Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stand Back Non-believers... Way Back! Proof on the "64 Flood.

The unbelievable snow and rainfall that caused the unbelievable December1964 flood.

I need to start with thanks to Robin Shelley, Kym Kemp, and Olmanriver, who provided all of the photos and research for this story. I provided my own memory, and bits of Bullshistory to be verified or proven wrong.

Many, many times I have expressed how hard it rained in December of 1964. Many, many times I have witnessed people not believe what I had to say. Many, many times I’ve heard people propose their own theories of the flood, and why it was a disaster of major proportions. Usually their theories fall back on the fact that the loggers had stripped the hills bare and there was nothing to hold the water back. Somehow people just cannot wrap their minds around how much it snowed and rained in December of 1964.

Read, and pay particular attention to eyewitness reports. Robin Shelley lived in Laytonville at the time of the ‘64 flood. She said that the valley floor had at least a foot of snow. The hills surrounding Laytonville, and indeed all the hills of the north coast had a deep, deep snow pack. Then the heavy, warm tropical rains started. It rained like a thunder shower for days, then it started raining harder, and then again harder. It was the hardest that anyone living here then or since has ever seen it rain. It still gives me chills to think about that rain, 45 years later.

The rain was intense. It had rained over 36” in that December. From the 18th to the 23rd (5 Days!)it rained 27 ½ inches. Those are documented facts. Now for the bullshistory part, and I believe it to be true because I saw how hard it rained. “In the last 4 hours of the heavy rain, it rained 7 inches, and in one of those last hours it rained 4 inches.”

Robin Shelley Said: “What I remember about Dec. 1964 was that it snowed and; froze, then snowed some more until the snow was probably a foot or more deep on the Long Valley floor & then it rained. And rained & rained & rained in what seemed like Biblical proportions. People began to wonder if it would ever stop. I'm not sure who to "blame" for that.”

From Bob Doran. I'm not sure who made the quote: ”You still see markers along the Avenue of the Giants showing how high the water rose. It's hard to imagine the power of the river that filled the entire valley, but that's what it did, washing away towns like Weott, Myer's Flat, Pepperwood and Shively in the process."
There used to be quite a Village along the river at Phillipsville also.

Kym Kemp said: ”My opinion on the '64 flood (which I am old enough to remember but not old enough to remember much beforehand) is that the rain was astoundingly intense. There was snow first and then warm rain on top of it but some of the logging practices exacerbated the problems. We would have still had a terrible flood without the logging though.”
It sounds like Kym must have sipped on the newcomer cool aide with that logging thing, but she remembers the rain enough to know that we would have had a terrible flood.

From Olmanrivers research: "... in other words, the biggest mistake we made is when we went in (post '64)and cleared all the creeks. Thinking that we were enhancing the habitat, we ruined them, destroyed them. The fish need those waterfalls and those pockets. You don’t need to go there and make a freeway out of it. The water turns warm.
G: Following the flood we spent millions of dollars cleaning out all those tributaries, and they
just went in and destroyed them.

"With regards to timber harvesting he believes the Forest Service made some serious mistakes in
the past - bad practices such as clear cutting in known slide areas should not have been allowed.
He believes logging should not have been allowed in main drainages, and that there are other
values besides timber which need to be considered - wildlife and aesthetic values in particular.
“There is a right place and a wrong place to log - I always felt they came too close to the river in
the watershed.” He spoke about the fact that the Forest Service was not given a choice in these
matters; orders to harvest were mandated from Washington, and Forest Service employees who
objected were told to do their job or someone else would be found to replace them who would do
the job."

