Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Salem Flood of 1890 Looks Awfully Familiar from High Street Hill

Is there anything interesting to say about a flood? Intensely personal and subjective, the experience of ruin and loss is, like grief, a solitary thing. At the same time, floods happen all the time, and the script seems like so many variations on a theme. Neighbors chip in to fill the sandbags and share the larger experience.

The epic flood of 1861 lives on more in myth, in the catastrophe at Champoeg, than in photos or other easy records.

But the flood of 1890 was almost as big, and it was documented. Here are two images that look awfully similar to what we see today around Pringle Creek and Shelton Ditch.

Floods happen regularly here, even today with the dams, and it makes you wonder why the first statesmen kept the City and Capitol at the confluence of Pringle Creek, Mill Creek, and the Willamette River.

Hopefully you are in a safe place and have plenty of good drink at hand. Venti's Taphouse still has round 3 of the Winter Ale taste-off:
  • 21st Amendment Fireside Chat
  • Fort George North V
  • Anchor Our Special Ale
  • Oakshire Ill tempered Gnome
That might be as good a tipple as any for a bloody, floody day. Call a taxi and drink well.

Jan 20th: Updated with Headlines

The waters started rising at the very end of January, and the first week or so of February was in full flood. On February 4th, Portland learned the Salem bridge was wiped out.

By Valentine's Day, the papers were toting up the damage. And on Feb 19th, a writer judged the flood of 1890 more like that of 1881 than 1861:
From all obtainable information we think it may be accepted as certain that the volume of the flood of '61 was considerably greater than that of the recent one....

Most of the rainfall that produced the flood of 1861 came in the space of about three days, while the rainfall that produced the flood of 1890 was extended over the space of nearly fifteen. Probably there was more precipitation during the storm of 1890 than during that of 1861, but it was extended over much more time. Consequently there was not the same sudden rush of waters, and the flood did not reach an equal height. Some of the tributaries of the Willamette may have been as high as in 1861, or even higher...but taken as a whole the volume of the Willamette at the utmost swell of the recent flood was beyond question considerably less than its volume at the height of 1861.

Images from Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections:
High Street looking north
High Street looking northeast
Click on either image to enlarge.

This one, showing the Courthouse and the First Methodist steeple, is also good.

Updates from the Oregonian, 4 Feb 1890 and 19 Feb 1890.


  1. Historic flood crests in Salem:

    (1) 47.00 ft on 12/04/1891
    (2) 47.00 ft on 12/04/1861
    (3) 45.10 ft on 02/05/1890
    (4) 43.30 ft on 01/16/1880
    (5) 37.78 ft on 12/23/1964
    (6) 35.09 ft on 02/08/1996
    (7) 32.32 ft on 01/17/1974
    (8) 31.50 ft on 01/15/1901
    (9) 31.30 ft on 02/06/1907
    (10) 30.60 ft on 01/02/1943
    (11) 30.50 ft on 11/25/1909
    (12) 30.30 ft on 01/08/1923
    (13) 30.23 ft on 01/22/1972
    (14) 29.28 ft on 01/02/1996
    (15) 28.75 ft on 12/30/1998
    (16) 28.35 ft on 12/30/1945
    (17) 27.47 ft on 01/09/1948
    (18) 26.17 ft on 01/20/1953
    (19) 25.52 ft on 02/12/1961
    (20) 25.46 ft on 12/23/1955
    (21) 24.70 ft on 02/23/1927
    (22) 22.96 ft on 11/27/1999
    (23) 22.01 ft on 02/02/2003

    So if the Willamette crests at about 30 feet, that makes this a top 15 flood, but not likely a top 10 flood.

    Consider, though, that the crests of the 1890 and 1861 floods were another 20 feet higher! That's crazy.

  2. I'm pretty sure the 1891 entry is an errant duplication with a typo of the 1861 entry.

    The same information for Eugene, for example, omits any flood for 1891. Ditto for Willamette Falls/Oregon City and for Albany.

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