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The Heppner Flood of 1903

Joann Green Byrd

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eBook - ePub


The Heppner Flood of 1903

Joann Green Byrd

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About This Book

June 14, 1903, was a typical, hot Sunday in Heppner, a small farm town in northeastern Oregon. People went to church, ate dinner, and relaxed with family and friends. But late that afternoon, calamity struck when a violent thunderstorm brought heavy rain and hail to the mountains and bare hills south of town. When the fierce downpour reached Heppner, people gathered their children and hurried inside. Most everyone closed their doors and windows against the racket.

The thunder and pounding hail masked the sound of something they likely could not have imagined: a roaring, two-story wall of water raging toward town. Within an hour, one of every five people in the prosperous town of 1,300 would lose their lives as the floodwaters pulled apart and carried away nearly everything in their path. The center of town was devastated. Enormous drifts of debris, tangled around bodies, snaked down the valley. The telegraph was down, the railroads were out, and the mayor was in Portland.

Stunned survivors bent immediately to the dreadful tasks of searching for loved ones and carrying bodies to a makeshift morgue in the bank. By the next afternoon, thousands of individuals and communities had rushed to the town's aid, an outpouring of generosity that enabled the self-reliant citizens of Heppner to undertake the town's recovery.

In Calamity, Joann Green Byrd, a native of eastern Oregon, carefully documents this poignant story, illustrating that even the smallest acts have consequences - good or bad. She draws on a wealth of primary sources, including a moving collection of photographs, to paint a rare picture of how a small town in the West coped with disaster at the turn of the twentieth century.