When I say that I witnessed whole virgin forests slip right into the rivers, or at least I saw were they had. People for some reason find it unbelievable. If you will bear with me while I give you a few thoughts, maybe, Just maybe, you will agree that the logging had little effect on the drama of the flood. If whole hillsides of virgin forests slipped into the river, doesn’t it make sense that all of the full size trees would do more to plug and stop the river with the resulting log jambs? There were numerous hillside of virgin, unmanaged forest, south of Leggett slip into the river. Where the South Fork of the Eel River leaves the 101 highway and heads south to Branscomb, all the land is wilderness area. Unlogged and unmanaged. There were many slides of timber into the river. You would not believe how many slides there were between Briceland and Redway.
All of the hillsides and forests had rivulets of water crashing down through the trees and brush. The fields had great sheets of water sliding off of them. The rain splashed on everything. Those of us out in the storm found it impossible to stay dry, even with raincoats on. The rain was warm, and being wet only caused a mild chill. We were able to continue with the evacuations of the low lying areas. I helped evacuate lower Redway and redwood grove down there. We had to quit when the water got over our axles. We all decided that we needed to get to where we wanted to be when the flood hit, because we knew that it was going to be a flood of major proportions. I lived in Garberville at the time and I went to my folks house on Oak Street in Garberville. My cousin and I went to Benbow and watched the trees in the park across the lake tumble into the river one after one. We were not prepared for the great crack of thunder that a five foot through redwood makes when it hit’s the water flatly. I sounded like a cannon shot, aimed at you. We went down to the river below Garberville and watched the water rising we tried to drive out toward Kimtu but the water was across the road just past the airport bridge. (It was called the Moody bridge then. After the town of Moody that it used to lead to) By then it was late, and we went home. The power was out and we had coal-oil lamps to eat dinner by.

The next morning, when we got up and went outside, the rain had let up a little. All you could hear was the roar of the river. Most of the town people were lined up along the top of the hill, overlooking the river. As high as the river was, it was a consensus among us that it was amazing the the river wasn't higher, having witnessed how hard it had rained. I can still remember the roar of the river, the loud popping, and crunching sounds that all of the debris was making. Most of the surface of the river was covered with driftwood, barrels, sheds, propane tanks, and just about anything that would float. We found out later that even the stuff that wouldn't float was washed down the river. P.G.&E lost a major electrical transformer that washed down the river. They placed a reward on it for whoever found it. It was never found. The most poinient thing about the flood that I remember, was the smell of crushed evergreen trees that it so reminicent of Christmas. It was heartbreaking.

We got along pretty well in the first few days after the flood then “Help” came. The “Civil Defence” set up an office, and took over emergency operations. After that everything was an emergency. The C.D. Headquarters was a good idea, and we needed some guidance. But, as with anything, give somebody some authority and they will make sure that they use it. They stopped all vehicle travel without a C.D. permit. They started to commandeer all of the four-wheel-drive vehicles, bulldozers, loaders, graders and road equipment. Back then, all of the ranchers and loggers had guns in their trucks, and they were already stressed from trying to save their ranch roads and livestock. They didn't take kindly to being told what they could or couldn't do by the Civil Defence.

One story that I will always remember, is the one where my boss and his neighbor, a log truck driver, took their shovels and chainsaws, and they opened a road from Phillipsville to the Dyerville-Loop road. They had a four wheel drive open Jeep, so they could go most places with it. The jeep had good traction and the windshield could fold down to go under things. They came into town to tell people that there was a road open between Garberville and Phillipsville, for any medical or food necessities. My boss checked with me and told me to find something to do until we could get the refrigeration shop back open. It didn't look like we would have much work until the power was restored. Then they headed back home, just as they were about to leave town the Civil Defence people told them that they were not going anywhere, and and that they were sorry, but they were going to have to take the Jeep for the rescue effort. My bosses friend reached between the front seats, pulled out a 30-30 rifle, cocked it, set the stock on his hip with the barrel in the air, and said. “You'd better move, we're going home”. That was one of the shortest conversations in the history of the flood.

My cousin Jim Newland and I signed up to work with the California Division of Highways. I signed up as and equipment operator. While I was waiting to be assigned a piece of equipment, they had Jim and I hand digging out a culvert. Our goal was to get it flowing again. It didn't take long for us to figure out that if we got it open, we were inside, and our reward would be getting washed into the river. We decided that we weren't quite used to working for stupid people, and we quit. By then, the Red Cross had asked us to start repairing or replacing appliances. They paid us a flat rate to fix things. Refrigerators were easy to fix. They came apart easy, and we reinsulated them, changed the thermostat, and the compressor start controls. Washers weren't so easy, we fixed them anyway, but they didn't last much longer than a year. It got the people that they were repaired for through the flood, and when the roads were open again they got new ones.

I don't know why I care, because I know that a lot of the logging was careless and sloppy. But, it really bothers me when the extent of the flood was blamed on logging. It doesn't bother me so much that the logging was condemned. But it really bothers me to not be able to explain how hard it rained, and that I know in my heart, that with that amount of rain, no time in history would the flood have been any better or any worse.

