Photos from the Vault

Mummified in old newsprint, hidden in the archives, photos of SLO’s 1973 flood are found

It felt like we were just one cloudburst away from flooding in San Luis Obispo County this year.

The ground was so saturated after this winter’s storms tracked through that I heard water oozing from the ground along hillsides.

There are still places where water is flowing across roads and down hillsides where for years it was dry.

It was a good year to write a history column about flooding and I had the perfect subject. I had been looking for the 1973 flood photos for over a decade.

A few weeks ago, I gave up and wrote a column about the event and used mediocre images.

There are no prints in The Tribune library in a folder marked “Flood 1969 & 1973.” We have two souvenir booklets that printed Telegram-Tribune photos through coarse halftone screens.

The 1973 booklet on file is a photocopy of the original book, a fourth-generation copy. And in the hierarchy of print quality, a negative is tops, followed by print, booklet, photocopy.

After I quit looking for the photos and published the column in January, I began to work on packing to move to the new office. Then I found the original negatives.

Most were recorded by longtime Telegram-Tribune photographer Wayne Nicholls.

Telegram-Tribune photographer Wayne Nicholls, right, takes a selfie in a store mirror, flooded in January 1973. This is probably the ADX Drugstore.Telegram-Tribune/Wayne Nicholls1-18-1973 Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

Instead of the usual system of negatives being filed away in the individual photographer’s boxes categorized by date, or in the 1973 flood folder, they were cached in a blue folder marked:



Most of the missing negatives were there, hidden for decades, mummified in a newsprint-tape wrapper marked “Flood negatives.”

It never occurred to me that the negatives would be in that folder.

The 1973 San Luis Obispo flood negatives turned up in an unlikely folder, under clippings wrapped in paper and tape, seen here at the center of the frame. David Middlecamp


Well, the 1973 flood hit the city of San Luis Obispo hardest, less in the unincorporated county areas. Oh, and by the way, the flood, by definition, is uncontrolled.

The San Luis Obispo Fire Department saved a downtown building from burning down, even as the flood waters raged. Cars and mobile homes floated downstream. A car jammed in San Luis Creek at the Marsh Street bridge contributed to the chaos.

In fairness to the librarian at the time, there was a lot of talk about drainage and flood control in the wake of two, 100-year-flood events in the span of four years.

There were enough images to make a Ken Burns style video, and if you only read Photos From the Vault in print, check them out at

Several VWs were swept away from the 500 block of Broad Street during the flood of 1973.Telegram-Tribune/Wayne Nicholls1-18-1973 Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

I’m still searching for original 1969 flood images.