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A terrific storm

It was Saturday evening, Labor Day weekend, 1953. Temperatures were still teasing 100 degrees and were already beginning to take that inevitable 40-degree drop by morning.

Country music lovers who had hoped to be in the middle of another Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, and children, waiting for the Lone Ranger and Tonto at 8 o’clock, were all met with radio silence.

What they got instead was a “Terrific Storm,” a storm that one weatherman called “one of the worst in the history of the Rogue Valley.”

Thunder and lightning slashed though the clouds. At 6:30 p.m., wind gusts as high as 45 miles an hour blew into town, carrying an instant deluge that drowned the area in 1.25 inches of rain.

At least 90 forest fires ignited in the mountains of Southern Oregon. The largest, a 25-acre blaze in the Klamath District of the Rogue River National Forest, was controlled the next day.

The Forest Service lookout near Prospect reported six fires burning just northwest of town and said the thunder had “literally rocked the tower.”

Jacksonville saw the worst of the hail, two separate strikes pelting the town. Myrtle Lee of the Historical Society, a town resident, said hailstones in her front yard measured at least three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

The hail was widely scattered, and with the pear orchards in the middle of harvest there was fear that there would be severe damage to the valley’s crop, which averaged nearly 5 million boxes a year.

Medford streets had become mini rivers from curb to curb, and basements were flooded, including the city hall basement that housed the police department, the jail and, ironically, the water department.

In Ashland, there were reports that some streets were drowning under a foot of water.

Just a little over an hour before the storm reached its powerful peak, a lightning bolt struck a main transmission line and plunged a portion of the valley population into an intermittent life without electricity. Falling trees took out power lines, and Western Union wasn’t able to send or receive messages.

Pacific Telephone said over 500 telephone lines were either out of order or down.

Mrs. Gilbert, who lived along the Rogue River, said the wind blew so hard “that it roughed up the water in the Rogue until it looked as if it were flowing the wrong way.”

The Cass brothers were just one business to report damage. While Gene Cass watched, the two panes of glass at the front of their Medford sporting goods store had bowed in and out throughout the storm. He expected them at any moment to blow in and smash the glass. Instead the two panes that had been cemented together parted from each other leaving a one-inch space between them.

The amusement company performing at the Jackson County Fair lost the entire front entrance of its show, along with four light towers blown over, and five concession stands destroyed.

Happily for valley growers, the pear crop for the most part escaped major hail damage, although $50,000 of fruit was lost because of the high winds. Most of the loss came in the orchards south of Medford.

By Labor Day, Sept. 7, things were getting back to normal. Residents were raking leaves everywhere, repairing minor damage, and enjoying another 90-degree holiday.

The quality of afternoon barbecues wasn’t reported.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.