By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
In the foothill districts of the Sierra Nevada two to three times as much rain fell as in the Central Valley. An early unseasonable snow pack of 10-15 feet had accumulated in the mountains when a warm rain began to melt it, sending the snow melt down ravines and gulches into surrounding foothills. Stockton officials received this warning by telegram from high in the Sierra, “It rains like fury. Hill is afloat. Look out for water!” Then line went dead.
The Union Democrat reported that Dr. Perez Snell measured 81 inches of rain from Nov. 10, 1861 - Jan. 17, 1862 - nearly double the usual 41 inches yearly average for the city in two months. The Sacramento Union reported an even higher total of 102 inches for Sonora recorded by Snell from Nov. 10 - Jan. 23.
The lack of reports for specific conditions in our area is no doubt due to the torrential rains and flooding of all area waterways which stopped both transportation and communication between the foothill towns. One article confirms that communications and travel, other than by foot, was entirely cut off between Sonora and nearby Columbia. Reports about the damage caused by these storms in the Groveland area are hard to find except in a few diaries such as those kept by Second Garrote resident Jason Chamberlain who tells of day after day of unending rain making mining impossible. We can imagine from reports about nearby areas what conditions in the Groveland area must have been like.
Placer mining ceased, made impossible by torrents of rain, dangerous fast-moving streams and flooded gulches. Hard rock mines everywhere were flooded and impossible to work. Log dams built to contain mining waste failed and inundated areas with their debris. “Mining camps became scenes of despair and illness.” In some instances the rivers actually changed course leaving their original beds high and dry later.
The dam at nearby Harden Flat, which impounded water to feed the flumes of the Golden Rock Ditch, gave way. The flume had provided water for mining and other uses to Groveland, Big Oak Flat. Many sections of the flume were destroyed by the torrential flow of water. Centuries old oak trees with trunks more than 10 feet in diameter were seen uprooted and floating in rivers.
Many small towns were almost entirely washed away. Several small houses in Sonora were swept away and the floodwaters collapsed some walls of brick buildings downtown. On January 17, 1862 The California Farmer reported, “At Knight's Ferry the whole town is gone, with the exception of the hotel and a storehouse. The town of Jacksonville and Don Pedro Bar are both gone.” O'Byrne's Ferry Toll Bridge was swept away as were most bridges over area rivers. Steven's Bar Bridge, built in 1857 which crossed the Tuolumne River just west of Moccasin, was torn off its foundations. In Coulterville all the buildings along Maxwell Creek were destroyed or heavily damaged. The Wards Ferry ferry and it’s moorings were washed down river, as were most of the ferries in the foothills.
Without transportation between towns, food became scarce and what was available was very costly. Making matters worse, fuel for cooking was unusable or unavailable in most areas. In late January a Columbia resident reported to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, “People are beginning to look around for provisions, wood and camphene (lamp oil), all of which are growing very scarce. Flour was worth $20 a barrel last Friday, and I am informed that yesterday only one sack could be bought at a time at $6 per sack. Camphene could be sold for $20 per can if there is any in the market.” Flour had previously cost about $3 a barrel and Camphene sold for about 50 cents a gallon.
Telegraph lines everywhere were down or under water. After a month without delivery, mail finally began to arrive again at the end of January. People would finally learn about the statewide destruction caused by the storm and could get news of their friends and family.
Weather woes, including snow in May, continued into spring. On May 11, 1862 a report read, “Cold cold cold, Jack frost an unwelcomed visitor, fruit trees and grape vines affected.” As in the Central Valley, effects of the flooding in the foothills were felt well into summer.
Stories of the past “Great Floods” can be compared to our own recent storms. It looks like we were lucky this time. Was this one of the “200 year floods” we've read about or is that still to come?
Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p