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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

America's deadliest natural flash flood happened in Heppner

Tiny Willow Creek became a wall of water, swept away a third of the town and killed 247 people; one out of every 6 Heppner residents died that day. It was the worst non-dam-related flash flood in U.S. history.

The T.W. Ayers house on May Street, Heppner, in the aftermath of the deadly flash flood of 1903.
The wreck of the T.W. Ayers home, formerly on May Street in Heppner,
as seen in the wake of the disastrous flash flood of 1903. (Photo courtesy
of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oregon doesn’t have to deal with a hurricane season, or tornado warnings, or golf-ball-size hail. But a town in north-central Oregon was the scene of a monster flash flood a little over 100 years ago – a flood that killed at least 247 people.

The town of Heppner is located in a small, tight valley that drains into the Columbia River. In 1903 it was home to just under 1,500 people. At the bottom of the valley, a tiny and innocuous little stream runs down to the river. This is Willow Creek. It’s ankle deep for most of the year, and runs dry sometimes in late summer.

Heppner's final moments

On  June 14, 1903, the creek looked perfectly normal. The sky, though, did not. It was rapidly darkening  and soon it unleashed a torrent of rain and hail on the town. Witnesses  said they couldn’t hear each other speak, and everyone ran inside to get out of it.

The Heppner methodist church stands like a sentinel guarding the wreckage of its town after the 1903 flood.
The Heppner methodist church stands like a sentinel guarding the
wreckage of the rest of its town after the 1903 flood. (Photo courtesy
of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

This may be why the flood was so deadly. Not only were almost all residents of Heppner in their houses when it happened, but the rattle of the hail masked the roar of the wall of muddy water, trees, boards, cattle, sheep and other flotsam that was hurtling down the canyon toward the village.

A 50-foot wall of water?

Witnesses said the wall of water was 40 to 50 feet high, which seems very unlikely. Engineers afterward claimed it was 6 feet high, which also seems unlikely. In any case, a wall it was, and it picked up dozens of occupied houses and swept them downstream. When it was over, a third of the town was gone and many other houses were full of mud and debris from the high water. Most of the residential area of town was gone and the business district was badly damaged.

The heroes ride to save downstream towns

An overview of the town of Heppner after the 1903 flood.
An overview of what remained of the town of Heppner after the flood.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Immediately after the disaster, two Heppner residents, Leslie Matlock and Bruce Kelly, took off on horseback – racing the flood in a bid to get to Lexington and Ione, which were farther down the canyon. The flood had put the telephone and telegraph lines out of service and damaged the railroad line, so it was the only possible way to warn the downstream towns. The riders had to stop along the way to cut their way through barbed-wire fences, and they got to Lexington just a few minutes too late. But the floodwaters were slowing down, and the two riders passed the crest on the way to Ione, and arrived in time to give the warning.

One in six killed in the torrent

Among those who were caught in the torrent, survivors were few. One lucky family rode downstream in their submerged house, up to their necks in water, and were able to escape when it fetched up against another structure. But for the most part, those caught in the flood drowned.

Heppner as it appears today, in an image taken from above the Willow Creek Dam -- which, despite its ominous appearance, protects the town from future inundations
Heppner as it appears today, in an aerial photo from abo ve the Willow
Creek Dam -- which, despite its ominous appearance, protects the town
from the very disaster it appears to threaten in this photo . (Image
courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

And when it was over, the survivors in Heppner had an awful job ahead of them. A quote from the Portland Oregonian, reprinted in DenOuden’s article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, sums it up: “Scenes at Heppner are indescribable in their gruesomeness, their anguish, their awful desolation. No pen can exaggerate the horrors they present. Every heap of debris may contain a human forming decomposition. Many do reveal such spectacles when uncovered, and meantime Willow Creek, as if to mock the dead, has returned to a purling brooklet.”

This tiny town had, in an hour or so, experienced the worst non-dam-related flash flood disaster in U.S. history, before or since, as measured by deaths. The official count was 247 killed – roughly one out of every six Heppner residents was dead.

A popular date of death

Today, 107 years later, the debris is gone and the damage repaired or cleaned up. But you can still see the effects of the flood with a stroll through the Heppner cemetery, located on a hill above the town. On headstone after headstone you’ll find carved, with chilling insistence, the same date of death: June 14, 1903.

(Sources: DenOuden, Bob. “The Heppner Flood of 1903,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 2004; www.noaa.gov)