lot. Communities back then were better about sharing.”