Great Flood of 1862

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Lithography of K Street in the city of Sacramento, California, during the Great Flood of 1862

The Great Flood of 1862 was the largest flood in the recorded history of Oregon, Nevada, and California, occurring from December 1861 to January 1862. It was preceded by weeks of continuous rains and snows in the very high elevations that began in Oregon in November 1861 and continued into January 1862. This was followed by a record amount of rain from January 9–12, and contributed to a flood which extended from the Columbia River southward in western Oregon, and through California to San Diego, and extended as far inland as Idaho in the Washington Territory, Nevada and Utah in the Utah Territory, and Arizona in the western New Mexico Territory. Immense snowfalls in the mountains of the far western United States caused by the winter storms, caused more flooding on large rivers that spring or summer as they melted, in Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico.

The event was climaxed by a warmer, more intense storm with much more rain that was much more serious, due to the earlier large accumulation of snow, now melted by the large turbulent heat fluxes into the snow over the lower elevations of the mountains. Throughout the affected area, all the streams and rivers rose to great heights, flooded the valleys, inundated or swept away towns, mills, dams, flumes, houses, fences, and domestic animals, and ruined fields. An early estimate of property damage was $10 million.[1] However, later it was estimated that approximately one-quarter of the taxable real estate in the state of California was destroyed in the flood. Dependent on property taxes, the State of California went bankrupt. The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half.[2] Approximately 200,000 cattle drowned, and the state's economy shifted from ranching to farming.[3]

In recent years, the flood has held the attention of the United States Geological Survey and emergency planners, who used it as an example when modelling the impact of a similar event happening in modern-day California. The official name for such an event is "The Arkstorm", and it is unofficially called "The other big one".[4][5]


A map of the flood area of the hypothetical ARkStorm event

The floods were likely caused by precipitation from atmospheric rivers, or narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above sea level that extend for thousands of kilometers.[6]

Prior to the flooding, Oregon had steady but heavier than normal rainfall during November and heavier snow in the mountains.[7]:76-83

The weather pattern that caused this flood was not from an El Nino, and from the existing Army and private weather records, it has been determined that the polar jet stream was to the north as the Pacific Northwest experienced a mild rainy pattern for the first half of December 1861. The jet stream then slid south and freezing conditions were reported at Oregon stations by December 25. Heavy rainfall began falling in California as the longwave trough moved down over the state, remaining there until the end of January 1862 and causing precipitation everywhere in the state for nearly 40 days. Eventually the trough moved even further south, causing snow to fall in the Central Valley and surrounding mountain ranges.[8]


There was an excess of precipitation in November 1861 over most of Oregon, less so in the extreme northwest. It was cold enough at the higher elevations that much snow fell in the Cascade Range, which when later melted by the warm rains produced a great quantity of water that flooded into the Willamette River and other streams in the Cascades. Tributaries of the Willamette rising in the Oregon Coast Range did not rise so high. Then the depression that came in at the beginning of December produced strong, warm southerly winds in Oregon, with extremely heavy rain. The crest of the flood was reached at Salem on December 3; at Oregon City on the 4th; at Milwaukie, between Oregon City and Portland, on the 5th; at Albany on December 8, a second rise at Albany greater than the first. The crest at Albany and Salem were the highest ever known at any time. In Oregon, the flood was one of the largest in the history of the Willamette Valley and the rest of Western Oregon. Flooding was heaviest on rivers with tributaries arising from the snow-covered Cascade Range.[7]

An article in the December 14, 1861, Oregon City Argus, described the course of the flood at Oregon City:

Flood waters were so high that at Oregon City at the flood's crest on December 5, the steamer St. Clair was able to run the falls, and steamers were able to visit points at some distance from the normal river channel. Although large amounts of wheat and flour were swept away, some was recovered when Oregon City's Island Mill was found on Sauvie Island downriver from Portland. The nearby town of Linn City was completely destroyed by flooding and was not rebuilt.[9] In addition, the flood destroyed the historic town of Champoeg, site of the first provisional government in Oregon, and Orleans, across the Willamette River from Corvallis. Neither was rebuilt.[7]:78

