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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Flood of 1849 forced residents to rooftops

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Snowpack melt created torrent in Sacramento

This winter has not yet brought much cold or rainy weather, so that my holiday letter to shivering friends in Germany includes photos of roses in bloom.  Yet this weather can change quickly, turning into heavy winter rains, such as Luzena Stanley Wilson and her family experienced in 1849 in Sacramento.

That year, it began to rain in October, continuing through December, with a recorded total of 36 inches of rainfall.

Jonas Winchester, who moved to Sacramento from the gold fields in the mountains, wrote to his wife Susan on Nov. 19, 1849: “It was the hardest time I ever had in my life. My feet soaking wet from daylight till dark and pantaloons ditto to my thighs. I have seen something of California life in four short months, but this rainy season caps all for discomfort and desolation.”

Luzena told a similar tale in her book “49’er.”

“For days it rained incessantly;” she recorded, “the streets ran full of water. Men and animals struggled through a sea of mud. We wrung out our blankets every morning, and warmed them by the fire - they never had time to dry.”

At the time, she lived in a canvas house with her husband, Mason, and her two sons, 4-year-old Thomas and 1-year-old Jay.

According to her, the canvas roof was like a sieve, so that everything was wet all the time.

Late in December, the weather finally improved: “At last the clouds broke, the sun shone out, the rain ceased, and the water began to sink away and give us a glimpse of mother earth, and everybody broke out into smiles and congratulations over the change.”

Worse was to come. The warm weather began to melt the Sierra snow pack until the rivers downstream could no longer contain the waters.

“One afternoon late, about Christmas - I do not remember the exact day (Jan. 9, 1850) - as I was cooking supper and the men were coming in from work, the familiar clang of the Crier’s bell was heard down the street, and as he galloped past, the cry, “The levee’s broke” fell on our ears.”

The men raced to the sandbag barrier along the American River, working desperately to secure the breach, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Luzena and others stayed back, unsure of what was going to happen.

“While I stood watching, I saw tiny rivulets trickling over the ground,” remembered Luzena, “and behind them came the flood of waters in such a volume that it had not time to spread, but seemed like a little wall three or four inches high. Almost before I thought what it was, the water rushed against the door-sill at my feet and five minutes more rose over the small obstacle and poured on the floor.”

Luzena tried to settle her two small children and her belongings on their bed, but the water kept rising too fast. Eventually, she took the children to the Trumbow House, a hotel situated on higher ground.

She returned to her own canvas home, to gather blankets, clothing and whatever else she could rescue, including “in a basket the supper which I had just cooked.”

By now, the water “reached nearly to my knees and ran with a force which almost carried me off my feet.”

For days, Sacramento flood survivors lived cramped together in the second stories of buildings, huddled on higher ground or were marooned on rooftops. They fished floating boxes of food out of the waters or tried to catch fish.

Stephen Massett, another survivor, wrote: “Those persons who were lucky enough to own a house lived and slept on the roof - cooked on the roof - made calls on the roof - drank on the roof - prayed on the roof - laughed and joked on the roof - sang on the roof - took a bath on the roof - cursed the gold fields on the roof - wished they were back in New York on the roof got married on the roof -wrote letters on the roof - and thought they’d never get off the roof!”

Eventually, the floodwaters subsided. The Masons lost everything and decided to leave Sacramento for the silver mines in Nevada City.

More colorful stories and background information on the floods in 1849 and 1852 can be found in: Fern Henry, A Checkered Life, Luzena Stanley Wilson in Early California.