Background photo is an image of Highway 395 on the shores of Abert Lake, made by F.J.D. John in 2016.
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It was somewhat miraculous that this terrifying show of natural force happened during daylight hours. In those pre-electricity days, people were almost as helpless as roosting chickens after night fell. Thousands hurried to higher ground, and so when the houses started to float away, not many people were still inside them. (How many isn’t clear. At least four people are known to have died in the flood, but records from 1861 are very incomplete.)
Water rose in Oregon City until it flowed through the main streets of town, high on its bluff over the lower river. Residents of Corvallis, who went to bed that night thinking their homes were high enough to be safe, learned otherwise when they were awakened from slumber by the sound of driftwood slamming into the side of their houses.
South of Oregon City at Canemah, at the top of the roaring brown stretch of rapids that had been the 45-foot Willamette Falls a few days before, a riverboat captain named Pease escorted his family safely to high ground. Then he returned to the steamboat dock and fired up the boiler in his sternwheeler, the Onward, and set out up the valley to rescue people. By nightfall Captain Pease had saved some 40 people from certain soaking and possible drowning. His method was simple: He simply drove from farmhouse to farmhouse making sure everyone was out. When he found people still inside a house, he would simply drive his shallow-draft boat up to the house, throw a rope around a tree or chimney, and drop a board onto the porch or roof. The occupants would then scramble up the board and onto the boat, and Pease would move on to the next farm.
Many other people, stranded after having taken refuge in the second floor or on the roof of a house or barn, were rescued by neighbors in skiffs and canoes as the majority of ground in the valley was turned into a vast, half-million-acre lake.
Over following week or two, the water level stayed high and occasionally rose. Watchers at Oregon City saw houses floating down the river and over the falls, many with candles and lanterns still burning in their windows.
When the floodwaters finally receded, the damage was stunning. The entire town of Champoeg had been washed away; the general store was spotted a mile downriver in a clump of brush, but the rest of the houses were long gone. One building remained.
The same fate befell the town of Orleans, across the river from Corvallis. Once considered a rival of Corvallis for local primacy, Orleans was wiped from the face of the Earth by the flood, with the sole exception of the Orleans Church and adjacent cemetery, which was built on a nearby knoll and escaped the flood.
All of this was still fairly fresh in many residents’ minds 32 years later, in 1894. And although the high water was an inconvenience, it was a familiar one. Bad as it was, they knew very well that it could get a whole lot worse. It was all just part of what one had to do to live in the Willamette Valley.
SINCE THAT TIME, of course, the river has been mostly tamed. Dams and reservoirs like Cottage Grove Lake and Detroit Lake are lovely places to go fish and water-ski, of course, but that’s not why they were built; they’re there to provide a brake on the speed with which snowmelt hits the main-stem Willamette. And since 1948 — the most recent flood to fill the streets of Portland, and the same flood that carried away the town of Vanport — those dams have done a yeoman’s job of keeping the river from pulling another 1861.
But there have been some very close calls. The floods of 1996 brought the water level up to within inches of spilling over Portland’s floodwall and pouring into downtown Portland once again. That flood reached 35 feet in Salem; the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would have reached 42.5 feet without flood-control dams.
But the 1861 flood reached 47 feet. Which strongly suggests that the next time that much rain and snowmelt come along, Portlanders and other Willamette Valley residents are going to need to re-learn some of their old 1894-style coping skills.