The flooding was also severe in other parts of Oregon; the Umpqua River had the greatest flood known even to the oldest Native Americans, and water was 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) higher than the 1853 flood. It rose from November 3 to December 3, subsided for two days, then rose again until the 9th. At Fort Umpqua, communication upriver was cut off above Scottsburg, and the river was full of floating houses, barns, rails and produce. At Port Orford, the Coquille River swept away settlers' property and also did great damage on the Rogue River and on other small streams."[7]:78–79

Flood damage was so great because the rivers in Oregon were the main routes of travel. The river front was the building site of mills, freight depots, and storehouses for grain and other foodstuffs. Business houses and many residences were near the landings. Farm buildings were mostly on sites convenient to the rivers, along with supplies of feed for livestock. Loss of so much wheat flour and demand from the new Idaho gold fields caused a spike in its price from $7 to $12 per barrel.


In the interior of Washington Territory, the storm creating the flood in Oregon dumped its precipitation as an unprecedented snowfall. Flooding on the Columbia River and the snow in the mountains closed off supplies to the new mining towns on the Salmon River, causing starvation among the miners of Florence, cut off from December until May 1862. In early July, as the heavy burden of snow in the mountains melted, the runoff caused great flooding. The Boise River flooded from extremely high runoff and is believed to been four times larger than its largest recorded flood in 1943. Flood waters made the river expand to a couple of miles wide.[10] It washed away or covered the original route of the Oregon Trail in the river valley.[11]

Northern California[edit]

Fort Ter-Waw, located in Klamath, California, was destroyed by the flood in December 1861 and abandoned on June 10, 1862.[12] Bridges were washed away in Trinity and Shasta counties.[13] At Weaverville, John Carr was a witness to the sudden melt of snow by the heavy rain and onset of the flood in December 1861 on the Trinity River:

Two years later William H. Brewer saw near Crescent City, the debris of the flood:

Flooding of the Central Valley[edit]

Like many other towns along the tributary rivers to the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River, at Knight's Ferry, its homes, its mill and most of its businesses were ruined by the flood. Its bridge spanning the Stanislaus River withstood the flood waters but was destroyed when the debris of the bridge at Two-Mile Bar, only a short distance up river, torn from its foundation, crashed into the Knights Ferry Bridge, crushing the truss supports and knocking it from its rock foundation.[16] Some towns like Empire City and Mokelumne City were destroyed entirely.

Sheet music cover depicting Sacramento flooding

The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth.[17] John Carr wrote of his riverboat trip up the Sacramento River when it was at one of its highest stages of flood:

The city of Sacramento suffered the worst damage due to its levee, which lay in a wide and flat valley at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers. When the floodwaters entered from the higher ground on the east, the levee acted as a dam to keep the water in the city rather than let it flow out. Soon the water level was 10 feet (3.0 m) higher inside than the level of the Sacramento River on the outside. Dozens of wood houses, some two stories high, were simply lifted up and carried off by the flood, as was "all the firewood, most of the fences and sheds, all the poultry, cats, rats and many of the cows and horses". A chain gang was sent to break open the levee, which, when it finally broke, allowed the waters to rush out of the city center and lowered the level of the flooding by 5–6 feet (1.5–1.8 m). Eventually the waters fell to a level on a par with the lowest part of the city.[7] From 1861 to 1862, the state capital was moved from flooded Sacramento to San Francisco.


The Carson River Basin of the eastern California and western Utah Territory (now Nevada), suffered from a similar pattern of flooding. Flooding began in December 1861 in Carson Valley from a series of storms in the upper Carson River basin. Two feet (61 cm) of wet heavy snow fell on December 20, 1861, accumulating on the valley floor. Snow was followed by a period of very cold temperatures which froze the snow, followed by a three-day rain starting on December 25, 1861. By January 2, 1862, the town of Dayton and the area surrounding it had been flooded.[18]

In the vicinity of Aurora, there had been light snowfall in November, then mild weather until Christmas Eve, when there began a heavy and rapid snowfall for days. The temperature dropped below zero and the passes over the Sierras were closed. During the second week of January, it warmed slightly, and the snow became a torrential rain. Esmerelda and Willow gulches overflowed their banks and flooded Aurora. With water standing up to 3 inches (76 mm) deep in many buildings, adobe buildings turned to mud and collapsed. After a week, it cooled again, and snow began to fall again. Within a few days, the snow was deeper than it had been before the rains had begun to fall. Samuel Young of Aurora recorded in his diary that the snow and rain had fallen for 26 days out of 30 since December 24, 1861.[19]


