When the West Coast was Underwater

On April 15th, 1861, the first day of the Civil War, Washington DC was cloaked in rain. In the skies over Charleston Harbor the skies were clear, the war started, because the simple weaponry of the time worked better on dry days.

If you were of military age and thought your chances in California were better than behind the battle lines you could choose to take a clipper ship around Cape Horn. However, you most likely were not going to escape the storms completely. As described by Richard Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, the weather at sea could be just as bad.

“Throughout the night it stormed violently, — rain, hail, snow, and sleet beating upon the vessel,-the wind continuing ahead and the sea running high. At daybreak (about three a.m.) the deck was covered with snow. The captain sent up the steward with a glass of grog to each of the watch; and all the time that we were off the Cape, grog was given to the morning watch, and to all hands whenever we reefed topsails…”

After two hundred days at sea, you would have sailed from the storm of war in the East, through a tempest of snow off the Cape and through the Golden Gate into the sunshine of the San Francisco Bay. The gorgeous weather would not hold.

The month of November in California, would bring the first rains of the season, and they were what was expected. However, on December 9th, the Pacific Coast received the first of four deluges, the second occurred from December 23rd to the 28th, the third from January 9th to the 12th, and the fourth from January 15th to the 17th.

The damage from this deluge was felt from Mexico to British Columbia and as far inland as Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

The state of Nevada received twice its normal rainfall turning the Carson Valley into a lake. Nevada City received nine feet of rain in sixty days.

The Willamette Valley in the State of Oregon was also a lake, destroying Oregon City, the terminus of the Oregon Trail.

The Boise River of Idaho grew four times its normal size.

At the end of this period, the Central Valley of California was turned into an inland sea three hundred miles long, twenty miles wide and, up to thirty feet deep.

Los Angeles received sixty-six inches of rain, four times its normal rainfall. The Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, covered in ten to fifteen feet of snow received a blast of warm air, melting the snow and filling the rivers beyond their capacity as the waters rushed towards the San Francisco Bay.

Mr. Thomas Tennent, who had six weather stations reporting meteorological data, along with sunrise, sunset, moon, and tide tables, to the local newspapers throughout San Francisco, reported that not only did the City received 28.25 inches of rain in thirty days it also experienced nine days below freezing, the lowest being January 28th with a reading of twenty-two degrees.

The January 11, 1862, Nevada City Democrat wrote: “We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville (California) left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.”

In describing the rains the Stockton Daily Argus said that “The rain poured down in torrents instead of drops, it came down in lines almost sufficient to drown a man standing in it with his hat off”

According to the January 21, 1862, New York Times: “The Pacific slope has been visited by the most disastrous flood that has occurred since its settlement by white men.”

In California, its capital, Sacramento, suffered the most damage. Sacramento sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers; the American River rose fifty-five feet inundating the city.

These floods were made even worse by the earth that was rushing down from the foothills in the streams and rivers.

Hydraulic mining had been one of the most effective ways of taking gold out of the hills of California during the Gold Rush. The use of high-pressure hoses to loosen the rocks and dirt from the hills to expose the gold, pushed the dirt into the rivers. As the rivers flattened out when reaching the valley, the sediment was deposited, widening the rivers and making it easier for rising waters to overflow the rivers banks.

Log dams were often built to catch this silt, so when the deluges began there was more debris than the rivers could handle, raising the riverbed of the Sacramento by seven feet.

This brown muddy water, sometimes eighteen to twenty feet deep, made its way all the way to the San Francisco Bay. It is not known if the entire San Francisco Bay was flushed with freshwater, but the bay did rise several inches causing a sea captain to report that even though his ship was “heavily laden it foundered in the Gulf of the Farallons due to the layer of freshwater.” Saltwater is more buoyant than freshwater due to its higher specific density.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration technical report shows that for ten days water flowed through the Golden Gate blocking tide reversal and fishermen pulled freshwater fish out of the San Francisco Bay for several months.

In 1862 The Times of London reported that “mats of tulles ½ mile of a side broke free of the delta islands and were carried out to sea in the flood. The mats moved down the coast in the prevailing southerly currents and were then driven onshore by wind, ending up on shores around Monterey Bay. Local farmers used pitchforks to kill the snakes, which came out of the grounded mats of tulles onto the beaches.”

