While Global Warming only intensifies weather conditions, the geological record shows that Megafloods have occurred in California every century or two, likely triggered by “atmospheric rivers” dumping a conveyor belt of drenching rains out of the Pacific. The last Megaflood occurred in 1861-62, flooding all western states, putting vast sections of California underwater for months, ruining a quarter of the state’s economy, and pushing California into near-bankruptcy.
In the winter of 1861, Santa Cruz County was saying goodbye to a bad year, when Secession and Insurrection split this nation in two, with Civil War hostilities starting in April. Albert Brown recruited a local Union Calvary unit in September, and they first camped on the river flats between the San Lorenzo River and Branciforte Creek, then shipped out for Camp Alert in San Francisco.
From the rooftop of the Otto & Trust brick building on Front Street, New Year’s revelers listened to a modern all-saxophone band, while toasting local progress. Santa Cruz was the government seat of a wilderness county with only five towns: Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Soquel, Corralitos, and Pescadero (then part of the county). The county population was 4,600, and Santa Cruz village grew from 476 in 1850 to 800 in 1860. The County Court House moved from Mission Plaza, to the second floor of the 1859 Flatiron Building, bringing local government into downtown. Yet this three block area contained a high number of saloons, in spite of the fact the downtown’s founder, Elihu Anthony, was a strong Temperance advocate, who helped found local Temperance Societies.
The saloons were mostly for a weekend population of loggers and factory workers coming in to spend their paycheck. This may have been an annoyance to some, but those industries were the source of county wealth. By 1862, Santa Cruz controlled the state’s leather and lime production with five tanneries and three lime kilns, and was a major lumber source with 19 sawmills countywide (six in town). It was anticipated that 40 sawmills could strip the county clean in 20 years, transforming the denuded hills and valleys into farms and homes for thousands. There was also Anthony’s foundry (third in the state), a Soap and Glue Factory, a Paper Mill turning straw into butcher paper, and under construction was the West’s only Gun Powder Works.
The downtown had started as Anthony’s industrial development, with lots along the river for water-powered machinery. Hopes were the town would be a major industrial shipping port, and speculators bought and sold waterfront properties to that end, without developing them. But when potato prices sky-rocketed, the downtown flats of the old Mission Vegetable Garden were leased for $100 an acre, with the rich soil producing two years of bumper crops, until over-production made the boom go bust. Temporary tent-framed cabins along the street were shingled over into an instant downtown. Those who stayed experienced the flood of 1852, which turned streets into rivers, and became the High-Water mark.
But in November 1861, Santa Cruz was feeling prosperous. Whales frolicked in the Monterey Bay close to shore, which some said foretold a weather event. Farmers feared another dry year would bring drought, yet Indigenous Californians migrating to higher ground in the central valley, were being ignored when they said conditions were right for major flooding. On Nov. 8 it started raining gently along the coast, but heavily in the central valley, and continued non-stop for four weeks. As reports came in about major flooding elsewhere, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties felt lucky, but cautious.
Recalling the flood of 1852, Santa Cruzans decided the problem was “The Finger.” This was a land-form (west of where Kennan Street is) diverting the San Lorenzo westward. As the river rounded the point of the Finger, the flow was doubled by joining San Pedro Regaldo Creek, an east-draining tributary coming out Josephine Street, and combined, pushed south along River Street, which was the riverbank. To prevent rising waters turning into downtown, they needed to purchase “The Finger” and cut a channel through it to shift the river away from town. Otherwise, it was up to Anthony to build a log bulkhead on his property at the head of the Lower Plaza to divert the water east to its riverbed.
On Jan. 10, Leland Stanford was sworn in as governor in Sacramento, but he had to row to the new Capitol Building, as levees crumbled submerging the city. He returned to his home through the second-floor window, and decided to move state government to San Francisco until the waters receded. The whole state was cut-off from telegraph communications back east, because wires on 30-foot poles were underwater in the central valley, forming an inland sea 20-miles wide by 300-miles long. The devastation was widespread, covering the entire coast from northern Mexico to British Columbia, plus Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
Santa Cruz finally got heavy downpours on the week of Jan. 6, gradually raising the river until Jan. 11, when it crested three feet higher than the record high water mark of 1852. All the dams on the river, producing water-power for factories, were destroyed, and most of the factories as well. A newly opened lumber mill was washed away, along with most of its lumber. The river jumped its bank, undermined Mission Hill, causing 30 feet of bluff to collapse.