Click on the articles and photos for great enlargements.
The photos and clipping are from Robin Shelley, The Pepperwood newspaper is from Ross Sherburn.

This is and interesting link to the '64 Trinity Flood From Olmanriver.


Anonymous said...

My two cents here on the 64 flood. When the water in the Eel was getting high Ernie and I drove around looking at the sights. We were at the Benbow Dam and we could hear the tree's breaking and falling but the wind and rain made so much noise we couldn't tell from what direction the tree's were falling so we got out of there. I think the next place we went that day was the old Briceland Bridge. That is still stuck in my mind as being close to as spactacular as some other things in my life. Ernie and I watched a tree, a whole tree, roots and all coming down the river and on the North end of the bridge ( Pancoast side ) the tree hit the rock bank and slid right up through the board planks of the bridge. It was like watching a movie, the wood planks exploded through the air. It is funny looking back on those days, Ernie and I were really young and I think maybe our parents thought I was in good hands being with Ernie and on the other hand they surly didn't have a clue what we were doing. Now days you have to have a helmet on when riding a bicycle. Ernie and Robin talk about how hard it rained but I remember after the flood I was driving back from Miranda and it was raining so hard I had to turn off the wipers so I could see the road.


Bunny said...

Thanks Ernie, a great Sunday story. Tell us more.


ERNIE,i sent you a pic of a eureka newspaper at this time!hope you get it,i'm not too good at this computer stuff!

omr said...

Thanks for taking us there Ernie. Great read.

spyrock said...

that sounds like real excitment. back when i used to ride surf mats with groovy. it didn't really matter what time of year it was, what kind of weather it was and how big the waves were. we were going out. i remember us being the only ones out in the fall and winter of 66 a lot of days. the big waves would break way out and the white water would be eight feet tall coming at you some times. you couldn't duck dive with those matts very easily. most of the time, we would have to paddle into the white water and ride it all the way in and paddle all the way out again. forturnately, kelly's is mostly a peak wave and we could paddle around the big boys most of the time. it was hard to catch those waves with a surf matt. it was knowing how to be in the perfect position and there we went bouncing down 20 foot waves until groovy got it in his head that we should shoot the pier that used to be there. i hit a pylon first and the barnacles popped the surf matt and ruined it and i got my flesh (no wetsuits) sucked into the barnacles and had to go the hospital. groovy thought that was real funny so he kept on doing it while i was sitting bandaged on the beach until he did the same thing. surf matts are high tech these days, they ride them underinflated. they are supposed to really go fast once you learn how to catch a wave with one. sounds like ernie and oregon used to be really good buds back in the day.

Ben said...

My old friend Joe Mendes, once mayor of Ferndale, owned some salt marsh gazing land near the mouth of the river. The flood deposited six feet of silt on his property and he made a good living leasing it to potato growers. The only one I knew who profited directly from the flood.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Well Ben, rebuilding after the flood and building the 101 freeway was the most prosperous times that we ever had. For the first time in the history of Southern Humboldt eveybody had jobs. Not JUST jobs but GOOD jobs.

That all ended when Jerry Brown took the Highway money to build mass transit systems.

Carol said...

Have there been many winters when there has been snow that stays more than a few days?

Fascinating article and horrific pictures!

Ernie Branscomb said...

Yes we used to have snow stick around for a few days after a big snowfall. It usually happened when it froze after the snow fell. But that was back in the sixties and seventies when we were in a big panic about the "Comming Ice Age", now we are in a big panic about "Global Warming". As soon as this phase is over we we see some more sticking snow storms.

How high did the '64 flood get to your house?

omr said...

The fella from Ferndale I was talking to about the flood said he got paid $8/hour as an extra "lawman" for standing around to prevent looting and such. This WAS good money as the minimum wage was around $1.25-30 in'64.
He said he had tried his hand at cowcorpse roundup but only lasted only two cows, for the obvious reasons.

