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Ashland's great flood of 1974, Part 1

A warm, heavy "Pineapple Express" rain poured over the — expanse of Ashland's watershed, rapidly melting the deep snow that was — to be the water reserves for late spring. The already full Reeder Reservoir — could not contain the overflowing streams and Ashland Creek quickly turned — into a roaring river that thundered down the narrow canyon, destined to — encircle, then engulf a block of historic buildings on the Plaza.

I awoke with a feeling of dread around — a.m. on Jan. — 15, 1974, and drove down to the Plaza, where I owned and operated Lithia — Grocery; a natural foods grocery and restaurant at 47 N. Main St., the — current address of the Plaza Caf?. Ashland Creek was close to overflowing — in the alley and it seemed only a matter of time until our basement would — flood. I, with a handful of friends, found some sandbags and we were able — to build a small footwall in the alley, but when the culvert under the — road began to plug with uprooted trees, we knew it would be only a matter — of time before we would be surrounded and inundated by the rising waters.

At that time I sported waist-length hair and a beard, — looking every bit an industrious entrepreneur or the devil incarnate, — depending on the mindset of the viewer. Seeing that a load of sand bags — had been deposited at the bottom of Granite Street, a few of us ran over — to get more ammunition in our war with the floodwaters. It was then that — we were confronted by the police, in the person of one officer who exited — his squad car and shouted at us to leave the sandbags alone. While at — the time there was some chafing between the counter-culture and the locals, — it rarely reduced itself to shouting or, as I was soon to discover, something — potentially much more dangerous.

I identified myself and the reason for our presence, all — of which seemed lost on the officer. He said that he had orders not to — let "us" take any of the sandbags. I pressed the matter, as my business — was in jeopardy, the floodwaters were rising. A pile of sand had previously — been deposited nearby and the only thing we needed to help ourselves was — access to the sandbags. I attempted to explain the nature of the emergency, — while occasionally pointing to the swollen creek, which, by now was beginning — to rumble and thunder, with massive boulders the size of cars being swept — downstream. Making no progress and my livelihood on the line, I stepped — forward, declaring that the sandbags were there for a purpose and we were — the only volunteers at hand to use them.

It was than that the officer un-holstered his gun and — aimed it at my stomach, this in front of a half-dozen volunteers, saying — that a certain high City Official had issued the "hands-off" order, declaring — that the "hippies" would take the sandbags and make clothes out of them. — I was full of adrenaline and my choice was clear: "Either help us or get — out of the way," I shouted. Doing neither, the officer got back in the — car and burned rubber in reverse for about a block, then backtracked over — the viaduct and away from the dilemma.

I've always admired how he realized that his orders were — out of line and he left us the best way he could. I especially admired — the way he uncocked his pistol and holstered it. Shooting a merchant seeking — self-help in an emergency would not have looked good on the old resume. — The whole incident was symptomatic of the times, as our nation was deeply — divided over the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the media was awash with — pictures of "hippies" protesting and police responding with force.

The raging waters were soon amplified into a two-foot — deep sidewalk trough of speedy rapids, the crossing of which required — a heavy rope from the bumper of local barber Vern Cordier's truck into — and around the leg of Lithia Grocery's pot belly stove, upon which a large — pot of soup was cooking. I used the rope to gain entrance to my store — to retrieve a few valuable items. It was during several of these crossings — that I happened to be in the right place at the right time, catching a — handful of someone who had slipped upstream and was being swept to a certain — death in the roiling, churning waters that overflowed what was then called — Bluebird Park. Only last month one of those I rescued made the save known — to me, for things were unfolding during the flood at such a rapid rate — that there was no time to acknowledge many occurrences. When thanked for — keeping him from being swept away I didn't know quite what to say, so — I improvised:

"I'm basically lazy. If I hadn't grabbed you then I would — have had to drive to Gold Beach to pick you up and I didn't have time — to do that."

Basements began to flood and we all banded together, hippies — from the Grocery, redneck hippies from the Log Cabin and other merchants — and employees helped move inventories from below to higher ground. This — cultural bouillabaisse formed lines to pass boxes of shoes from the basement — of Perrine's, then located on the ground floor of the building that now — houses Alex's Restaurant. We all pitched together, emptying Perrine's — basement of inventory, then evacuating Patricia Cole on a stretcher from — the waist-deep freezing waters that reached from basement to basement — to a depth of seven feet. It was during that stretch of fast, cold and — hard work that we all dropped our stereotypes of each other. I was no — longer a "hippie," but a merchant. The title "redneck" was similarly dropped — and the new fond term was either "friend" or "neighbor." Friendships that — would last decades were forged on the spot, all being bonded in the crucible — of a natural disaster.

We worked together until all that could be saved was secured, — then pulled back from the Plaza and admired the tremendous strength of — the raging waters. Someone reached into the back of his truck and produced — a case of beer, a can of which was proffered to each member of this newly — formed band of rescue workers. We each, in turn, told of a highlight of — the last 24 hours, taking great enjoyment in sharing some simple deed — or humorous episode.

Hours before, we were a people divided by ridiculous generalizations. — Now we were all family, joined by sweat and circumstances, bathed in the — warmth of acceptance and understanding.

Next week in Part Two: The Water Treatment Plant, we travel — with an all-volunteer band of Water Warriors, who blaze a trail up to — the isolated and flooding Water Treatment Plant and help avert total disaster — by sandbagging non-stop for 20 hours, allowing time for the National Guard — to mobilize and deploy as the waters crest. Regardless, Ashland has no — potable water for days and clean becomes a dirty word.