The 1,000 Year Flood
River Residents Recall 1964 and 1955 Floods
By LISA MOREHEAD-NEUNER, TRT Contributing Writer
With rain pelting down on the roof of a warm and cozy home, it was hard to imagine the anxiety the rain can cause – for most of us in the room.
For 85 year-old Grant Hillman of Orleans, relentless December rains set the scene for the most dramatic three months of his life.
“When it first started, I’d go down to the river and measure the water line every hour. I saw it get higher and higher, and I had to start thinking of an escape route.” Picking up his coffee cup, Hillman looked across the table at his listeners and added, “You had to be ready for what you were going to do.”
Water smudged the view to the garden behind the kitchen. As we all looked out into the dreary and muddy patch, Hillman described the state of Orleans just days after Christmas almost half a century ago.
“The bridge and roads went out. They tried to put in a temporary bridge, but I think that lasted a day.” He chuckled at the thought, and his line of vision returned to the garden as he talked about homes floating down the river.
With a fresh pot of coffee on the table and a crackling fire to warm our backs, the story of a town’s struggle to survive unfolded with every word, with every facial expression, with every pause in the telling of the tale. For Hillman, one of the many tragic moments of the ’64 flood came early on when people were evacuated to the school.
How this could have happened in the midst of a raging flood is easily explained.
“They had electricity from a generator, but they didn’t throw the switch and the school burned to the ground,” Hillman recounts matter-of-factly. “The Red Cross had a meeting and afterward, the Forest Service started worrying about the people up in the hills. We told them, ‘Don’t worry about them. It’s the people who are used to going to the store every day who need the help.’”
The heat from the fire had some of the listeners shifting in their seats or moving closer to the windows, but no one thought of leaving the room. We were all riveted by Hillman’s words.
“Over on the Red Cap side of the river, there was no place to go. We were on our own. You could see people pacing back and forth on their little patches of land locked in by water, like animals in a cage.”
He paused and looked down into his now tepid cup of brown brew. One of the listeners coughs, as if embarrassed by the thought of how he might have reacted in the situation. Hillman looks up and continued. “There was nothing to eat,” he said.
The mood shifted in the room as a slow smile spread across his lips from under his moustache and lit up his brown eyes.
“About six of us got together to hunt deer and such and bring it to the people. But, then we got word the Game Warden was gonna go after poachers. Jim Horn had a brother with a walkie-talkie, and he warned us that when the water and debris went down enough to cross the river, us boys were gonna get a visit from the warden.” Hillman chuckled and said, “We sent word back that when he tried crossing the river, he was gonna come back feet first!”
Bursts of laughter broke the tension in the room, and a few folks got up to top off their mugs or snack on cookies. No worries of hunger here.
Rain drilled against the window panes and by the time we settled back into our chairs and sofas, the mood in the room returned to one of unease.
“They did arrest a lot of people in Willow Creek. We just kept trying to get food to the people. It was all about surviving. But after a little while, people starting going crazy,” Hillman said as he looked around the room, fixing us all with his intense eyes as if to make certain we understood what he was saying. “They wouldn’t open up their doors and we had to leave hunks of meat on the doorstep. Before we’d get too far away, though, that food had disappeared off the front step.”
The fire in the grate crackled, sending warmth that doesn’t seem to sink into the bones. Stories of lost cows fill the imagination; a treasured mule stewing in a pot on a woodstove, and a man driven to craze by the fact that his life savings had gone under water with his house. Hillman tells one story after the next, some of them grueling and some of them spiked with the humor and good fun that confirm the reputation of the master-story teller this man is known to be.
“One day after shoveling snow to prepare a landing patch, a Helicopter landed on the Ferris Ranch above Red Cap Road. About 50 people from all over here came to greet it – you could hear it coming, and everyone knew it meant relief.”
Hillman laughed at the recollection: “The copter was so big you could drive a car into it, but all the supplies that were inside were two small boxes! Two old men started fighting each other over them – I’ll never forget it – two boxes full of baby food.” Shaking his head at the memory, Hillman hoots as he describes the sight. “They must have been thinking, ‘To heck with the babies!’”
“After about two months, the river had gone down enough to cross but you still had to dodge logs. John Ericson and I were the first to cross in a boat; we wanted to see what was going on. The stores were filled with sand. The bar…,” Hillman said.
Our storyteller was interrupted when his lady chided him genially, “That was your biggest worry now, wasn’t it!”
We all laughed as he told us how they jacked the roof of the Orleans Bar back up. One of the listeners asked him why he chanced to cross the river.
“We wanted to see what was going on over there!” he answered in a dead-pan voice.
Friday evening…rain, rain. Unrelenting, it streamed down the eves of the roof. Talk began about the chances of flood.
Hillman rejoinders, “It was supposed to be the 1000 year flood. I guess they said that so they could think, ‘We won’t have to think of that again!’”
We all laughed again before he told us how World War I veteran Orville Allen, Sr. reported that there was an even higher flood just after the turn of the century when he was a kid. Allen alleged that people would boat across the flat where Indian housing is now off Highway 96.
Did Hillman think that there was a chance of another flood any time soon?
He answered with natural authority, “I say you have to have to have a lot of snow pack in November and December, then heavy rains and warmth. Then you get a flood. If you do, look out. They’ll say, ‘Another 1000 year Flood!’”
Rain Rain and More Rain
Excerpts from a letter written by Gertrude Mollier to her daughter, Diane, December 28, 1964
“For three nights I couldn’t shut my eyes without seeing this muddy water swirling by in my vision – with logs & houses floating down. What was so awful was to watch it come up all day… it was the most awful roar and crashing sounds all night – so many trees being torn out by the roots.”
“…I know I’ll never be the same again – I mean – about the struggle for material things – to go in debt for fancy things…”
“Fred’s house (F. Wilder, – LM) floated up halfway to the place (…) and our oil drum floated away – part of the woodpile too but we had kept a nice warm fire in Gramp’s house – and it’s almost dried out – 2” of fine silt on the floor – thick like Chocolate frosting – and as smeary.”
“Harry is washing out a pair of tans that he got so muddy – he + Dad had hiked to McGains Inn and got a pressure cooker – Road all gone on our side from across Uncle Leo’s to Bridge. So for 3 days we have been canning all the stuff from the deep freeze – butane has held out so far.”