Nice entry Oregon, I like hearing you and Ernie share the memories. BTWay, that last line was an A+ bullshistorian line...and it was raining so hard I had to turn off the wipers so I could see the road. as far as writing goes! But I believe you, as a mostly respectful newcomer.

spyrock said...

in 1861 and 1862 there were heavy rains almost as bad as 1964. 98 inches of rain in 3 months. the river in places where it was confined, raised seventy feet above low water mark, in other places where it was wide the banks caved and carried away well cultivated ranches. it became an ocean, spreading from mountain to mountain, sweeping in its furious and resistless current farmhouses, miners' cabins, mills, men, women, and children. every single mining improvement on the river for 100 miles was destroyed. many ranches were entirely swept away or runined by the deposit of sand and tailings.
this is from genocide and vendetta which I just finished reading again. found sam simmerlys name as someone who was living on yolly bolly land in the mountains north of round valley. some of his neighbors were pierce and frank asbill, william hayden, jacob updegraff etc. around 1875, congress made this mountain land part of the reservation. i don't know if the simmerlys left, but sam died in 1879. most of the people stayed until the soldiers moved them out in the 1890's. but there was a severe winter in 1890 that wiped most of them out anyway. i also found where the asbils went by milo patton's place east of alderpoint on their way to a new ranch called the coil ranch. milo was married to my great grandma's oldest sister, sarah kauble. milo supervised one of the george white ranches out there. so it looks like we knew everybody.

Ben said...

I have often thought about doing oral histories of the flood focusing on how the small isolated communities responded to their problems. When I was bartending in Phillipsville, centuries ago, I heard great ways the community cooperated to get by. For example, an old logger named Chauncey Burnside was asked to be the hunter for the town and brought back many deer to be distributed to families. Irv Mallo carried supplies to people at the Meadowwod across swollen Anderson Creek on a fallen log. Commander Hagen was chosen head of civil defense and led pretty well depending on who you talked to. Planes landed on the brand new freeway to pick up the injured and drop off supplies. When I first came here, I quickly learned that in this country you helped out when a neighbor needed it. If someone was moving, you pitched in fueled by oceans of beer. In all of these times there was the knowledge that no one had much money and those that did were busy trying to meet payrolls and make loan payments. Our entire economy is very different today and though we have a great supportive community, we just don't seem to have time to spend the better part of the day moving someone's freezer then celebrating our success at the Sawblade or the Riverwood. My back bedroom is an obvious weekend project of a bunch of timber workers determined to "get 'er done.". The floor beams are redwood logs flattened on one side for the joists. The floor ripples a bit but the whole darn thing is redwood and pretty solid. The ceiling is seven feet high as that was high enough. Obviously the work of a jovial committee. My point is that these guys worked really hard during the week, then helped their friend on the weekend. Was the flood the forge that created all this cooperation? Probably not but it had some effect. Just as gazillions of logged over acres also had some effect on the flood.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Ben, I really appreciate your comments. I know what you are talking about. We all had that feeling that nothing was impossible. We stuck together and for the most part we accomplished the impossible.

The Redway Fire Hall was built by a contractor, but he used the labor of the volunteers. Most of the material and lumber was donated by the local mills.

The Garberville Fireman's Hall was built with volunteer labor, and was built out of donated lumber. It was a sad day for me when the Garberville Fire Department sold it. I felt that it violated a trust. It wasn't that it was not going to a better place, because maybe it was. The best way that I can describe it, is like seeing your daughter getting married. You have to give her up, but you know that things are right with the world. But, I felt a little guilt of betrayal to the people that volunteered the blood sweat and tears building that fine old building.

The Mateel had that “can do” spirit when they put together the community center. The group was cohesive and tireless. Sadly I don't see that in people nowadays. I don't see that excitement of accomplishment. I don't see that spark of fulfilling a need, and doing it well. All of our jobs have been sent overseas. We don't have the mills and logging that built our communities for us. We don't have ranching like we used to have.

As a child I can remember many times when a new family would move to town looking for work. People would call around and find a job for a man at one of the mills or businesses. If he went to work at a mill the people working there would build the people a house good enough to get in out of the rain. The houses were built out of the lumber that was not good enough to sell, but good enough to keep the family warm and dry. I laughed when you described the way your bedroom was built. Many times I've seen a house built on cull logs thrown out of the deck, because they weren't suitable to make lumber. With a chainsaw and an axe the logs were topped of flat and boards were nailed on for a floor. Then boards were nailed upright around the base, with a board nailed at the top with a “lean-to” Roof and tar paper on the top. Usually the house had a bedroom for the Mom and Dad and one big room that was everything else. A stove was made out of a fifty gallon barrel. The doors were made out of boards nailed together with a criss-cross board. I remember that the doors opened in, and there was a latch board inside with a latch string that hung out though a hole in the door. When people no longer wanted visitors in the evening they would just pull the latch string inside.

