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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Floods of 1880s washed over Solano

Nancy Dingler

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Muddy goo prevailed before the days of paved streets

This past holiday season reminds us how “watery” Northern California can be.

Before the mass migration to California by Americans and the rest of the world, the early natives learned that trying to navigate through the low lands during the winter was almost impossible. The muddy quagmire made it difficult for man or beast to walk.

Carts and wagons were no match in the muddy goo either. As one local sage noted concerning the adobe clay soil, “you can’t drive a nail into it in the summer and you can’t stand up in it in the winter.”

To make things worse, Northern California gets Pacific storms that are real doozies more often than not, which leads to flooding. Dry creeks that are deceptively benign suddenly gush forth, overflowing banks and inundating the land.

It is not only difficult to find a place in California that is not near or on an earthquake fault, it is just as difficult to find a place that does not flood or wash away during heavy, violent storms.

One would think that, with the experience of a couple of normal winters, towns would have paved their streets much sooner than they did. Though hard-packed during summer months, by the first rain, the streets were impassable.
By the time the winter of 1861-‘62 rolled around, California no longer belonged to the indigenous people. The 1849 gold rush had brought hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. In the quest for gold, the knowledge learned over centuries by the natives about high ground had to be re-learned by the “new” people.

Foolishness and greed introduced hydraulic mining with “monitors,” which resembled giant fire hoses. The soil and gravel was washed away from entire mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada. The soil and gravel washed down the rivers, raising their levels, which eventually ran to the valley, seeking its way to the ocean.

This activity brought flooding during the terrific storms to places that had never flooded before. It took an act by the state Legislature to have this method of gold mining outlawed and banned.

To prevent future flooding, levees were constructed to keep the swollen rivers within boundaries.

The winter storm of 1861-‘62 flooded the small town of Rio Vista on the Sacramento River. “The water in the Sacramento River rose to unheard of heights,” a news report read.

The water rose high enough to sweep away all the smaller houses in town. On the 9th of January, 1862, total disaster was wrought: “On that day the water stood 10 feet deep at the foot of Main Street and very nearly that deep all over town and surrounding counties. For miles in all directions the whole face of the country was covered with a wild waste of waters.”

People escaped as best they could. They scrambled to high ground and collected together on top of a mound. They had little time to bring food or clothing, but managed to stay alive for a few days until a steamer came and took them off.

Rio Vista had been a flourishing and well established community. However, facing the possibility that the flooding in all likelihood would reoccur, the townspeople decided to move the entire town to higher ground.

In December of 1864, the Sacramento River rose again during a heavy wind and rain storm. “In about 24 hours it had risen 11 feet, 6 inches. The American River rose even higher than the Sacramento. By evening, it became swollen to such an extent that it became evident that Lisle’s bridge was in danger.

Over 200 feet of the bridge was subsequently swept away. Trees were blown down on the stage route from Dutch Flat to New Castle, halting transit for several hours. During the gale the roof of the court house at Martinez was blown off.

A large barn and several windmills were blown down at Benicia. The schooner Sagamore, loaded with granite for San Francisco sunk off Pinole Point at about 2 p.m.

“One man, an Englishman, was drowned and the Captain had a leg broken, the three survivors climbed to the gaff of the topsail and clung there until 8 o’clock, when they were picked up by the Stockton steamer, and taken to Benicia,” a news report read.

Rio Vista must not have suffered any ill affects from the storm, for it did not make the news on this occasion.

During the winter storms of 1866, it rained for two solid weeks the last half of the month of December, causing the editor of the weekly Solano Herald to comment, “From all parts of the state, but especially the northern portion, we have accountings of the unusual severity of the storm and the unprecedented height of the floods; but it is a noteworthy fact, indicative of a better state of preparation for these periodic overflows than has existed heretofore, that the floods of this year have been attended with much less of disaster and loss than those of previous years.

“In time, doubtless, the people of the state will so accustom themselves to these annual visitations - disastrous as they have sometimes been to certain classes but full of hope and promise to the farmer - as to view their recurrence with more pleasure than apprehension.”

On that note, the storm of February 1881 brought no pleasure. The rain lasted from Thursday through Sunday. “On Saturday morning the good people awoke from their lethargy to find themselves cut off from the outside world, being entirely surrounded by water - the muddy waters having taken possession of what little dry land there was north and west of town.”

Before noon the walkway from Suisun to Fairfield was entirely submerged from the railroad in Fairfield to Main Street, Suisun. The farms that bordered the Suisun Creek were completely flooded and considerable property was destroyed. Over 11 inches of rain fell over the four days. Gang plows, heavy lumber wagons and other heavy equipment were swept away.

R.C. Hale’s house was submerged under 5 feet of water. Roads and bridges were damaged or swept away making access to Suisun impossible. From Suisun to Vallejo, quite a bit of the rail lines were damaged or washed away.

The infrastructure in Solano County has certainly changed since those early days. Steel bridges, concrete roads, rip-rapped levees and culverts, along with elevated railroad beds, have replaced wood, dirt and hand-dug ditches. In spite of improvements, Mother Nature still wins quite a few winter battles.