Calamity: Timeless lessons from the 1903 Heppner Flood

The author of a new book on Oregon's little-remembered disaster finds some enduring truths while researching the tragedy.
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The first floor of the Ayers house was torn away as floodwaters carried the house more than a block and dumped the second story against a pile of debris. Tom Ayers had the top story and its cupola moved to the east bank of Willow Creek, where it became a one-story home for Tom and his wife, Eliza.

The author of a new book on Oregon's little-remembered disaster finds some enduring truths while researching the tragedy.

The Heppner Flood is the most deadly natural disaster in Northwest history. Even so, few people know about the flash flood that raged through the Eastern Oregon farming community of Heppner, Ore., on a hot Sunday afternoon in June 1903.

Some 238 people lost their lives that day — about one Heppner person in five. Another seven died that autumn because the floodwaters had poisoned the drinking water in two communities downstream. Though many have reported the flood was caused by a dam break — a logical assumption given the ferocious water — it was the result of a typically severe spring thunderstorm.

Actually, it's not surprising many of us have never heard of the flood: Heppner is a rural community, known for its St. Patrick's Day celebration and its August rodeo, but not on the way to many other places. And within a few years after the disaster, residents of Morrow County had pretty much stopped talking about it. In those days, people weren't inclined to ruminate about what they were powerless to change. The survivors and those who came to help with cleanup probably were trying to shake every one of their June 1903 memories; it would have been unseemly to remind a person who might be succeeding.

In the 1970s and early '80s, Heppner residents were required to think and speak of the flood because local citizens, the Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Senate were considering a flood-control dam (completed 80 years after the flood). But otherwise, over the years, it didn't often come up.

There was no monument, save individual gravestones up in Heppner Masonic Cemetery. There was no way a visitor would know, driving through town, that the center of Heppner was hallowed ground.

My father, born in Heppner 14 years after the flood and reared there to adulthood, mentioned it once, literally in passing. His mother volunteered a 10-second report one day when we were working in her garden on the bank of once-murderous Willow Creek.

The reticence ended 99 years after the flood, when the children and grandchildren of the victims and the survivors decided to commemorate the tragedy on its 100th anniversary, June 14, 2003. Reading about the centennial observance, I finally grasped the fact that nearly 250 people had died. My journalistic instincts compelled me to find out who these people were and why they died. Researching and telling this story has been my mission for five years. The result is Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903, published in August by the University of Washington Press.

Though the Heppner Flood isn't well known today, it was, thankfully, well known and deeply felt throughout the Northwest in the days and weeks after it happened. The generosity of the people of the Northwest is truly the antidote to the disaster. The people of Seattle, Kent, Tacoma, Olympia, Port Townsend, and Everett made substantial contributions, as did the citizens of many other towns in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and even people and communities across the county.

Others — maybe a thousand others — went to Heppner to help with the dreadful cleanup. Many had to walk 17 miles, or later, only nine miles, from where the functioning railroad track ended. And then the unthinkable work began:

The workers' main task was to find and extricate bodies from the drifts of debris that stretched over nine miles down the Willow Creek valley. Men and women also helped wash the bodies over tin bathtubs in the second-story room that became the morgue. They hauled away wagonloads of the foul mud and slime that covered the landscape. Under a hot sun, workers toiled dawn to dark in temperatures around 94 degrees. They slept in outhouses, haystacks, lean-tos, and under trees. They were paid $2 a day, and many returned their wages to the Heppner relief committee.

The Heppner Flood is, yes, a story of nature vs. human beings, with the human spirit, community, and tenacity to the rescue. But two more universal themes emerged from the letters, memoirs, newspaper stories, maps, reports, and photos that combine to tell this story.

The first is: Even the smallest acts have consequences.

In the decades and months before the Heppner Flood, independent people made a multitude of changes to the environment around the creeks flowing into the town. Most of those apparently harmless acts were minor, gradual, routine; even the larger uses of the land — such as overgrazing or tilling the fields — were so common that no one thought twice about them. But the unintended consequences of these changes added up, enabling this storm to kill 245 people. Most of the victims were caught inside the homes they had built on the banks of those streams.

After the flood, thousands of dollars, hours of labor and gestures of kindness accumulated to lift Heppner from the disaster. Nearly half the donations to the Heppner Relief Committee were of $10 or less — many of them in pennies. A benefit baseball game in Seattle collected $150 (in 2007 dollars, about $3,500). The Olympia Theater Company sent Heppner $105.25 — likely the proceeds from a benefit performance (and worth about $2,442 in 2007). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored a fund drive that brought Heppner $1,331.35 (in 2007, more than $42,000).

Over the century since the disaster, thousands of small cautionary measures together have armed Heppner to resist another deadly flash flood.

The other lesson from the Heppner Flood is about fortitude. Everyone in Heppner lost someone. Some lost everyone. Ed Ashbaugh returned from a business trip to Portland to learn that the flood had taken his wife, all seven of their children, his sister and her husband and three children, another nephew, an aunt, and two cousins. The water also destroyed his house and everything in it. Dan Stalter's wife, Samantha, and six of their children perished. When Stalter struggled up from the swirling current, he found 9-year-old Lizzie clinging to his neck, miraculously alive.

Still, people got up the morning after the Heppner Flood and went to work, even if they did not know if their families were dead or alive. And they kept on working and living their lives despite their grief.

Studies of resilience say the people most likely to rebound from terrible loss and trauma are self-reliant, optimistic people who have confidence that they can cope — probably because they have done so before. In this era, premature death was expected: John Woodward's wife, Clara Hale Woodward, died in the flood after mournful years in which the couple had endured the deaths of five children.

Many survivors of the Heppner Flood had already buried a spouse, children and friends. We can hope so much experience with sorrow helped them adjust to the horrific losses of June 14, 1903.


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