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Up Until the Heppner Flood

THE THUNDERSTORM came on all of a sudden, toward the end of a hot, sun-baked Sunday afternoon. It was about 4:30, maybe 4:45, when black clouds seized the sky over the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and erupted in a torrent of rain and hail. Even in an arid region where rainstorms go by the names “cloudbursts” and “waterspouts,” this was heavy rain; one woman said it was like a tub of water pouring over her throughout the storm. And the hail was not the ordinary kind formed by layers of ice. These chestnut-size chunks were clear ice, created at least nine miles straight up from Morrow County. Never mind if the thermometers in Heppner read 94 degrees;1 at more than 50,000 feet, it could have been well below zero.2
Everyone here wanted rain. Agriculture was the engine of Heppner's success, and everyone knew that wheat, and a bountiful supply of grass and hay for livestock, were essential. Day after cloudless day, June had been abnormally dry. Some heavy rain Thursday brought temporary hope, but everybody recognized it wasn't enough to save the harvest, and went back to wishing and praying for more.
If rain came by thunderstorm people here were accustomed to thunder and lightning on hot afternoons in spring and early summer.3 It's partly the topography: hundreds of bluffs, buttes, prairies, hills, benches, ridges, gullies, and canyons contour the landscape between the highest of the Blue Mountains and downtown Heppner. These “terrain discontinuities” can concentrate the convection that sets off thunderstorms when heated air rises and collides with cooler air aloft.4
Regrettably, this storm broke directly over the headwaters of Balm Fork, about eight to ten miles south of Heppner, and also dumped tons and tons of rainwater into Willow Creek and another of its tributaries, Hinton Creek. The water raced into canyons it had been carving for centuries, and there wasn't much to stop it. The east slopes of the hills were mostly bare rock. And there wasn't much in the way of soil or roots to catch the water on the west slope either: wind, earlier cloudbursts, and hungry livestock had already been there. What made it worse was that the Thursday downpour had moistened what soil there was, cutting down on how much it could absorb on Sunday.5
The U.S. Geological Survey would call it “one of those very heavy storms of short duration covering a very small area, so peculiar to the arid region…. Such a storm is almost like a tornado in its suddenness, destructibility, and limited extent.”6 Seven-year-old Lena Hughes, who was 12 miles south of Heppner with her parents, Matthew and Angeline, remembered “a broad black streak almost straight north of us, which seemed to be coming straight down from the sky.”7 That could have been a tornado. Severe thunderstorms produce tornadoes, and in eastern Oregon tornadoes have a tendency to occur on or about June 14.8
The total rainfall, the U.S.G.S. said afterward, was 1.5 inches over 20 square miles. But to the agency's engineer, John Whistler, the amount of rain wasn't the main thing. Writing a month later, he noted that “the great destructiveness of these so-called ‘cloudbursts’ is due more to the rugged character of the topography, and the almost utter absence of vegetation.”9
Jennie Currin and her two youngest were a mile south of Heppner on the farm they had bought in March from James and Delitha Jones. Jennie and the girls had started supper, but when the storm came on so strong, they let the kitchen fire go out.10 “My, what a roar—rain and hail beat on our east porch ’til water ran in under the door and a stream across the dining room and kitchen floor.” She called it a river in the lane, the cow shed, and the barn, “six inches deep in our yard.”11
The storm got to Heppner about 5 p.m., and sent just about everyone inside. It was nearly suppertime anyway, and people getting a meal ready or sitting down to eat must have been relieved to close their windows and doors against the commotion. The rain and hail pounded in endless staccato while lightning bolts chased each other across the thick black sky and the thunder rumbled louder than a locomotive.
N. L. Tooker, a civil engineer and salesman for Fairbanks, Morris & Co., had a room in Heppner's Palace Hotel: “I went to my room on the second floor to take a nap…. I was brought suddenly wide awake by a frightful clap of thunder. Going to the window…which faced up Willow Creek toward the hills, I saw a great mass of the blackest clouds huddling over the mountain tops. From that time on the roll of thunder was incessant and deafening…. I was through the terrible St. Louis cyclone of 1897, and the looks of the storm clouds surrounding Heppner…very much reminded me of the atmospheric conditions preceding the other horror.”12
WHILE the storm bombarded Heppner from the sky, the water it had already dumped on the mountains and foothills was mobilizing south of town. Every minute, more water squeezed between canyon walls; every minute, the nascent, muddy rivers collected more debris. When Oregonian reporter A. Crofton later traced the flood to its source, he reported hills “deeply scored by thousands of small water courses made by Sunday's storm. In most of these the current must have been strong enough to sweep the stoutest man off his feet. At the base of each little gully are stones and boulders piled from three to ten feet deep. As there is practically no vegetation on that eastern hillside, the water had as free a course as on a shingled roof, and the watercourses are cut like ditches, nearly straight.”13
The water roared north, 90 percent of it down the channel of Balm Fork. The wave had been carrying boulders and trees; now it added evidence of human presence: fence posts, chickens, wagon wheels, rakes, frying pans, bridles, books. Soon, it was a wall of water advancing in pulses, first backing up with its growing burden of debris against farm buildings and fences made of wood or woven wire. Then smashing through.
Just before reaching Heppner, the wave raging along Balm Fork slammed into Willow Creek. Balm is a tributary of Willow, but this time the merging was furious. The flood riding the Balm channel crashed clear across swollen Willow Creek, gouging a cove in the far bank that locals pointed out for eighty years.
Balm Fork and Willow were now Willow Creek—or rather Willow Creek possessed by a flash flood. When this wall of churning gray-brown water boiled out from between the hills hugging Willow, it was as high as the tallest barn in the county.
From his room in the Palace, salesman Tooker saw “what appeared to be a great pyramid of rolling dirty wool. Projecting from this at every conceivable angle, writhing, twisting, and tumbling but ever moving onward with the speed of an express train, were trees, houses, great rocks and tons of earth. The wall of water was fully 30 feet in height and as far as I could see behind it a sea of turbulent brown black liquid stretched.”14
It was June 14, 1903.
ON THIS DAY Heppner's buildings spread along the flat on both banks of Willow Creek and more sparsely on up the slopes that cradled the Willow Creek valley. The town was just over one mile long. Willow Creek entered Heppner at the south city limits and meandered north through town until it merged with Hinton Creek and turned west a few blocks shy of the north city limits. As it left Heppner, the creek wound into the northerly path it followed some 40 miles to the Columbia River.
