Calaveras Enterprise

1909 flood caused havoc in Angels Camp

This historical photo shows some of the damage in Angels Camp following the flood of 1909. Courtesy photo/Calaveras County Historical Society

This historical photo shows some of the damage in Angels Camp following the flood of 1909. Courtesy photo/Calaveras County Historical Society

The fall of 1908 in Calaveras County had been extremely dry. Clarence Getchell, editor of the weekly Calaveras Prospect, reported that between July 1 and Dec. 31, only 6.4 inches of precipitation had dampened its parched foothills. But Jan. 1, 1909, ushered in a period of almost constant storm that during the next 21 days dropped 16.43 inches of rain on the Angels Camp area, much of it arriving during the final two days.

By the third week of January central Calaveras County already was becoming well saturated by the almost steady rain and its normally dry creeks and ravines were beginning to carry substantial flows. Miners and gold prospectors who had virtually given up on having enough water for successful placer mining were looking forward to plenty of water for ground sluicing. Ranchers who had viewed their hungry cattle with alarm now looked forward to a good spring grass crop. Then, on Jan. 20 the intensity of the storm increased. Rain and hail lashed the lower elevations, extending well into the mountains. The already swollen streams began to become torrents.

The high water first attracted attention in Murphys where Angels Creek flows through it. By early evening it had begun rising out of its banks but the creek there is fed by a relatively short watershed and the volume of the runoff into it was not heavy enough to cause any major threat. However, as the storm continued with no sign of abatement and with darkness falling, a messenger was dispatched on horseback from Murphys to warn the residents of Angels Camp of the possible flood threat.

Already, the old mining settlement of Vallecito, on Coyote Creek three miles south of Murphys, was beginning to feel the effects of the storm. The creek early in the evening had jumped its banks and was threatening property. F.A. Dixon found the flood waters had turned his house and yard into an island. He managed to get a few personal belongings to the home of Mrs. J. Moyle, which stood on higher ground, then carried his wife through the rising water to the Moyle home. The floor of the H.H. Tuchsen home was covered by 2 feet of water. At 3 a.m. members of the Maletesta family began felling trees and anchoring them along the creek bank in an effort to save their wash house and milk building. The flood swept away bridges, tore down fences and gates and left gaping holes in roads.

Although the flow of water in Angels Creek had been increasing all night, the crest of the flood hit Angels Camp about 4 a.m. on Jan. 21. Rising some five feet out of its banks, the water smashed into buildings and bridges and overflowed streets in the downtown area of the city.

Worst hit was China Town, much of which flanked the creek itself along what is now Bird’s Way. At least one resident of the Chinese community was drowned. A number of others saved themselves by cutting or breaking through the roofs of their water-surrounded cabins and climbing to safety. The bridge across the creek on the road to Carson Hill (now Highway 49) was carried away, as were all but one of the five footbridges that spanned Angels Creek through the length of town. Bridges lost included a vehicular bridge at Booster Way; the footbridge that connected Finnegan Lane to the Annex (South Main Street); a bridge near what is now Tryon Park; another further upstream that led to Walsh’s Soda Works, and the Sand Pile and Madison Mine footbridges downstream from the Carson Hill Road.

In addition to an undetermined number of Chineseowned cabins and shops destroyed or washed away, flood losses listed by Editor Sam Lewis in the Jan. 23 issue of the Calaveras Weekly Citizen included: a two story house on South Main Street owned by Dr. George F. Pache; the building which had housed the Powell Restaurant; a two-story hardware store; Siegel’s Blacksmith Shop; and several outbuildings and private stables. Water stood 18 inches deep in Richard’s Stable and Livery but all horses and vehicles were removed without loss. Electricity and mail service was disrupted for several days and the Angels Camp school was closed because several inches of water and mud covered its lower floor.

The Calaveras Prospect of Jan. 30 carried a letter from a young Angels Camp woman to a friend in San Andreas, describing her impressions gathered during and after the flood. Editor Getchell, ever careful not to invade the privacy of either the author or the receiver of the letter, omitted both of their names. After naming the major buildings lost, the writer described a walk taken through the flood-stricken area later in the day.

“The bridge, blacksmith shop and house where the restaurant used to be were completely carried away. Other buildings blocked the road and every house that had been built along the creek had been taken. Chinatown was another scene of wreckage. You couldn’t get through there and there was a house across the remains of the bridge. Several shacks blocked the street. They moved one and tore down the rest. On one hill, when we walked up to Sequoia Springs, we saw where a cloudburst had caused a slide that took brush, trees, boulders and everything in its path off the hillside and swept it across the creek. It looked like a great hydraulic nozzle had played on the hill.”

For weeks, crews under direction of County Supervisor Warren Garland who represented the Angels District (it was three years before Angels Camp was to become an incorporated city) labored to restore bridges, repair streets and bring order out of the chaos created by the flood.

But, Angels Camp was not the only Calaveras County area to suffer from the torrential rain. The entire county felt its impact. Travel to Murphys was virtually halted for several days. Larger creeks were so swollen it was impossible to cross them, even on horseback.

Flood water washed out large sections of the Mokelumne Ditch that supplied much of the northwestern area of the county, causing a huge landslide near the Queen Mine. Crews directed by J.D. Kline were forced to hydraulic the debris in order to obtain solid footing for rebuilding the flumes and ditch.

Another landslide caused by the cloudburst smashed the Union Construction Company’s commissary at its Camp Nine powerplant on the North Fork of the Stanislaus River with a heavy loss of materials and supplies and washed away its Indian Creek bridge. Commissary manager Elmer Dunbar, sleeping in the building, escaped by jumping through a window. He lost all of his personal belongings and $300 when the building slid into the river and broke up.

The Weekly Calaveras Citizen reported as the flood subsided that Union Construction Company Superintendent Charles Norcott had hired as many men as he could find to begin repair work. The paper reported that two stage loads of men had left Angels Camp to repair trails to Camp Nine so that pack animals could travel them, as large sections of the Camp Nine Road had been washed away.

“Hardly a fence remains intact along the creeks and ravines and many creeks have changed their channels,” said Editor Sam Lewis. “People in the flatlands say that since the flood much of their once familiar landscape looks like a different area.” He said a house on the James Wilcox ranch had been carried downstream by a flooded creek and that stages from Angels Camp, Copperopolis and Jenny Lind were unable to reach the railhead at Milton.

Milton itself was isolated, said Lewis, and the train still was unable to reach on Jan. 24. Wheeler’s blacksmith shop and machine shop in Milton also was washed away.

San Andreas apparently was one of the few communities not severely damaged by the storm. The papers reported only that the town had been without electric power throughout Friday and most of Saturday. On the bright side, the Calaveras Prospect reported that local resident John Nunes had picked up a $20 gold piece in the street where it apparently had been washed out by the rain.

Editor Getchell also quoted an elderly Chinese miner who had lived most of his life on the Calaveras River — for more than 50 years — who said the river raised higher than he had ever seen it. In fact, he said, he never before had been threatened by high water, but this time the river forced him to flee for his life and the rising water washed his cabin away.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Calaveras County Historical Society’s quarterly bulletin, Las Calaveras, in October of 1994. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Historical Society. In addition to producing Las Calaveras, the Historical Society holds monthly dinner meetings, completes research requests for the public, and operates both the Calaveras County Museum and the Red Barn Museum in San Andreas. For more information, visit, email or call 209-754- 1058.

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