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Ashland escaped the brunt of '64 flood, but storm still wreaked havoc

The devastating “Christmas Flood” of 1964 scoured Ashland for many days, gushing through the Plaza, spilling up into many yards, stranding cattle, muddying tap water, overflowing Emigrant Lake and forcing the release of even more water into valley streams. The legendary flood that struck a half-century ago followed the usual pattern: heavy snow, then warming, with persistent rain washing everything down the mountains. Nestled next to Bear Creek at the corner of Highway 99 and Valley View, the Alder Park Estates trailer park was the first victim, with 4 feet of water rushing through it on Dec. 21. The creek was only inches below the adjacent Valley View bridge. On Dec. 22, Walt Hoffbuhr, manager of the Talent Irrigation District, reported heavy rains were filling Hyatt Lake, sending floodwaters down to Emigrant Lake, which could only contain it for one more day of such weather, according to microfilm of the Ashland Daily Tidings. "It was a nasty flood, especially down in the park," said Hoffbuhr's widow, Kathryn. "Walt did everything he could to keep the lake (Emigrant) from flowing over. We've seen a lot of floods but as near as I can remember, this was the worst one. It was kind of scary. The treatment plant was knocked out for a while."Her son Greg, 53 said, "Dad would always be happy we got a lot of rain and if it got a little too much, we could always deal with it." The elder Hoffbuhr died last summer. “In Ashland, a rampaging Bear Creek was in flood stage along its entire route through the city, causing extensive damage to low-lying homes, the ... trailer park and anything else in its way,” said the Tidings. “Evacuation of the trailer park began last night and completed this morning. All residents were safe but at least 10 trailers were in immediate danger.” Five footbridges in Lithia Park were under water and “mud and muck littered the park and the usually gentle, quiet Ashland Creek was near flooding at noon,” the Tidings reported. Crowson Road was called a new creek. The city’s switchboard was swamped by 250 calls about dirty tap water, and City Administrator Robert Ayre reported it would likely continue for days after the flood, as the city’s filtration plant labored to sift out mud and debris. It was caused by a landslide above the city reservoir. He reassured residents that the water was “perfectly safe” to drink, but suggested they could boil it if they were worried. Longtime Ashland insurance agent Bob Reinholdt, 93, covered the flood for an Ashland radio station, where he was general manager. The big event of the flood was a Ford fire truck falling through the pavement at Winburn Way and the present Guanajuato Way, which had been undercut by rushing waters."It had to be removed from the hole. I did a lot of stories on the flood," said Reinholdt. "Later I was manager of Lithia Park, for the city. The park manages to handle all the water that comes through in floods but sometimes it gets over the edge. We didn't really worry about it. It happens occasionally. When it quits raining, the water level drops and the city does all the work of putting it back together. " The headline on Dec. 23 blared that floodwaters were receding and that damage was minor — just a few roads out (Hersey, Mountain, Terrace), basements flooded and, as it had been “innumerable times in past years,” the trailer park was hit hard.  

Ashland attorney Jack Davis was a teen when the storm struck.

"I did live here," he said, "but was only 14 at the time and don't remember much besides school closing early that day. Those things stay with you, I guess.  My mom doesn't remember any details except that we lost both our power and our water supply in the city as a result of the flood.  She also remembered that the foot of Valley View Road at Highway 99 was a lake and impassable."

Long-distance calls were limited to emergencies only. All roads into Ashland, including the new freeway, were closed. Travelers to California were holed up in Ashland, but, since gas lines were down, restaurants were looking for electric ranges to cook for them. Mail, including Christmas parcels, came to a stop. By Christmas Eve, roads, mail and natural gas were back and damage in the Ashland area was set at several hundred thousand dollars. With bad roads, the new Mount Ashland ski area was closed. Soon after the flood, Ashland got a 9-inch snowfall. A big windstorm hit on New Year’s Day. The flood was called the biggest in history. Normal rainfall for Ashland in December is 6.75 inches; in ’64, it received 11.26, inches, the most on record for the month to that date. Floods of 1955 and 1927 were also significant and there was more flooding in 1974 and 1997, giving Plaza businesses their usual drubbing. After the last one, the city constructed major levees and prow-like structures to help keep the waters in their banks. When the next flood hits, they will get their test.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.