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Heavy snow and rain brought 'havoc'

Were you here during the flood on January 1, 1997?

Heavy snow followed by warm rain flooded the plaza and knocked out our water treatment plant. Life was inconvenient because Ashlanders had to use port-a-potties for two weeks. But Ashland wasn’t cut off from the outside world as in 1927.

Ashland was thriving in 1927. The Lithia Springs Hotel, then the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland, had just opened on Main Street in 1925 (it’s now the Ashland Springs Hotel). The downtown Enders Department Store, where you could walk indoors from one store to the next for an entire city block, was considered a wonder. Lithia Park was 11 years old and already a tourist draw.

Then in February 1927, heavy snow followed by hours of warm rain led to “havoc.” In Ashland, though one bridge was destroyed and several damaged, overall there was less damage from the flood than in 1997. But the word “havoc” described what happened around Ashland.

The road to Medford was impassable in 15 to 20 places. Highways over the Siskiyou Mountains and the Greensprings were covered with snow. At Jackson Hot Springs, water covered Highway 99 3 feet deep when Bear Creek overflowed. O. M. Franklin and his boat rescued people staying in cabins there.

Some of the worst damage was to the train tracks both north and south of Ashland. Southern Pacific railway workers who had been with the company as long as 25 years told the Ashland American newspaper that “the storm has rendered unprecedented damage to their line” that was “the worst in history.”

With the tracks blocked both north and south, hundreds of passengers on two (or possibly four) long passenger trains at the Ashland depot were stranded in Ashland.

Southern Pacific hired 40 to 50 men to clear and repair the tracks, but it was no easy task. In some places, huge rocks weighing hundreds of tons blocked the tracks. In others, the rushing waters had washed out the grade underneath the tracks. Dynamite blasted rocks free. A crane attached to a railway car lifted boulders off the tracks.

Meanwhile, what to do with all the stranded passengers? The people of Ashland rose to the occasion and entertained the visitors. Several stranded passengers were home-seekers, so they had lots of time to view local real estate. One was a fruit cannery man, so he could visit local orchards and canneries. I’m not sure what the Standard Oil executive or the buyer for Skaggs-Safeway stores would have found entertaining, but the railroad company tried its best for them and all the passengers.

According to Maurice Bailey, a railroad employee for many years: “Southern Pacific installed radios in each train to provide entertainment for the stranded guests. At this time, Ashland’s depot was three stories high with a dining room, hotel and offices, so Southern Pacific bedded down all the passengers free and then hired an orchestra and put on a dance each of the three evenings for the benefit of the passengers.”

Food, music and dancing ... what more do you need? How about toilets that don’t stink? So on a practical level, Southern Pacific bought almost all the chloride of lime in Ashland hardware stores to keep the odors down in their railway car toilets.

After three days, the tracks were finally repaired and passengers could go on their way. I wonder how many of them decided during those three days that they would come back to live in Ashland? If they were anything like current Ashland residents who have told me stories why they decided to move here, I bet a few of them did.

References: Anon. Ashland American newspaper articles, Feb 25, 1927; Anon. Ashland Daily Tidings newspaper articles, Feb 21 and 24, 1927;Mr. & Mrs. Maurice Bailey interviewed by student Denise Atkinson in the book History of Ashland Oregon, written by 8th grade students at Ashland Junior High School, published 1977. Teacher: Marjorie Lininger

As his contribution to building community, writer and herbal health researcher Peter Finkle is walking every street in Ashland and writing an article with photos about every street. Visit www.WalkAshland.com to see and read about local people, history, yard art, architecture, gardens and more.

1927 flood - Ashland American 2-25-1927 front page.jpg