Times Past

Overcoming the "Great Flood" of 1861-62

Sacramento's 13th and K streets were under water in January 1862 after a historic flood gripped the area. Scientists say the risk of another monstrous flood will increase because of climate change.
Sacramento's 13th and K streets were under water in January 1862 after a historic flood gripped the area. Scientists say the risk of another monstrous flood will increase because of climate change. Sacramento History Archives

Nearly one quarter of the towns and real property of California was demolished.

Sacramento was under water. Governor-elect Leland Stanford took a rowboat to his inauguration in January 1862. The state capital was temporarily moved to San Francisco. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys formed a huge inland sea.

Thereafter, Sacramento’s city streets were raised as an insurance against future deluges. It was the largest flood in California’s history.

The flooding resulted from a series of unfortunate events. The rapid development of hydraulic mining in the Mother Lode region of the Sierra foothills sent vast quantities of silt and gravel downstream into the Feather, Yuba, American, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, Calaveras and Stanislaus rivers. As a result, these sizable rivers rose well above their historical banks.

From December 1861 through January 1862, California was inundated by a series of heavy storms. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada rose to record heights at very low elevations in the foothills.

What we now refer to as “Pineapple Express” events followed the cold snow-bearing storms. This created major snow-melt flooding as warm, tropical rains fell on the snow pack. Warm rains blowing in from the south quickly melted the massive snow pack. The rivers went over their banks. The levees protecting Sacramento, the Delta farmland and towns from Marysville to Stockton failed.

The Los Angeles basin wasn’t spared. Melting waters rushed down from the San Gabriel Mountains. More than 200,000 head of cattle were drowned. The phenomena continued on an only slightly reduced scale well into the 20th century.

I can remember the very high curbs in cities like Long Beach, where the boulevard and streets became veritable rivers. Schools were frequently closed for days during heavy winter storms, even in “sunny” Southern California.

The “Great Flood” of 1861-62 was followed by the “Great Drought” of 1863-65. Hardly any rain fell on Central or Southern California during that period. The great herds of the Californio Rancheros were wiped out as was their way of life.

Despite the drought, such a “series of unfortunate events” can easily repeat itself. Hydraulic mining was banned by the U.S. government in 1884, but the debris still sits at the bottom of many rivers. Many of the new, heavier levees constructed after the 1862 flood are now 150 years old.

If those levees were to fail, the vast California Water Project of the 1960s might be cut in half. The CWP supplies drinking water to more than 23 million people and irrigates a great deal of West Valley and Southern California agriculture.

All Californians should acquaint themselves with the location of our state’s capital and its centrality to both the dangers and the solution of the hazard of massive flooding.

The Old Mission San Luis Obispo docents will be taking a field trip to Sacramento from April 12-14. Along the way we will visit Mission San Juan Bautista, talk about the “real story” of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1958 film, Vertigo and see the famous “Barrel Organ” made in London, England and given to the Franciscan missionaries.

We will also tour California State Railroad Museum and see operating equipment from SLO’s own Pacific Coast Railway that operated from the 1870s until the Second World War, Sutter’s Fort, the marvelous California State Indian Museum, the Crocker Gallery with its painting of California’s landscapes in the 19th century and be treated to a VIP tour of the state Capitol and gardens courtesy of Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian.

We have seats on the bus for non-docents. We would love for you to join us as we consider aspects of California’s rich past from Native Americans to missions to the complexity of California’s everlasting problem: It’s a land of little rain until it rains!

If you are interested, call Silver Bay Tours at 805-772-3409.