California’s Great Flood

FloodsFrom December 1861 through January 1862, a series of monster storms dumped unprecedented amounts of rain across the length and breadth of California. Bridges were washed away in Trinity and Shasta Counties.  Miners’ cabins, sluice-boxes, chicken coops, bales of hay, and furniture swept down the Trinity River to the sea. The North Fork of the American River at Auburn rose 35 feet, “almost to the hilltops” according to local newspapers.  The captain of the steamer Gem, going up the Sacramento River from Sacramento to Red Bluff, could only tell where the river channel was by the cottonwood trees lining the riverbanks, and had to stop several times to rescue men from of the tops of trees.  The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys became vast lakes extending 300 miles, four and more feet deep. Collapsed wooden houses and the drowned carcasses of livestock floated past diligent souls who took row boats out to rescue others stranded on patches of higher ground or perched on rooftops. Powerful currents toppled telegraph poles and ripped railroad tracks apart. Nor was the Southland spared. The town of Ventura, located on the narrow coastal plain, was abandoned when rivers coursing down the mountains flooded the region. A total of 35 inches of rain fell at Los Angeles in a four-week period, washing away fruit trees and vineyards along the Los Angeles River. The road from Tejon washed away; small settlements in most of the lower areas on the plains were submerged. In present day Orange County, the overflowing Santa Ana River created an inland sea that lasted for about three weeks; and in San Diego, a storm at sea backed up the water draining into the ocean from the San Diego River, cutting a new river channel into San Diego Harbor.  Meteorologists calculate that the 1861-62 “storm of the century” is a natural event due every 200 years that so far hasn’t recurred.   


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