The early southwestern Utah settlements in Washington County: Fort Clara, St. George, Grafton, Duncans Retreat, Adventure, and Northrop were nearly destroyed by a flood on the Virgin and Santa Clara Rivers, that followed 44 days of rainfall in January and February 1862.[20] Survivors of Fort Clara established the modern town of Santa Clara a mile east of the old fort on the Santa Clara River.[21] Springdale and Rockville were founded in 1862 by settlers flooded out of Adventure, Northup and other places in the vicinity.[20]

Settlers were driven from Fort Harmony when the fort had to be abandoned after most of its adobe walls were washed away during this flood. New Harmony and Kanarraville, in Iron County, were the settlements created by refugees from this disaster later in 1862.[22]:174

Southern California[edit]

In Southern California, beginning on December 24, 1861, it rained for 28 days in Los Angeles.[15]:243 In the San Gabriel Mountains the mining town of Eldoradoville was washed away by flood waters.[23] The flooding drowned thousands of cattle and washed away fruit trees and vineyards that grew along the Los Angeles River. No mail was received at Los Angeles for five weeks. The Los Angeles Star reported that:

The road from Tejon, we hear, has been almost washed away. The San Fernando mountain cannot be crossed except by the old trail ... over the top of the mountain. The plain has been cut up into gulches and arroyos, and streams are rushing down every declivity.[24]

The plains of Los Angeles County, at the time a marshy area with many small lakes and several meandering streams from the mountains, were extensively flooded, and much of the agricultural development that lay along the rivers was ruined. In most of the lower areas, small settlements were submerged. These flooded areas formed into a large lake system with many small streams. A few more powerful currents cut channels across the plain and carried the runoff to the sea.

In Los Angeles County, (including what is now Orange County) the flooding Santa Ana River created an inland sea lasting about three weeks with water standing 4 feet (1.2 m) deep up to 4 miles (6 km) from the river.[17] In February 1862, the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers merged. Government surveys at the time indicated that a solid expanse of water covered the area from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach, a distance of approximately 18 miles (29 km).[25] :38

At Santa Barbara County, the narrow coastal plains were flooded by the rivers coming out of the mountains. The San Buenaventura Mission Aqueduct that was still drawing water from a tributary of the Ventura River for the town of Ventura water system, was abandoned due to the damage in the area that become the separate Ventura County in 1873.[26]

In San Bernardino County, all the fertile riverside fields and all but the church and one house of the New Mexican colony of Agua Mansa, were swept away by the Santa Ana River, which overflowed its banks. Father Borgotta ringing the church bell on the night of January 22, 1862, alerted the inhabitants to the approach of the flood, and all escaped.[27]

In San Diego, a storm at sea backed up the flood water running into the bay from the San Diego River, resulting in a new river channel cut into San Diego Harbor. The continuous heavy downpour also changed the look of the land, the previously rounded hills were extensively cut by gulleys and canyons.[25]

To the north, in the Owens Valley, similar snow and flooding conditions as those to the east in Aurora, led to the local Paiute suffering the loss of much of the game they depended on. Cattle newly driven into the valley to feed the miners, competed with the native grazers and ate the native wild plant crops the Paiute depended on to survive. Starving, the Paiute began to kill the cattle and conflict with the cattlemen began, leading to the subsequent Owens Valley Indian War.


In western New Mexico Territory, heavy rains fell in late January, causing severe flooding of the Colorado River and Gila River. On January 20, 1862, the Colorado River began to rise, and on the afternoon of January 22 it rose suddenly in three hours from an already high stage nearly 6 feet (1.8 m), overflowing its banks and turned Fort Yuma in California into an island in the midst of the Colorado River. At 1 o’clock on the morning of January 23, the river reached its crest.[28] Jaeger City a mile down river from Fort Yuma, and Colorado City, across the Colorado River from it were washed away. The river overflowed its banks to the extent that there was water 20 feet (6.1 m) deep on a ranch in the low-lying ground just above Arizona City where the Gila River joined the Colorado. The riverside home of steamboat entrepreneur George Alonzo Johnson and the nearby Hooper residence were the only places in the town unharmed because they were built on high ground.[29] Colorado City had to be rebuilt on higher ground after the 1862 flood.[30]