Floodwaters cut channels down Willow and Main streets (now Pacific and Front streets), while rampaging along its original riverbed. As homes, barns, and businesses were shattered by the churning waters, O.K. Stampley took some pride in seeing his barn floating upright down the river and out to sea. Robinson’s iron-reinforced building resisted the rising waters, but sank into the soil as it did. Stampley’s home was 50 feet from the river, but washed away.
J.B. Arcan’s orchard south of today’s Front Street and Soquel Avenue, lost 60-feet of riverbank orchard, with similar losses to the neighboring Cathcart orchard. The river turned west around today’s Laurel Street, and wiped out lower Willow Street (Pacific Avenue), leaving a marsh where the basketball arena is today. Hoping to move the river back into its channel, men worked hard to cut a notch out of the Finger. But their success was short-lived, when the bank collapsed back into the opening, blocking the flow again.
Unable to ford the river, Fredericks and attorney John Coult tried to maneuver a rowboat across the torrent, but the river snatched both oars from their hands. As the boat was being carried away, Coult jumped out, and people on the shore watched him struggle to swim to a sand-bar in the river. Robert Cathcart rowed his own boat out to rescue Coult, but as he jumped out to help Coult, Cathcart was sucked under the boat. Meanwhile Frederick’s boat was at the mercy of the churning waters, carried rapidly down the river, and out into the pounding ocean breakers. Fortunately, the boat caught on something, and the doctor jumped out. All three men survived.
Henry Van Valkenburg had built his Paper Mill north of town in January 1861, but in February a sawmill dam collapsed, and the water surge nearly destroyed his mill. Quickly repaired, the floods of 1861-62 washed away his river dam. Van Valkenburg went to supervise the clearing of a redwood on Jan. 13, but instead of falling as predicted, it slid off its stump landing with a thud upright, which sent a rain of club-like branches down, one killing Van Valkenburg.
Soquel had major storm damage, losing Town Hall, and leading businesses. Bridges in Soquel, Aptos and Watsonville were destroyed. Corralitos saw four saw mills and a grist mill lost.
Rumors that the whole Pajaro Valley was underwater proved false, although Watsonville’s lower Main Street was a navigable stream, while Pajaro across the river, only lost its Monterey Union printing office. The Salinas plains were inundated, and one quarter of the state’s cattle drowned in the flood.
Landslides and debris flows were common. The freezing weather finally resulted in a snowstorm on Jan. 27. The saddest casualties of the harsh winter were the young Santa Cruzans serving their country. The cold and damp conditions at Camp Alert spread respiratory infections to 19-year-old Asa Anthony, who died New Year’s Eve, and 20-year-old Alexander Brown, who died March 18. Likewise Eugene Van Asche in the California Infantry, assisting in Sacramento flood control, died of illness April 10.
With so much destroyed, there followed a major rebuilding push. H.H. Curtis bought the paper mill, and with 50-to-70 men constructed a bulkhead to control the river. Elihu Anthony also built a bulkhead with a dozen men and a few ox-teams, constructing 500 feet of pilings three feet apart with planks between them, to a height of two-feet taller than the high-water mark of 1862. Atop this was built a road called Bulkhead Street. He eventually boxed in the block with roads atop bulkheads, creating a pit in the middle, slowly filled in over time. And they did eliminate the Finger that vexed the existence of downtown.
How did the most devastating Megaflood become a scarcely known chapter of U.S. History? Likely its once-in-a-century-or-two irregularity undermined its urgency. But climate change is speeding up that timetable, making us plan for sea-level rise into flood plains, more atmospheric flood events, with a need to protect the high volume capacity of riparian corridors, and understand the dynamics of living with debris flow potential. We love our slice of paradise, but it is us who must make allowances to be here.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel.
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