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The calm before ‘The Great Disaster’

Our recent summer of so many 100-plus days, along with the unusual amount of rain that suddenly began appearing in October, had this history snooper thinking back to a similar, yet devastating situation over 100 years ago.

The summer of 1889 was so hot and dry that the Ashland City Council banned all 4th of July fireworks and inspired some residents to begin praying for rain. By October, not a drop had fallen for nearly 7 months.

Because the grazing grass was late, with not a sprout of green in sight, ranchers began to worry about grazing their livestock. Farmers had their own problems. After a mediocre harvest, the parched ground now refused to give way to a farmer’s plow.

Then, on Oct. 10, a weather front along the coast moved inland, extinguishing a number of persistent wildfires before heading straight for Jackson County. “Nothing could be more opportune than the rain now prevailing,” said an optimistic Jacksonville newspaper editor.

Although Northern California was suffering heavy flooding with severe losses of property and crops, Southern Oregon residents still had no worries and were delighted with “plenty of rain and mud.” True, a few grapes had been knocked off the vine and the southbound train was occasionally delayed for an hour or two; yet, happy days seemed to be back again.

By the end of November, the local editor was happier and even more enthusiastic. “The rains have put the fairgrounds racetrack in fine shape,” he said, “and the beautiful rain continues to descend.”

“While California,” he said, “has well-nigh floated off in the deluge that has been descending on her head, why is she still calling us ‘Webfeet?’ Here, we have only had a little more than nine inches since October 1st. … Come to Southern Oregon, the Italy of the coast!”

Even when snow began falling in mid December, optimism still reigned. Over 30 inches of snow had fallen at Prospect, and yet, little remained of the 8 inches that had fallen in the lower valley.

When miners reported about three feet of snow in the mountains, it should have been a warning — but so what? That just meant “plenty of water in the future.”

The New Year of 1890 arrived a day before the fluffy flakes began to accumulate. First a mere 2½ inches, followed by another 1½ inches Jan. 3. Beginning Jan. 12, Peter Britt, the government’s official meteorologist, reported nearly two feet of snow on the ground with the temperature falling as low as 11 degrees.

“The beautiful snow lingers,” the editor said.

For the first time in 10 years there was enough snow on the ground to go sleighing, and every small hill in the valley seemed to be erupting in swarms of sledding children.

Then the flakes began to fall at the rate of an inch per hour for 18 hours straight, its weight soon crashed through roofs and toppled barns. Telegraph repairmen reported mountain snow so deep they were able to reach the tops of poles without even climbing. Trains stopped running and 200 southbound travelers were stranded in Ashland.

Our once confident editor began singing a brand new tune. “A flood of considerable dimensions next spring now seems inevitable,” he said. “Even our ordinary rains will insure high water. It is evident that we will have no ordinary season this year.”

By the end of January, when nearly 40 inches of snow had covered most of the valley floor, 50 miles of railroad tracks, and blocked the Siskiyou summit road with 15-foot high snowdrifts, the temperature suddenly warmed, rain began to fall, and the flooding — “The Great Disaster” — began.

Next time: The valley floor becomes a lake.

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.