Winston Garcelon/The Chromagenics
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
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
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
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
The Standard reported tons of lumber
floating past Rio Dell. And at least 25
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
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
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
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
email@example.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