A 1917, Department of the Interior, Geological Survey conducted by Grove Karl Gilbert, infers that the flood may have precipitated the banning of hydraulic mining. “When rains and floods came the sands and gravels were moved forward toward the lowlands, and in 1862 a great flood washed so large a quantity into the lower reaches of the Sierra rivers and into the rivers of the Great Valley that the holders of riparian lands became alarmed. The mining-debris question, then for the first time generally recognized, assumed greater and greater importance and prominence in subsequent years and led to protest and litigation, which in 1884 culminated in a series of injunctions where by the miners were restrained from casting their tailings into the stream.”

The 1860 census records that there were 379,994 people living in California, a 410% increase over 1850, the year after gold was discovered. A large part of this increased population was living in gold mining towns along riverbanks in Northern California. San Francisco’s 1860 population was 56,802. Los Angeles was a very sparse area of 11,333 people. It is likely that none of these population figures included the thousands of Chinese immigrants, whom Leland Stanford referred to in his inaugural address saying: “”Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”

According to the Union Democrat of December 14th, “the number of dead is stated from ten to forty persons.Deaths occurred every day on the Feather, Yuba, and American rivers. The Marysville Appeal published a report of 50 Chinese lost. The human death toll, most likely in the thousands, will probably be never known completely, but it has been reported that 800,000 head of cattle, 100,000 sheep and, 500,000 lambs, along with untold numbers of wildlife died in the flood.

Roads were impassable or simply washed away making food distribution impossible. Reports of shortages, leading to famine were not uncommon. The Alta California reported that flour began selling for $20 to $24 a barrel, the few potatoes that could be bought went for eight cents a pound, but there was not much else to be found.

Those not so badly affected, such as San Franciscans, sent money and help to the central valley. The United States steam revenue cutter Shubrick anchored in Benicia, a small town that sits in the Carquinez Strait, about 32 nautical miles inland from the San Francisco Bay. A crew member wrote: “At Daybreak, got under way for Rio Vista (where the whole village had been swept away), and supplied the people there with provisions, and then took our way up the old river to Georgiana slough. Here we supplied provisions and took on board seven men, one woman and three children. Five miles above we rescued three men and two women. Twelve miles further on we rescued three men and three miles further picked up a woman and three children. It is dreadful to look upon the suffering along the river — the poor cattle lying dead along what were the banks.”

According to a rather flowery report from the Illustrated London News, dated March 29, 1862, and accompanied by etchings by California artist Edward Vischer, “Rio Vista …was the rendezvous of the relief fleet of whale-boats and scows searching for sufferers from the flood over the plains on each side of the Sacramento. A passenger onboard The Nevada, which started from San Francisco on January 12 with a large supply of baked meats, bread and other provisions hastily collected for the immediate relief of the destitute sufferers of Sacramento.”

The destruction led to losses in the neighborhood of $10 to $15 million in taxable property and $50 to $100 million in personal property. The loss of this taxable property led to the bankruptcy of California ensuring that the Governor, the state legislators and state employees were not paid for one and a half years.

The newly elected eighth governor of California, Leland Stanford, was to be sworn in on January 10th. Floodwaters inundated the city and Stanford was rowed to the statehouse for a quick swearing-in. He was then rowed back to his home, being forced to enter it through the second-floor window.

On the 11th of January, the Senate passed a resolution to temporarily move the capital to San Francisco. The Assembly did not want to do further damage to the economy of the capital city of Sacramento and voted to authorized the Sergeant at Arms to hire boats to convey the legislators to and fro. Continued rising waters convinced the legislature to move to San Francisco to complete the six months left in the session.

At the time of the floods, there was no official Capitol building, the statehouse was located in the Sacramento County Court House, which stood at 7th and I streets.

Construction on a new State Capitol building began in August of 1862 but was halted due to the floods. Once the waters receded and engineers could assess the situation the building’s ground line was raised six feet to fight against future floods.

One in eight houses were destroyed or washed away. Beginning in 1863 and commencing for ten years, the remaining homes and commercial buildings within the town of Sacramento were raised using Jackscrews. These hydraulic jacks were placed under the buildings at multiple locations. When the time was right a foreman would blow a whistle and a worker would turn one or two of these jackscrews a quarter of a turn.

