Memories of the 1964 flood

By Chuck Blackburn May 19, 2011 06:21 pm

Editor’s note: Chuck Blackburn’s column appears on the third Thursday of every month.

Rural America is who we are and where we live. It is so beautiful but sometimes very harsh. We seem to thrive on our ability to adapt from the good times to those times that are tragic.

Recent community challenges bring back the memories of events that occurred in 1964. The Good Friday tsunami of that year really tested this community in its ability to recover.  Bill Stamps, Mr. KPOD Radio, set the tone with “Comeback Town U.S.A.” Every day he drove home his message to us all from his perch in good old KPOD.

I’m sure that none of us were thinking about the upcoming rainy season of 1964–65. The late fall started with cool, rainy weather in late November and early December. Snow at the higher levels was real common and quite deep. We hade a series of storms in the middle of December and the temperatures started to warm.

The week before Christmas a “Pineapple Express” stationary front came right at Oregon and Northern California. It rained 6 inches or more for several days. The weather service warned of possible flooding on all rivers in the area.

I was teaching at Redwood School in Fort Dick at the time. A warning of record flooding for shorter rivers like the Chetco and Smith rivers was put out there. The Klamath, Rogue and Eel rivers would follow several days later. My good friend Larry Holcomb joined me in Fort Dick as we were off for Christmas vacation from school. We walked from Redwood School north on Lake Earl to where it dipped to the farmlands near Tryon Corners. 

We were shocked to see water all the way across the valley. We then drove our vehicle down Morehead Road toward Lower Lake Road, only to be stopped by water at the west end. The Smith River actually came up high enough to join Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa. Larry suggested that we drive into the fairgrounds to talk with Chuck Glover, the fairgrounds manager and also the local head of the Red Cross, to volunteer our services.

Chuck was thankful for us showing up as he really needed help.

“Larry, you're going to cook, and Chuck, you’re going to haul food and supplies to the Klamath area as soon as you can get in.”

Larry cooked up a great feast but there were no refugees yet at the center at the fairgrounds. “Sweet Ole Bill” was on the air broadcasting from the dining room. I told Bill that we had tons of hot food available and the old master put it over the airwaves. Within the next couple of hours the place was full of people. What we found out later was that all of the local bars emptied out, plus homeless people and a few refugees from the flood. Chuck Glover and Larry Holcomb were both happy and Sweet Ole Bill had his usual smile.

The Klamath River was now at record flood stage. The Klamath Bridge gave way in the torrent of logs, homes and water. I headed south with a Jeep Wagoneer full of goodies for the residents, guards against looting and airmen from the Requa Radar Station. My destination was the Simpson Mill, which was out of the flood water. I had to turn at Marigold Park near Trees of Mystery and drive the logging roads over the mountain to the mill.

The folks there really appreciated the food. A story came out of a discussion with the airmen from the base. They had to go around town to get everyone to evacuate. A well-known store owner and his wife had both survived the 1955 flood, but he was reluctant to leave this time. His wife and the airmen finally talked him into leaving but he had to run upstairs to retrieve something. He returned with a closed cardboard box and told an airman to handle it carefully. When they arrived at their destination, the airman grabbed the box but it opened slightly and to his surprise it was full of cash, money, greenbacks. Tony, the owner said, “thank you,” as the surprised airman said, “you’re welcome.”

It was Christmas Eve and Chuck Glover gave me my assignment for the evening: “You’re going to Klamath.” The river was within its banks but Highway 101 South was a D-8 CAT road through the destroyed town site. “You are going to deliver your food to Klamath Glen. Be careful. Be safe,” Chuck said to me.

I headed south and was stopped at Requa Road, where Deputy Tom Hopper was parked. I certainly was somewhat fearful of this trip. I talked Tom into guiding me through. The CAT trail was built on the two or three feet of silt that was deposited on Highway 101.

We approached the old cannery site where the road was undermined, but carefully got through. The river was “right there.” The next sight left me in awe. A moonlit night and all I could see in Old Town was a white, leaning church steeple.

We left 101 and turned up the Klamath Glen Road, only to have to stop at a slip-out in the road. A CAT had cut a narrow road through the slide site. It was groaning and gurgling as we walked it first. We made it through and were greeted at Crivelli’s Café by many trailers and RVs, which were pulled from the valley and parked on the roadway. Many had generators running and Christmas lights strung. No matter what had happened, they were going to celebrate Christmas. Warm coffee and warm food for them was my mission. Thanks, Tom Hopper, for getting me through.

I returned home around midnight and as I opened the door my wife and kids all woke up to greet Daddy. We all celebrated Christmas right then. Who says that people can’t enjoy life at a time of tragedy.

Quite a year in Del Norte’s history, 1964.