Worst Winter of All, Part II

Worst Winter of All, Part II
By Mark McLaughlin
No doubt about it, winter 2012 is off to a monumentally slow start. Virtually no snow has fallen on the Tahoe Basin since the pittance we received at Thanksgiving, which is giving regional resorts fits as they try to maintain a good sliding experience with man-made snow. A few ski areas have put their extensive snowmaking systems to good use and have opened a number of trails, but region-wide many employees have been laid off or never even got a start day.
December 2011 was the second driest 12th month in the central and northern Sierra since a regional index was established in 1920. Only December 1989 was drier with zero snowfall measured, but at least in 1989 the resorts had picked up about 4 feet of snow in November with gave them a minimum base to work with. A positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation is the likely culprit for the extremely dry weather, but at some point the blocking high pressure in the eastern Pacific will move and the proverbial storm door will open.
California has an erratic climate that swings from desiccating drought to overwhelming wet seasons that bring flood and destruction. Its too early to say what 2012 will eventually deliver, but 150 years ago prayers by farmers to bring rain to the Golden State to break a drought ended up inundating the Pacific Coast. The epic flood of 1862 ranks as the worst in California history, caused by a swarm of potent storms that slammed the state and destroyed an estimated 30 percent of all taxable property. California has had plenty of damaging floods since 1862, but the storm pattern and destruction that year is exceptional by any standard.
From early December 1861 to the end of January 1862, Sacramento recorded more than 37 inches of rain, nearly double what the city averages in a year. San Francisco was drenched with more than 28 inches of rain in just 30 days, a rare deluge that statistically occurs only once every 37,000 years. So much water came rushing out of the Sierra Nevada that the Central Valley became an inland sea. Far to the south, residents of normally sunny Los Angeles endured 28 consecutive days of rain.
William S. Jewett took a steamer from San Francisco to Sacramento during the flood and gave an eyewitness account: Our State has been sorely afflicted this winter by a dreadful flood such as has never been known here by the oldest Spanish inhabitant. It completely drowned Sacramento, the capital of our State. I found the town lying about from three to fifteen feet under water some of the wooden houses had sailed off down the river and others floated into the middle of the streets in all manner of positions.
Whole communities were swept away, and the loss of people and livestock was staggering. Edwin Waite described the desperation: The Sacramento Valley is today a vast inland lake. All is a waste of waters, now and then relieved by the top of a tree rising above the flood, or the deserted inhabitants of man. In some places we saw sheep on scaffolds but a few inches above the surface of the water, where they have been for weeks, fed occasionally by means of boats. The loss is not so much in the destruction of property as confidence. The people of the lowlands have lost all confidence in the large valleys as places for permanent homes.
On Jan. 22, after enduring weeks of discomfort and precious little activity in swamped Sacramento, Californias legislature lost their confidence too and finally adjourned to San Francisco. The flood was so bad in Sacramento that newly elected Governor Leland Stanford was forced to travel to his own inauguration ceremony by rowboat.
The recently arrived Anglo settlers may have been caught unaware by the rampaging torrents of muddy water, but Californias indigenous Indians understood. On Jan. 11, 1862, the Nevada City Democrat reported: We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for 30 years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.
In the west slope foothills, the onshore flow of moist Pacific air translated into heavy precipitation with fluctuating snow levels. According to the Democrat, nearly 42 inches of precipitation were recorded at Grass Valley in November and December. January was even worse. Locations in Nevada County picked up 11 inches in just 24 hours and Nevada City in the lower foothills reported wet snowfall equivalent to 115 inches of rain. The little town of Sonora eventually totaled 8 feet of rain for the season.
The rain-swollen streams and rivers inundating the lowlands were being fed by natural runoff from the mountains, but newspaper editors in Stockton and Sacramento publicly speculated about the deleterious effects of hydraulic mining operations on the riverbeds and wondered if the debris might have contributed to the flooding. Hydraulic mining employed jets of water run through hoses at extremely high pressure to rapidly erode away gold bearing gravels on the Sierra west slope and its use was at its height in the early 1860s. The extremely high pressure stream of water washed away whole hillsides and was the most devastating form of placer mining. Once those millions of tons of sediments reached the flatlands in the valleys, they clogged streams and raised riverbeds which exacerbated flood conditions during wet seasons.
Californians are used to challenges and Westerners face natural disasters with resolve. Prior to the 1862 flood, more than $1.5 million ($30 million in todays dollars) had been spent on earthen levees along riverbanks to protect Sacramento. Following the 1862 event, more money and effort were poured into developing a comprehensive levee system for the volatile Sacramento and American rivers.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com.