The Gila River also flooded, covering its whole valley at its mouth where it met the Colorado from the sand hills on the south to the foothills on the north. Twenty miles (32 km) to the east of Fort Yuma, it swept away most of the mining boomtown of Gila City along with a supply of hay being gathered there to supply the planned advance of the California Column into Confederate Arizona. Further east the road was flooded, buildings and vehicles swept away and traffic was disrupted for some time thereafter by the mud covering the road to Tucson.[31] The great flood in the Gila and Colorado rivers, covered their bottom lands with mud. Much of the livestock along the rivers drowned and the crops of the Indians along the river were destroyed.[32]

The overflow of the 1862 Colorado River spring flood waters reached the Salton Sink via the Alamo and New Rivers, filling it and creating a lake some 60 miles (97 km) long and 30 miles (48 km) wide.[33]

New Mexico[edit]

The great snow pack laid down during the winter of 1861-62, in the southern Rocky Mountains, and other ranges, the sources of the Rio Grande, caused a great spring flood in that river that changed its course in the Mesilla Valley. The flood also impeded the operations of the California Column attempting to cut off the retreating Confederate Army of New Mexico. On July 8, 1862, Lt. Col. Edward E. Eyre, First California Volunteer Cavalry wrote:

"The Rio Grande has been unusually high this summer, almost the entire bottom between Fort Craig and Mesilla being still overflowed. It is impossible at this time to approach Mesilla on the west side of the river, a new channel having been washed out on that side of the town, through which the largest portion of the water flows; besides, the bottom for a long distance is overflowed, and, the soil being of a loose nature, animals mire down in attempting to get through it." [34]

Instead of crossing at Messilla, the high waters and course change forced Eyers detachment to cross the Rio Grande, up river at the old San Diego Crossing below Fort Thorn, after waiting another week for the water to go down, which allowed the rearguard of the Confederate Army to escape into Texas. Messilla, built on the west bank of the Rio Grande after the Mexican American War, was left by the movement of the river on its east bank where it remains today.

Sonora, Mexico[edit]

Until the Great Flood of 1862, what became Port Isabel Slough, in Sonora, Mexico, was a shallow tidewater slough, but the extreme flood waters of that year cut its channel much deeper, so that at low tide it still was three fathoms deep. The mouth of this slough was only 5 miles (8.0 km) from the mouth of the river and sheltered from the extremes of the tidal bore of the Colorado River and deep enough to prevent stranding on shoals or mud flats at low tide.[35] This made it an ideal anchorage for maritime craft to load and unload their cargo and passengers from the steamboats that took them up and down river with out the danger from the tides that they were having to risk in the estuary at Robinson's Landing.

In the month of March 1865, the schooner Isabel, from San Francisco, commanded by W. H. Pearson, found and entered this slough and discharged her cargo there for the first time. Subsequently, the steamers, sailing ships and later ocean-going steamships loaded and off-loaded their cargoes there, and the steamboat company established Port Isabel 2.5 miles (4.0 km) above the mouth of the slough.[36]