I wish that all the people that move here could take the interest in the community, and espescially the land, that you have, Ben. I think that just too many people move up here and want to start changing things without understanding them. Some of the “environmental community” does more harm that good. There is many, many things that is wrong with the river right now, and nobody seems to be concerned about it. But, that is a post for another day.

Humboldt county will always have it's latchstring out for people like you Ben. You see the true character in a person. That is a rare quality anymore.

But back to the question: I really don't think that we could even recover from a flood nowadays. New Orleans and the Katrina hurricane is a good example of what would happen today. I have little faith that we could do it again.


i was hoping that someone would show a picture of the BRICELAND BRIDGE/TOOBY BROS. area,when the river was flooding!

Carol said...

Ernie, our neighbors said there was 16 feet of water over the road below our house. Ken Christensen and his sister, Wendy, swam their horses through the water. After the flood there was a horrible stench, because of all the dead cows.

When we had the last flood a couple of New Years ago the same spot only had the water over it for a few hours.

OMR said...

Again Ernie, thanks for all the hard work that went into pulling this post together, twice!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the memory. And it wasn't pleasant memory for those of us who had to endure it.

We slept in two cars up on a high flat for about three days as the river began to rise below our house on the Trinity River.

There is a nice booklet of stories and photos available from the Willow Creek/China Flat Museum that tells the story from the people who lived it. Half of the town of Willow Creek was lost from a landslide. And no, it wasn't caused by logging. It was from the extreme saturation of water. My father admitted years later that it was one of the scariest times of his adult life.

I will say this. The 1964 flood sure brought the town and the county together. Talk to an oldtimer and ask this simple question. "Where were you during the 1964 Flood?" Then sit back and listen to the answer.

You know, someone needs to write a folk song about the incident.

-Ross Rowley

Ernie Branscomb said...

Hello old friend. You should write the folk song. Look what Gordon Lightfoot did for "The Edmond Fitzgerald". You have the history, the genetics, and the musical talent. As I recall you were one of the few kids in your school that could read music.

If I would suggest anything, I would suggest that you take your time, and write it down, and let it soak a while. Then change the parts that you don't like before you publish it. It's not exactly like It was hot of the presses.

The beauty of it is you are the only one that can do it. The bad part is that you are the only one that can do it... Now you have a responsibility. I'm envious of your talent!

I don’t recall “fear” as much as apprehension or “fear of the unknown“. I was @10 for the ‘55 flood, so I was only amazed by it. It seemed like it rained twice as hard in the ‘64 flood, but I was @20 by then, and I was able to realize the full potential of the disaster that was going to come our way.

Anonymous said...

Ernie, I have the first lines of the "Ode to '64"

They were logging up and down the ridges cutting 'em to the ground

Then God threw down his gauntlet
and punished us with rivers of brown.

If'n we'd just learnt the newcomers'd never had been that way...

Nature batted the winter of '64

What do you think? Does it just about cover it?

Seriously, I should take you up on writing an ode to 1964. And yes, I'll take my time and really ponder it. And interview the folks that were our age back then. Those still alive.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Yep! Great start.

You have to weave in how deep the snow was, and how warm, and how hard the rain was. And how nothing could possibly soak it up or hold it back.

Then something about the ominous dread of knowing what was coming, and something about the fear that the men had for the safety of their women and kids.

The something about the horrible aftermath, and how miraculously everything came together, and everybody helped everyone else get by.

Then there was the loggers that got all of the roads back open with their equipment. (bad boys do good)

But, I forgot you are writing a song, not a book. I trust you will treat the story well. I know that you have the talent!

Robin Shelley said...

And it was Christmas.

Anonymous said...

No Ernie, I don't need all of those facts...I'll stick to what I have been told by those who arrived after 1970 and go from there.

OUCH!!! Just kidding, Geez.


Downbob said...

At Ben:

I just came across this post looking for anything on my paternal grandfather (whom I never met and my dad didn't know well). In your response, that "old logger named Chauncey Burnside" is my grandfather. Funny the things you come across on the internet:) Thanks.