Photos from the Vault

Epic floods of 1885 hold a place in SLO County history

UNDER HIGUERA STREET: Mike McCluskey, SLO City public works director, leads a tour in December 1995, where San Luis Creeks flows under Higuera Street. Bishop Peak granite was quarried to make the walls. The city rebuilt the 87-year old bridge work. This is a time exposure using flashlights and strobe carried by the photographer.
UNDER HIGUERA STREET: Mike McCluskey, SLO City public works director, leads a tour in December 1995, where San Luis Creeks flows under Higuera Street. Bishop Peak granite was quarried to make the walls. The city rebuilt the 87-year old bridge work. This is a time exposure using flashlights and strobe carried by the photographer. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For those who reminisce about big storms, the flood of January 1969 is the standard by which most storms are judged.

The Jan. 20, 1969, Telegram-Tribune story said that an average 365 days in San Luis Obispo yields 20.61 inches of rain.

More than half the average, in excess of 10.5 inches, fell in just two days in 1969. Near the end of that 48 hours, after the ground was saturated, a full inch of rain fell in 25 minutes.

It was an epic 10-day event previously covered in this column.

A second hundred-year flood struck in January 1973. Almost 9 inches fell over three days, causing an estimated $3.5 million in damage.

There have been other floods in recent memory, but going back in time, the flood of 1914 was so costly the city of Arroyo Grande voted to disincorporate.

All big, all bad, but 1885 was worse.

Imagine almost the same rainfall of 1969 but in 12 hours not 48.

The city is such now that the creek ought to be walled up in its passage through it.

Tribune of Dec. 4, 1885

The flood of 1885 was recorded in the weekly San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Editor Myron Angel and business manager Benjamin Brooks were hard-pressed to report the story. The telegraph line, railroad and wagon roads were all badly damaged.

The $100,000 in reported damage can be inflation-adjusted to almost $2.8 million in 2015 dollars — a huge loss considering the county population was roughly 3,300.

An intermittent storm gathered strength from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday evening, when the sky opened and began to pour rain. From 6 p.m. till 6 a.m. nine inches fell, hard “without intermission.”

Angel and Brooks compared it to the violent cloudbursts each had experienced at previous residences in Nevada and Arizona.

... All went to the insatiate maw of the creek.

Tribune of Nov. 20, 1885

“So fearful was the storm that many people dared not retire, but waited the result of the riotous elements.”

At 2 a.m. those who had tried to find sleep were roused by the furious ring of the fire bell at City Hall on Monterey Street.

San Luis Obispo Creek was a torrent, slamming bridges and rising to the steps of businesses.

One after another bridge fell — Marsh, Osos, Morro and Nipomo bridges were all swept away.

Only with the effort of volunteers with horses and large timbers was the new iron bridge on Chorro street saved. The southern abutment began to fail and girders were hanging in the air, but the bridge was saved from washing away.

Spinney’s restaurant, “On Morro bridge,” was quickly washed away, along with the the safe, cooking range, stock, saloon, bar, tables and dishes.

“… All went to the insatiate maw of the creek.”

Friends had tried to save what they could but wisely retreated as danger mounted. That loss was estimated at $2,500.

Dughi’s warehouse next to the Chorro Street bridge suffered the same fate, with $1,000 in goods lost.

Sinsheimer Brothers warehouse flooded, suffering an equal dollar loss in damaged goods.

Haskins’ poultry on Broad Street reported drowned chickens; Kluver’s cigar factory, Capt. Danes’ bookstore and the gas works all suffered losses.

Adding to the destruction, the main pipe of the water works near the residence of Judge Gregory washed out and broke. The stored water of the reservoir emptied and added to the torrent.

Water supply was cut off to San Luis Obispo despite the abundance of rain. The gates to the reservoir were closed, and the reservoir quickly refilled.

4 bridges in San Luis Obispo washed away

The Pacific Coast Railway was shut down from Port Harford to Los Alamos, though an inventory of damage was difficult to tally.

The Cuesta Grade road was washed out and was scarcely passable for horsemen.

Bridges were washed out in San Miguel and Arroyo Grande.

The E.W. Steele ranch lost a bridge, dams and irrigation structures.

Wharfs at Pismo and Cayucos lost 200 feet of their roughly 900 feet of length. Both were expected to reopen soon after the floods.

Of the 12 inches of rainfall so far that season, three-quarters had fallen in 6 hours.

It took a week to repair the wagon road to Avila, and from there steamer passengers could take a handcar on the Pacific Coast Railway to Port Harford.

Editor Angel took to task those who advocated cheap, third-rate repairs in an editorial on Dec. 4, 1885.

Why is San Luis Creek underground through two blocks downtown, in a channel lined with Bishop Peak granite? Perhaps his suggestion to wall up the creek was taken to heart.

Angel criticized those who wanted repairs made on a cash-on-hand basis. He had no fear of bonds. “The county is not poor and its work should not be done in the beggarly, wasteful fashion of past ages or back-woods engineering. The main roads of the county should be made perfect if it cost a hundred thousand dollars to do it. The work will be for the future and the future can pay for it.”

Thanks go to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. Excerpts are from what may be the only known copies of the weekly San Luis Obispo Tribune of November and December 1885.

Those pages are not in The Tribune’s microfilm record.

On Sunday, Cynthia Lambert writes about preparations for this year’s El Niño.

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