Santa Cruz County History - Disasters & Calamities

Degree of Damage and Public Reaction to Floods
by Daniel McMahon

This is part of The History of Floods on the San Lorenzo River in the City of Santa Cruz.

In addition to quantitative measurements, (see Table) the public reaction as found in newspaper stories is another good way to compare the levels and severity of different floods. While this is a very subjective body of information, some of the details gleaned from contemporary accounts are quite interesting, and give a more immediate perspective than city, county, state and federal literature on floods and flood control.

Jan. 11 ,1862: Severe. The river ate lots of land, and destroyed many buildings. (There were many buildings closer to the river in 1862 than would later be the case.) The "bulkhead" at today's Bulkhead Street was built after this flood, to prevent water flowing down Main and Willow Streets (Front St. and Pacific Ave.). There were attempts to alter the course of the river as well, which at that time ran very close to the bluff below the mission, where North Pacific Ave. is today. 1862 became the legendary flood for late 19th and early 20th century Santa Cruz oldtimers, yet the correct date is often listed incorrectly in the newspapers after 1871.

Dec. 23 ,1871: Fairly serious. "Considerable loss and inconvenience." First mention of bridge damage, as bridges had spanned the San Lorenzo since the last flood in 1862. Water levels compared to 1862, but damage estimated at half as much.

Feb. 14 ,1878: Not very serious. Little discussion in paper.

Apr. 21 ,1880: Severe rains, but flood taken very lightly. "Farmers were happy as ducks, few being of the opinion that this storm had caused them any serious damage." (SC Sentinel, 4/24/80, p.3, c.6)

Jan. 29 ,1881: Moderate. "...the damages sustained in this city last week, all from the detritus and 'slickens'..." were mostly to the bridges, of which none failed. (SC Sentinel, 2/ /81, p3, c.1)

Feb. 08 ,1889: Moderate. People were on the bridges, watching the river "...mindless of the danger." (SC Sentinel, 12/10/89, p. 3, c. 4)

Jan. 25, 1890: Severe flood. River was "Highest Yet Known." Water was deep but "Damage Resulting Will Not Be Very Great." The rail bridge at the mouth of the river is believed to have made this flood much worse, by backing up water behind a debris dam collected against the pilings. The failure of the rail bridge was immediately followed by a drop in the flood's level. (The practice of using pilings to span the river was stopped after this flood.) This flood was well remembered for 40 to 50 years. (SC Sentinel, 1/25/90, p.1, c.7)

Jan. 4, 1895: Extensive flooding of downtown areas, but no sense of panic. "Cellars, Yards and Lots Covered With Water -- Railroad Bridge Dislodged -- Pacific Av. Looked Like a Lake" Water went over the bulkhead in the North Pacific area, filled the "burned out district" on Front St., and crossed Pacific Ave. at Laurel. The article on this flood (SC Sentinel, Jan. 5, 1895, p.1, c.2) is very detailed about the progress of the flood water, and very interesting.

Mar. 27, 1907: Fairly serious. "Highest Water in This City in Years Causes Considerable Alarm Along River." (SC Sentinel, 3/24/07, p.1, c.1) Flood control a topic for several years in editorials. (eg.: SC Sentinel, Jan. 6, 1909, p.2)

Jan. 14, 1911: Very light reaction. Call for "River Bulkhead" on front page, but largest headline was "Chickens Excited Along the San Lorenzo." (Article discusses flood's effect on poultry. SC Sentinel, 1/15/11, p.1., c.7, p.3, c.3)

Dec. 28, 1931: Moderate. Worst flooding seems to have been in lower area of river, along East Cliff Drive. "Island on the River Was Out Of Sight Sunday" and "the Chutes" at the Boardwalk were surrounded by water. This flood may be the one referred to in the newspapers in 1940 as the 1927 flood, as the 1931 description is consistent with the photographs of "1927" printed in 1940. This flood is notable as being the first one where a photograph was published in the newspaper at the time it occurred.

Jan. 31, 1938: Moderate reaction. Headlines called this the "Highest Floods in 15 Years" and there was some flooding of low-lying neighborhoods, primarily in the Barson Tract, near East Cliff Drive and Ocean St. Homes in that area were flooded as "River Rampages Through City Streets." But most of the damage was to the two wooden footbridges, one at Cooper St., and the other at Ocean St. Total damage to bridges was $1000, and there was some damage to the end of the Boardwalk as well. Numerous photographs of flooded areas were published in the newspaper. (SC Sentinel, 2/1/38, p.1)

Feb. 27, 1940: Very severe. Banner headline was "San Lorenzo On Worst Rampage of Century." "100 routed from homes by torrent." (SC Sentinel, 2/28/40, p.1)

Feb. 9, 1941: Moderate flood, but exasperated reaction as "Third Flood In Four Years Hits City Property." Calls for flood control. (SC Sentinel, 2/11/41, p. 1)

Feb. 1, 1945: Light reaction. "River's Flood Peak Believed Past Despite Continued Rain." The river "...threatened to inundate parts of Santa Cruz..." but only limited flooding occurred. (SC Sentinel, 2/2/45, p.1)

Dec. 22, 1955: Beyond severe. Papers indicated near panic on Friday morning, as "City Braces for New Flood." 9 lives were lost, and many people were missing right after the flood. There was talk of rehabilitation of "Wrecked Area." This was the highest historic flood, filling 410 acres of lowlands outside of the river channel. The 1955 flood is deeply etched in the community memory, and the water marks were evident on many older buildings downtown in the late 1960's. The flood control project was being planned at this time, and was enlarged as a result of this flood. In this storm, 90 percent of the damage in the county occurred within the city, and ran into the millions of dollars. (SC Sentinel, 12/23/55, p.1 and following days.)

Apr. 2, 1958: Moderate. Fairly high water, but the damage was limited, as many buildings that would have been flooded had been torn down as the flood control project progressed. Water flooded lower the lower Ocean St. area, and flowed along Front St., reaching the back of businesses on Pacific Ave. The recent experience of 1955 had led merchants along Front and Pacific to empty their basements of merchandise, and the police, city government and rescue workers were well equipped and out in force.

Jan. 4, 1982: Severe storm, as "Killer Flood Ravages Area." But no major flooding occurred in the City of Santa Cruz. All the people killed in S.C. County were in areas outside the city. Water rose to within two feet of the top of the levees at some places, and there was flooding of homes along Branciforte Creek, and of the benchland below the County Building. The older half (1923) of the Soquel Ave. bridge collapsed due to scouring and undermining of the footings. In contrast to 1955, 90 percent of the 1982 storm damage in S.C. County was outside of the city. (SC Sentinel, 1/5/82, p.1)

For more information on the history of floods, flood control, and current (1997) plans for the river, see :

© 1997 Daniel McMahon. Reproduced by permission of the author.

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floods, San Lorenzo River


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