  1. ^ "The Great Flood in California: Great Destruction of Property Damage $10,000,000". The New York Times. 21 January 1862. 
  2. ^ William H. Brewer, Up and down California in 1860-1864, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1930, p. 243 Retrieved 23 October 2010.
  3. ^ Hamilton, John (28 June 2013). "Tips For Surviving A Mega-Disaster". NPR. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  4. ^ "Overview of the Arkstorm Scenario" (PDF). USGS. p. 2. 
  5. ^ "ARkStorm: California’s other "Big One"". USGS. 
  6. ^ Ingram, B. Lynn (19 January 2013). "California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe". Scientific American. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Lansing Wells, Edward (1947). "Notes on the Winter of 1861–2 in the Pacific Northwest" (PDF). Northwest Science 21. 
  8. ^ Null, Jan; Hulbert, Joelle (January–February 2007). "California Washed Away: The great flood of 1862" (PDF). Weatherwise. p. 29. Retrieved 3 October 2010. 
  9. ^ Thomas, Mike. "Linn City, Oregon: A Victim of Nature’s Wrath". Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  10. ^ Ada County Hazard Vulnerability Analysis 2010, p. 34
  11. ^ ROUTE OF THE OREGON TRAIL IN THE UPPER BOISE VALLEY, IDAHO STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY REFERENCE SERIES, Number 79, 1973, Publications, 450 N. 4th Street, Boise, ID 83702--208-334-3428 Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  12. ^ "Historic California Posts: Fort Ter-Waw". California State Military Museum. Retrieved 3 October 2010. 
  13. ^ Secrest, Jr., W.B.; Secrest, Sr., W.B. (2006). California Disasters, 1800–1900. Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc. ISBN 1-884995-49-7. 
  14. ^ Carr, John (1891). Pioneer days in California. Times publishing company. pp. 291–295, 397. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  15. ^ a b William H. Brewer, Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1930.
  16. ^ Mildred Brooke Hoover, H. E. Rench, E. G. Rench, Historic Spots in California, Third Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1966. pp. 540–541 Knight's Ferry.
  17. ^ a b "Historic Rainstorms in California". California Department of Water Resources. Retrieved 2007-10-23. 
  18. ^ U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1973, Water and related Land Resources, Central Lahontan Basin, Carson River Subbasin, Nevada and California, Special Report: History of Flooding, Carson Valley and Carson City Watershed, U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Minden, NV.
  19. ^ Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier, University of California Press, 1987. p. 20. Retrieved 2 January 2011.
  20. ^ a b P. Kyle House, Ancient floods, modern hazards: principles and applications of paleoflood hydrology, Volume 1, American Geophysical Union, 2002, p. 297
  21. ^ FORT CLARA (aka FORT SANTA CLARA), Santa Clara, Utah from accessed September 24, 2015
  22. ^ Janet Burton Seegmiller, A History of Iron County, Community Above Self; Utah Centennial County History Series: The Face and Faces of Iron County; Physical Characteristics; Ancient Peoples; Explorers, Traders, Trappers and Expeditions; Utah State Historical Society, Iron County Commission, 1998.
  23. ^ "The Great Floods of the San Gabriel Mountains" by Cecile Page Vargo, Explore Historic California, February 2005
  24. ^ Cleland, Robert Glass (1941). The Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Southern California, 1850–1880. Huntington Library; University of California Press. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-87328-097-6. 
  25. ^ a b H. D. McGlashan and F. C. Ebert, Southern California Floods of January 1916. U. S. Geol. Water Supply Paper no. 426. U. S. Govt. Printing Office. 1918.
  26. ^ "California Historical Landmark: Ventura County". Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-10-15. 
  27. ^ Taylor, M.D., W. Leonard; Taylor, PhD, Robert W. (2007). "The Great California Flood of 1862". The Fortnightly Club of Redlands, California. Retrieved 3 October 2010. 
  28. ^ Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Ser. I, Vol. 50, P. I, Ch. LXII–Correspondence, January 23, 1862 Letter from Major Edwin A. Rigg, Fort Yuma, to Col. James H. Carlton, commanding Southern District, pp.815-818
  29. ^ Commanding Officer's Quarters & Kitchen Historical Marker
  30. ^ Thomas Edwin Farish, History of Arizona, Volume I. The Filmer Brothers Electrotype Company, San Francisco, 1915. pp. 252–253
  31. ^ Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Ser. I, Vol. 50, P. I, Ch. LXII–Correspondence, pp. 865–868
  32. ^ Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Ser. I, Vol. 50, P. I, Ch. LXII–Correspondence, p. 851
  33. ^ Wheeler, G.M., Annual report on the geographical surveys West of the one-hundredth meridian, in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana: Appendix JJ, AnnualReport of the Chief of Engineers for 1876: Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office. 1876,
  35. ^ The Arizona Sentinel, 1882-01-14, p. 2, col. 1
  36. ^ The west coasts of Mexico and Central America from the United States to Panama including the gulfs of California and Panama: Chiefly from surveys by the United States steamers Narragansett, Tuscarora, Ranger, and Thetis, between 1873 and 1901; United States Hydrographic Office; Government Printing Office, 1904. pp. 155–157

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