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History surges back on walking tours

Participants heard firsthand accounts and dramatic descriptions at various stops.
Participants heard firsthand accounts and dramatic descriptions at various stops. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Most who have lived around Crescent City long enough have been schooled on how downtown looks “nothing like it used to” — a nod to the character-changing effect of 30 developed city blocks being erased by the ’64 tsunami in a single night.

But nothing truly puts the fateful night of March 27 into perspective like hearing first-hand accounts and ominous descriptions of the scene while walking the places where it happened.

More than 200 people took part in guided tsunami walking tours Saturday, walking from one disaster scene to the next while volunteer tour guides detailed the destruction.

From Elk Creek Bridge, the single location that incurred the most fatalities 
during the disaster, City Councilman Ron Gastineau, one of the lead organizers of the tours, pointed to the Gardenia Motel and recounted the images that people witnessed while stranded on top of the hotel that stood before it:

“There were 30 people on the roof and they were watching cars with people inside pleading for help float on by,” Gastineau said, before pointing to the Renner Petroleum tanks off Highway 101.

“You can imagine, those tanks over there are exploding so the sky is lit up with fire, and the electricity is blown out and they say it looked like fireworks so it was probably a very terrifying few hours for the people stuck on that motel.”

Tour guide John Ging pointed down the pedestrian-only stretch that was Second Street asking, everyone to imagine a bustling downtown before raising a hand overhead to signify the height of the tsunami surges downtown.

Geese take flight as a tour reaches the worst 1964 death scene near the mouth of Elk Creek.
Geese take flight as a tour reaches the worst 1964 death scene near the mouth of Elk Creek. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
The historical tours were not solely focused on the past, however, as guides shared the lessons learned from ’64 that can be used for future tsunami threats — like not leaving a safe zone too early.

Some of the most dramatic stories from ’64 are of people who returned to clean up downtown stores, thinking that the worst of the surges were over.

Walking past the Turf Club bar, Ging said that the watering hole was the first building the town rebuilt in the devastated downtown. 

“You can tell where the focus was in the city of Crescent City,” Ging said.

Pointing to the 2-foot wall across Front Street from the bar, Ging said it was built in 1915 to keep driftwood and surf off the road.

It didn’t do much to protect from the tsunami.

Beyond the wall was an undeveloped beach, the scene where a young Mick Miller was parked with a date when waves stranded his dad’s Lincoln in the sand, as a volunteer reads Miller’s account.

“I had to get my father’s Lincoln out of there. A tidal wave was nothing compared to the wrath of my old man,” Miller’s story goes.

At the end of the tours, Rene’ Shanle-Hutzell of Bicoastal Media, quizzed the walkers on what they had learned about tsunamis and how to avoid the next one, encouraging everyone to participate in the evacuation exercise Wednesday.

Keeping Crescent City’s ever-present tsunami threat in mind will be easier for some after downtown scenes have taken on new historical meaning.

“My wife and I would walk around here but not really know where things happened,” said Jake Smith, who moved to Smith River last year. “This is really helpful because it gives you a perspective on what happened where.”

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 


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