When people think of natural disasters in California, they usually think of earthquakes, drought or wildfire. But the worst disaster to ever hit the Golden State was the Great Flood of 1862.
When people of European descent first arrived in California, the native people told them tales of great deluges in which the rivers overran their banks and large areas of land were inundated. The newcomers paid little heed to these stories, and often settled in low-lying areas with easy access to water sources.
Beginning in 1848, California experienced rapid population growth as people from all over the world rushed into the Foothills to seek their fortunes. Water was essential to mining, and the prospectors settled down along the state’s many rivers and gulches.
As placer mining gave way to quartz and hydraulic mining in the later 1850s, the waterways of the state filled with sediment. This effectively lowered the banks of the rivers and streams, ensuring that the next flood would be especially severe.
During the 1850s, numerous levees and embankments were built across the state to protect settlements and farms from floodwaters. Unfortunately, these proved woefully inadequate for protection against the massive downpour that began in December of 1861.
In the days leading up to the storms, there were several reports of American Indians packing up camp and moving to higher elevations. They warned that the rivers would rise 20 feet higher than any white man had seen. The flood proved to be worse than any the tribal elders could remember.
An unusually cold snowstorm touched off the chain of events that lead to the Great Flood of 1862. Ten to 15 feet of snow fell in the mountains, and snow was even reported in the Central Valley.
The snowstorm was followed by an unusually warm downpour beginning on Dec. 9. This melted the snow in the mountains and sent the water roaring down through the foothills and into the valley.
Rain continued to fall across the state almost without pause until the end of January. At one point, the Sacramento River rose seven feet in three hours. In Nevada County, nine feet of rain was reported for the season. Sonora received 102 inches of rain just in the months of December and January alone.
As the rivers rose from their banks, they destroyed everything in their paths. On Jan. 18, the Union Democrat of Sonora reported: “From all portions of the state came the sad tidings of cities and towns flooded or swept away: stores, goods, merchandise of every description, ranches, stock, grain, flour, lumber and quartz mills, either totally destroyed or greatly injured. Bridges innumerable and ferries without number have been carried off, roads broken up and washed away, and all communications stopped between one town and another, of only a few miles distant.”
Massive landslides contributed significantly to the destruction. In Mokelumne Hill and Knights Ferry, almost every building was wiped out.
Because the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range drain into the Central Valley, it was most impacted by the flooding. Capt. William H. Brewer, a botanist who was conducting a survey of the state at the time of the floods, recorded the scene in his diary.
He wrote: “The great Central Valley of the state is under water – the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys – a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least 20 miles wide, a district of 5,000 or 6,000 square miles, or probably three to three and a half million acres!”
The water was 30-feet deep in some places. It covered the tops of the newly installed telegraph lines in Sacramento. On Jan. 10, recently elected Gov. Leland Stanford was forced to travel to his inauguration by rowboat. During the ceremony, the water rose at one foot per hour. While he left for the capital through the front door of his mansion, he was forced to enter through a second story window upon his return.
When the flooding began, the state Capitol in Sacramento was still under construction. It was decided that government business would move to San Francisco until the rains abated. While the legislature eventually moved back to Sacramento, the State Supreme Court remained in San Francisco.
Record flooding occurred across the Western United States, from northern Washington to the Mexican border and as far east as Utah. But California was hardest hit.
Thousands of Californians were estimated to have died in the flooding. Some only had minutes to escape from their homes. Five hundred thousand lambs, 200,000 cattle and 100,000 sheep were killed. One out of every eight homes was destroyed. It was estimated that one-fourth of taxable property was wiped out, bankrupting the State of California.
Parts of the Central Valley remained under water for six months. In March, William H. Brewer returned to Sacramento to survey the damage.
“Such a desolate scene I hope to never see again,” Brewer wrote. “I don’t think the city will ever rise from the shock, I don’t see how it can.”
But Sacramento did rise from the shock, and the State of California did, too. After the floodwaters receded, the downtown district of Sacramento was raised 15 feet. The levees across the state were improved and expanded, and a system of dams and reservoirs was eventually built to regulate the flow of water and decrease the likelihood of flooding.