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History Snoopin’: ‘The rains descended’ and brought the flood

Late in December 1889, the rain that began falling in October turned to snow. Although it melted quickly on the valley floor, in the mountains it seemed to never stop.

January 1890 brought a deluge of the white flakes, with nearly two feet quickly covering hills and city streets.

“There is such an incredible amount of moisture locked up in the frozen hills,” said a reporter at the end of the month, “that the result of even a few days of warm, gentle rain would mean almost incalculable damage.”

Less than a week later, the wind changed, temperatures rose into the 50s and, as one newspaper headline said, “The Rains Descended.” During the first four days of February the rain rarely stopped. More rain fell during those days than had fallen in the first nine months of the previous year.

Bear Creek slipped over its banks, its raging water tearing away the wooden Main Street bridge, built in Medford a year earlier. To watch the rapids roar by, curious gawkers had foolishly gathered on the new bridge. Fortunately, when the structure collapsed under their weight, only three men got wet and no one was injured.

Every bridge across Bear Creek was gone, the waters making a clean sweep from Ashland to the Rogue River. The few bridges over the Rogue River that survived were so damaged that very few were safe to cross.

The Hammond barn near Medford was one of the first to be ripped away, joining fence rails, covered bridges, chicken coops, pigpens, loose lumber, and houses; all floating in a scattered, makeshift flotilla, and racing toward the Rogue River and the Pacific Ocean.

As the Bear Creek flood waters moved toward Roxy Ann in the east, the Rogue River near Lower Table Rock was already a mile wide and spreading.

In Jacksonville, it was nearly impossible to cross Jackson Creek. One resident managed to travel to Central Point by crossing “four hundred times and across seven thousand of its new branches.”

A number of people had to quickly leave their farmhouses and rush to safety. Mr. Shepherd barely had time to save his family and some of his household effects as Emigrant Creek ripped away near the foundation of his house. Luckily, the house withstood the water and the family was able to return.

Although Mill and Ashland creeks ran swiftly in torrents though Ashland’s business district, there was more resident fear than actual damage. A temporary diversion of Ashland Creek prevented any damage to the town’s new electricity plant.

Railroad tracks washed out in several places, and the rail bed was seriously damaged. “It will be some time before trains are running regularly again from either north or south,” said a reporter.

Some of the finest topsoil in Southern Oregon, and acres of growing wheat, were either swept away or covered over with silt and gravel.

For miles around, for nearly a week, the valley became a large lake — “just one vast sheet of water.”

For some, sanity comes from a humorous look at a devastating situation. Mr. Thomas was seen floating a skiff across his now underwater farm. When a reporter asked how he felt, he shook his head and joked, “That’s the flattest forty-acres of water I’ve ever seen.”

By the end of February, flooding had stopped and the recovery effort began. Although it would take months, one newspaper editor was hopeful.

“The work of repairing the damage done will keep hundreds of men busy,” he said, “and while the casualty is great, the clouds which have hung like a pall for many weeks are finally lifting.”

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.