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Water, water everywhere

The coming weeks mark the 50th anniversary of floods that swept through Grant County and much of the Pacific Northwest.
Cheryl Hoefler

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on December 23, 2014 10:30AM

Last changed on December 24, 2014 11:51AM

The KJDY office on North Bridge Street in John Day is surrounded by water. Markings just below the “1400 KC” lettering show how high the water had been at its peak.

Contributed photo/ Buss Jolley family

The KJDY office on North Bridge Street in John Day is surrounded by water. Markings just below the “1400 KC” lettering show how high the water had been at its peak.

Flood damage facing eastward over the north and east sections of John Day.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

Flood damage facing eastward over the north and east sections of John Day.

Picture Gorge is closed as the swollen John Day River washes over its eastern entrance, as well as much of Highway 26.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

Picture Gorge is closed as the swollen John Day River washes over its eastern entrance, as well as much of Highway 26.

Facing roughly southwest, overlooking Mt. Vernon, where both Beech Creek and the John Day River wreaked havoc on the town. Highway 26 runs east to west, from left to right.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

Facing roughly southwest, overlooking Mt. Vernon, where both Beech Creek and the John Day River wreaked havoc on the town. Highway 26 runs east to west, from left to right.

Only a small boat, at far left, is meant to withstand this much water, in an area just west of John Day.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

Only a small boat, at far left, is meant to withstand this much water, in an area just west of John Day.

The South Fork bridge east of Dayville washed out, cutting off the community for a several days, until a cable system was rigged up.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

The South Fork bridge east of Dayville washed out, cutting off the community for a several days, until a cable system was rigged up.

The John Day River smashes right through the bridge at Belshaw Creek Road.

Contributed photo/Frank Palmer

The John Day River smashes right through the bridge at Belshaw Creek Road.

For several months, KJDY manager Buss Jolley reported from a second bedroom in family’s Humbolt Street home in Canyon City, after being flooded out of the Bridge Street station in John Day. The family jokingly called this the BBC þÄì Bedroom Broadcasting Corporation.

Contributed photo/ Buss Jolley family

For several months, KJDY manager Buss Jolley reported from a second bedroom in family’s Humbolt Street home in Canyon City, after being flooded out of the Bridge Street station in John Day. The family jokingly called this the BBC þÄì Bedroom Broadcasting Corporation.


Tragedy knows no holiday.

The disaster that hit Grant County – and much of the Pacific Northwest – just before Christmas 1964 was definitely ill-timed, but it wasn’t the last of the region’s winter woes. In a repeat performance, Mother Nature struck again a few weeks later in early 1965.

The coming weeks mark the 50th anniversary of widespread flooding that swept through the Northwest, causing considerable damage to all in its path.

The havoc all began when the temperature spiked rapidly after a period of frigid weather and an early robust snowpack. The local waters rose Dec. 21 and 22, resulting in the worst flood seen to date in Grant County, as well as many other areas.

The headline on the front page of the Christmas Eve Eagle in 1964 summed it up: “Flood damage covers valley.”

No community was untouched by flooding, as water surged over the banks of the John Day River and its tributaries throughout the valley.

Reports of broken water lines, damaged bridges, flooded homes and businesses, destroyed ranchland, and displaced livestock came in from all corners of the county – and beyond.

Almost right away, radio station KJDY was flooded out of its North Bridge Street location and forced off the air – at least temporarily. Manager Buss Jolley soon moved the operation to a second bedroom out of their family’s Humbolt Street home, from where the station broadcast over the coming months.

A cruel twist: Despite being surrounded and awash with water, the community found potable water itself was in short supply. Broken main water lines and empty reservoirs were reported in many areas. Blue Mountain Hospital in Prairie City and John Day General were both without water for a time until Civil Defense brought in tanker trucks.

The Dec. 31 Blue Mountain Eagle reported damage estimates at $4 million.

The year had already been a poor one for area ranches; agricultural land losses alone surpassed $2.5 million, according to then-County Extension agent Bill Farrell.

But that was just “round one” of the saga.

In January, a second flood washed through the county, still reeling and recovering from the Christmas disaster.

In some places, the second flood caused more damage than the first.

From Jan. 28-30, a combination of heavy rain and unseasonably warm temperatures pushed the John Day River over its banks.

This time, most of the damage was felt in Prairie City, Kimberly, Monument, Ritter and areas along the North and Middle forks of the John Day River.

Travelers were stranded or hindered as they tried to navigate flooded highways in many locations. One of the deepest sections was west of Dayville, with high water through Picture Gorge closing Highway 19 north to Kimberly.

According to the Feb. 4 Eagle, this second surge progressed more slowly and lasted longer than the one in December.

Ranches again saw considerable damage, with hay even more seriously depleted from an already scant 1964 crop.

The Feb. 25, 1965 Eagle reported total damages in Grant County alone from the floods topped $5.59 million.

During the emergency, several groups – the Red Cross, Civil Defense, the local OSU Extension Service, American Legion groups, just to name a few – kept busy caring for the various needs that arose for homeowners, businesses and ranchers.

Tom Sutton of John Day, who had just turned 21 that year, remembers watching the water rise.

“You could tell the creeks were coming up and rolling,” Sutton said, as about 18 inches of snow on the ground – a wet snow at that – met with warm, heavy Chinook winds.

“And then it got interesting,” he said.

Sutton worked for the Forest Service and also was on the John Day volunteer fire crew. One of his flood-fighting duties was helping get water to the north part of John Day after a water main broke. The remainder of the town south of the river had water from the springs, he said.

They were able to get things flowing again to the areas of Seventh Street, Valley View and what’s now called Charolais Heights, by laying steel pipes over the existing lines.

He also helped crews try to divert the water from river-frontage homes along the north side of the highway in east John Day, using rock hauled from Dog Creek.

Doug Ferguson of Mt. Vernon was just 22 then, living in Dayville and working for the state highway department.

One of his starkest memories is when the South Fork Bridge just east of town gave way after being battered by parts of buildings and other debris, isolating the town.

As the water receded, Ferguson – driven by youthful determination – dared to jaunt across the river bed and on to Mt. Vernon in his truck.

His return to Dayville was less than successful, as the river had again risen.

Ferguson shares his tale and other recollections of the townspeople rallying during that time in a column on Page A4.

Unlike other flood-impacted areas – which included much of Oregon, southwest Washington, part of Idaho, and northern and coastal California – Grant County did escape one consequence of the catastrophe’s clutches, as no major injuries were reported.

As local physician and director of Civil Defense, Dr. Martha R. Van der Vlugt told the Oregonian (Jan. 13, 1965), “the personal loss was tremendous, but we had no casualties – just heroism.”

Some acts of heroism and assistance are mentioned in the issues of the Eagle during that time.

One, in the Dec. 31 issue, was shared by Jean Fitzsimmons, then-field representative for the Red Cross, who told of “three children who have taken a wheelbarrow and formed themselves into a Red Cross charity unit, gathering clothing and other necessary items. Kathy Merrill is head of the group, assisted by Robert Merrill and Tom Smith.”

In those troubled times, no one was too small, nor too mighty, to be a hero.















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