Three years before June 1903, the 1900 Census had counted 1,146 citizens; in 1903, about 1,290 people lived in town.15 Since it was the weekend, maybe fifty others had joined them—men in from their jobs on ranches and farms, and out-of-town guests staying with friends or at the hotels and rooming houses.
Homes in Heppner lined up as close as they could to Willow Creek. Families needed the water. Every house had a garden, and just about everyone had a cow, at least one horse, and some chickens. Living on Willow Creek was pleasant most of the year, when the creek babbled along between one and four feet deep. From July to September, Willow was usually only an occasional puddle, but even so the cottonwoods and balm poplars on its banks offered welcome shade.16 Heppner's most prosperous families lived in beautiful big houses. Many of the homes nearby were cottages, probably the homes of seamstresses, carpenters, clerks, the stage driver, liverymen, butchers, the baker, and day laborers. The Chinese men who moved to Heppner after building the railroads or mining gold lived in tiny houses at the edge of Willow Creek. They were saving their money to return to China.17
Though homes and businesses were mingled through town, Heppner's primary business district ran roughly parallel to Willow Creek, a block and a half west. The aroma, especially on Main, announced that eastern Oregon still depended on horses for muscle and transportation. On that five-block street alone there were four blacksmiths and three livery stables. Samuel McBride built wagons on Main, and a person could buy a handmade saddle or harness or hay there.18
The streets were plain dirt—which meant “a fog of dust in summer and a loblolly of mud in winter.”19 Main Street was one hundred feet wide because thousands of sheep and herds of cattle filled the street from side to side when they were driven north through town—in the early days all the way to the Columbia River and, after 1888, to the train station at the north edge of town. Especially during the summer, horses and mules constantly pulled strings of pack wagons through the streets, bringing in goods and collecting supplies for distant ranches and work crews.
Main Street was anchored at its south end by buildings made of brick and stone.20 The handsome three-story Palace Hotel was bragging material on the northeast corner of Main and May.21 The Palace had a stone foundation, and its exterior was of brick made by John Jenkins in his brickyard on Hinton Creek northeast of town. The hotel entrance, up five steps from the street, mirrored the diagonal entry of the First National Bank of Heppner, directly across Main. The First National building, of brick and limestone, had been a dignified presence for eighteen years. Adjoining the bank, a row of seven storefronts sold groceries and drugs, hardware and wallpaper, furniture, baths, shaves and haircuts. All were encased in stone or brick, and there was not an inch of space between them.22
Another half block north, at Main and Willow, was the Roberts Building, completed in 1901—a structure of native blue basaltic rock from the Osmin ranch up Balm Fork. The first floor housed a saloon known as The Rock,23 and though the upstairs was designed to provide for an opera house and dance hall, it would also serve a more vital purpose. Next door to the north, the five-month-old home of Willow Lodge No. 66, International Order of Odd Fellows, was built of the same stone.24 The Fair Building, a squat rectangle clad in sun-dried brick, was another block north at Main and Center.25 The Fair was a mercantile operation, and “The Place to Save Money”; it covered 8,000 square feet at ground level; and three or four apartments filled the top floor.
Nearly all the other businesses on Main—a confectionary, lumberyards, farm implement dealers, druggists, milliners, a bicycle shop, the Heppner Opera House, and several restaurants—were built of wood, which was plentiful in the mountains south of town.
Heppner's businesses supported agriculture, and vice versa. The most common occupation in Morrow County was raising livestock, principally sheep. Farming—growing crops, mainly wheat—came next. Farm laborers, cowboys, and sheep tenders lived permanently in the county, but much of the work was seasonal, so many men traveled from job to job, their residence dictated by the cycles of ranching and farming. Cowboys, ranch hands, and farm workers came into Heppner on weekends for rest and recreation, reconnecting with friends, and to get supplies. They also got baths, haircuts, and shaves at barbering establishments and had their dusty clothes cleaned at the Chinese men's washhouses or at Fred Krug's Heppner Steam Laundry.
Men with no homes in town spent much of their time in the five saloons or the Palace Hotel, which offered a bar as well as cards and billiards. At McAtee & Swaggart's, a Peerless Electric self-playing piano played “music from the most celebrated artists of the world to the most commonplace ragtime.”26 Edward C. Ashbaugh served no liquor at his Pastime Billiard Parlors. Instead, his January 1, 1903, Gazette ad boasted, he offered “hot vigoral and soft drinks, clam tea, hot and cold soda, ciders, etc.”
When the subject of Heppner's saloons came up, someone would quickly mention that Heppner also had six churches: Baptist, Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Christian.27 A Roman Catholic priest came to Heppner once a month; on his June 14 visit, Rev. John Walsh said Mass for his flock in the parish church up the Chase Street hill.28 A priest also rode a horse and buggy from ranch to ranch in the country outside Heppner, ministering to many of the Irish immigrants who had been a growing presence in Morrow County for a decade.
The men of the cloth may have found occasion to speak to their flocks about the Chateau de Joie. But Mollie Reed, the 37-year-old madam, paid her Morrow County property taxes, and her five employees didn't hide their occupations from the census-taker. They worked in a two-story building on Willow, just behind the Roberts Building and its Rock saloon. Like many others, these women would assume a different role on Monday.
An imposing leather-bound history of Morrow County and the adjoining Umatilla County came out in 1902, declaring that “the warfare between culture and coarseness, between morality and license, refinement and debasement is to be seen in every town, but…nowhere more typically so than in the frontier town of Heppner…. Here are men of a sincere and enlightened piety and here also are men who acknowledge no obligations except to keep safely within the requirements of the law or to escape detection if they occasionally do violence to its letter…between the two extremes is the great middle class, by far the most numerous…there is a pleasing sense of equality…”29
Morrow County was almost entirely white. Among the 4,151 residents counted in 1900, only 21—all men—were not Caucasian. The census said twelve were born in China, two in Mexico, and the others in Japan. Yet this isolated county had attracted immigrants from around the world: Seventy-seven said they'd been born in Ireland; fifty-one ...

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Citation styles for Calamity
APA 6 Citation
Byrd, J. G. (2014). Calamity ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Byrd, Joann Green. (2014) 2014. Calamity. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Byrd, J. G. (2014) Calamity. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Byrd, Joann Green. Calamity. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.