Raising the buildings was the responsibility of the owner, as the state was bankrupt. Thousands of yards of soil sat in the streets waiting to be placed under the buildings when they were raised. Each property owner was to build a brick wall at the street line to hold back this dirt, in 1866 the cost to build these brick bulkheads was a mere $3 a running foot.

The cities buildings were raised as much as eight feet and sometimes as much as fifteen feet. There were many complications, starting with the fact that the infrastructure was often under the original layer of soil and impossible to access. The raising of buildings over ten years did not take place with any coordinated plans so many of the streets had buildings that either needed stairs to go down into or ramps to get up into. In the end, it proved to be worth the effort as the city never flooded again.

One of the more avid chroniclers of the flood was William H. Brewer. Brewer was a Yale graduate and teacher in Pennsylvania when Josiah Whitney, Chief of the California Geological Survey hired him to help perform the First Geological Survey of California.

The brainchild of Supreme Court Judge Stephen J. Field, the Geological Survey was to provide a complete understanding of the twelve-year-old State of California’s natural resources.

Brewer spent four years and covered 14,000 miles performing this survey with Whitney. During this time he was an avid writer and diarist, regularly sending letters home to his brother. These writings were collected into a book titled Up and Down California 1860–1864, published in 1930. One other casualty of the bankruptcy of California was the Geological Survey, which came to an end in 1864 due to lack of funds.

Although the Pony Express had been replaced by the Trans-Continental Telegraph in October of 1861, Brewers January 31, 1862 article points out that neither would have been useable in the post-flood period:“ All the roads in the middle of the state are impassable, so all mails are cut off. We have had no “Overland” for some weeks, so I can report no new arrivals. The telegraph also does not work clear through, but news has been coming for the last two days. In the Sacramento Valley for some distance the tops of the poles are under water!”

On March 9, 1862, he wrote of Sacramento, “I had some time to look at the city. Such a desolate scene I hope never to see again. Most of the city is still under water, and has been for three months. A part is out of the water, that is, the streets are above water, but every low place is full — cellars and yards are full, houses and walls wet, everything uncomfortable. Over much of the city boats are still the only means of getting about. No description that I can write will give you any adequate conception of the discomfort and wretchedness this must give rise to. I took a boat and two boys, and we rowed about for an hour or two. Houses, stores, stables, everything, were surrounded by water. Yards were ponds enclosed by dilapidated, muddy, slimy fences; household furniture, chairs, tables, sofas, the fragments of houses, were floating in the muddy waters or lodged in nooks and corners — I saw three sofas floating in different yards. The basements of the better class of houses were half full of water, and through the windows one could see chairs, tables, bedsteads, etc., afloat. Through the windows of a schoolhouse I saw the benches and desks afloat.”

Another writer affected by the floods was Bret Harte. An unknown author living in San Francisco, he came to prominence with the publication of his short story The Luck of Roaring Camp. This bawdy tale of a prostitute and an all-male gold mining camp ends with a poor orphan named Luck dying in the rising floodwaters of the flood. Harte set the story in 1852, the earlier years of the, by then, thirteen-year-old gold rush, although it was published six years after the flood.

Harte went on to use the floods in his short story Santa Clause Came to Simpson’s Bar.

The California Flood Mazurka Composed and Respectfully Dedicated to the Sacramento Howard Benevolent Society by Max Zorer was a musical tribute to the flood.

It is also thought that the 1884 song Oh My Darling Clementine, about a gold miner who loses his daughter to a flooded river, sprang from Down by the River Lives a Maiden, written by H.S. Thompson in 1863 about the devastation.

Most of our history about the flood comes from personal accounts and missives from the many small newspapers that dotted the Pacific Coast at the time. It took many years to determine why this tragedy was beset upon an entire coast of the United States.

Present-day science has said that an atmospheric river most likely caused the Great Flood of 1862. Atmospheric Rivers are narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of miles with the potential of hurricanes due to their longevity. They can carry from seven to fifteen times the amount of water in the Mississippi River.

The building of levees and dams now protect the Sacramento Valley and other areas of the western United States, and climate change has left California is a state of drought more year than not, but atmospheric rivers still pass over the state, reminding everyone that Mother Nature, not man, is really in charge.



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