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'A dull roar'
John Driscoll
Winston Garcelon/The Chromagenics Collection
A bridge on Salmon Creek was destroyed in the 1955 flood.

On this day 50 years ago, it was raining like few alive in Humboldt County had ever seen it rain before. It was rain on top of rain that had already drenched the area in the week and month before.

Many remembered the flood of 1937, but what was coming would dwarf that event, which would ever after only be considered a good soaker.

Among those who rode out the great flood of 1955 was a Shively school teacher named Mermie Stickles. She wrote a 29-page letter to her aunt two months after the disaster. That letter has been held by her family, and was recently given to the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association.

Stickles' account of the flood that wiped out the then-booming towns of Shively, Weott, Myers Flat and other communities on the Eel River and towns like Klamath Glen, Klamath, Orleans and other spots on the Klamath River, is especially piercing because she does not embellish.

The facts are enough. Through her letter, Stickles will be our guide. Her words are in the larger text.

A huge barn rode into sight. It floated high and even. Hay poked out of the hay mow and several cows were swimming down ahead of it.

On Dec. 20, after reporting on flooding throughout Northern California in the days before, the Humboldt Standard warned: “New Storm Coming.” Despite the blaring headline, it can only be considered an understatement.

The next day, Bull Creek, a volatile tributary of the Eel River, spilled its banks -- and washed away a home.

Massive evacuations from low-lying towns were ordered overnight, and thousands of people suddenly found their homes under water or cut off. All roads out of the county were closed, and some people -- including 350 between Orick and Klamath -- were stranded.

A state of emergency was declared. Amateur ham radio operators -- who even today would likely be critical links to the outside world during a disaster -- rallied to the call for help.

The Standard reported tons of lumber floating past Rio Dell. And at least 25 houses.

The river was rising as much as 4 feet an hour and all day houses, barns and animals went down the river in a steady procession until you wondered where they could come from.

Dave Stockton was 12 years old that week. He'd just wrapped up a school play at the grange hall in Holmes, and all he was thinking about was Christmas vacation.

”It just monsooned for the next four to five days,” Stockton said.

Stockton's family lived at the high end of the lower tier of the town. They were warned when the river threatened to spill its banks on Dec. 21, and they left without taking anything.

Southern Humboldt County was booming. It was the peak of the timber industry, and the future was bright, said Stockton, who now works with the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association.

But on Dec. 22, an unchecked Eel River was taking it all away. That flat, typically calm river had taken on a dull roar, Stockton said.

I knew it was worse than I had ever dreamed it could be.

True to form, the Eel River had risen quickly to almost 28 feet, and by Dec. 23 it began to fall. Photographs in the Standard and the Humboldt Times recorded the devastation.

The Mad River bridge on U.S. Highway 101 was torn in two, as was the bridge on the same highway over the Klamath River.

Civil defense, the U.S. Coast Guard and the California National Guard's relief efforts began kicking into high gear. Clothing, supplies and food were distributed. People emptied their freezers to feed others, Stockton said, since no electricity was expected for days or even weeks.

People who had left their homes returned to find them full of muck, which Stickles described as like the goo in the slush pits around oil wells, with the same odor.

Stockton said his house had had 3 feet of water in it, but it wasn't anything a mop couldn't handle. Many people were lucky enough to be able to scoop, push and wash the muck from homes that had been spared by the river. Other homes, many homes, had been erased.

Reports of casualties and damage came in from outside the county. More than five dozen had been killed statewide, and property damage topped $150 million.

We shoveled mud and shoveled mud and it rained and it rained.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, many of the towns were encouraged to rebuild. Cheap loans followed weather experts' opinion that such a flood only occurs once every 1,000 years.

The violence of the flood that Stockton described would not be seen again in the lifetime of anyone living then, they were told. So rebuild they did.

Nine years later, nearly to the day, it happened again. Only worse.

Where were you during the 1955 flood? We'd like to hear your most interesting stories. By Jan. 5, please send your letters -- no more than 250 words -- by e-mail to editor@times-standard.com or by mail to Flood, c/o Times-Standard, P.O. Box 3580, Eureka, CA 95502. We'll collect them and run as many as possible.

John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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