Saturday, February 17, 2018

Freeze, Flood and a Crazy Stunt

On to more disasters...
     Why is that such a fun sentence to write? Must have something to do with it being history and not the present. The poor pioneers had so many obstacles thrown at them. It helps me to imagine being in the moment with them, surrounded by the challenge, the only option to go through. There is hope in that somehow…because they survived.

     Most of us have warm insulated houses with hot water heaters, stoves, washing machines, microwaves, dishwashers and phones. And what about cars? Our ability to cope and recover from some of the same incidents the pioneers faced is greatly increased. Probably because of what they learned and put into place.

     The weather can be a challenge from time to time. Some states freeze. Some states deal with tornadoes. Some states are desert dry. And others flood.
So here is the setting: Oregon City, Oregon during the winter of 1861-62. 

Oregon is know for rain, rain, and more rain, lots of water and big rivers.
Introducing the Willamette River. Oregon City was built up below the Willamette Falls, which is the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest by volume and the 17th widest waterfall in the world. It is 1,500 feet wide and 40 feet high. Found by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806. Hometown to John McLoughlin who was a Hudson Bay Company official. Here is a picture or two of the river so you can see how wide it is. The Willamette is a happy place for many salmon and steelhead during its usual mild weather moments. 

     But not in 1861. The temperatures dropped.

     And the river froze. It froze solid.

     As far as I can tell it has only happened one other time since then, in 1929.
This river is huge ranging from widths of 330 to 660 feet across. And it froze completely through.

     So what did our resilient settlers do?

     They continued to trade of course.

     They drove their wagons full of trade goods right across the top of the water, by-passing the normal ferry, and saving themselves buckets of money.
Talk about an opportunity. All that was well and good until it warmed back up and all that ice melted…and it continued to rain.

     Water, water, and more water.

     Oregon City had so much rain fall that the water level on the lower side of the Willamette Falls came up and closed the distance between the top level and the bottom level. The overall level of water came up 75 feet. Normally a forty foot drop, each side of the river came close to even—flattened so much it tempted Captain S. R. Smith of the St. Claire to risk floating over it’s edge.


     Captain Smith had a hankering to switch from upper-river trade to lower-river trade. Since there were no locks built to transport the boat easily, he tried to reduce the cost and the time it would take to have his boat lugged over land by taking advantage of the flooding. He talked his engineer buddy, Alonzo Vickers, into joining him. (We all need a crazy and willing to help friend like that.)

     They made their preparations and over the falls they went. 


      And they almost made it. (Horse shoes and hand grenades right?)
They would’ve made it if the tiller rope, which connects the steering wheel to the rudder, hadn’t broke in the swift waters.

     The St. Claire careened over the falls and down the river fast. It couldn’t make the bend. It crashed up onto the bank and slid into a house next to the Catholic church.

      Wouldn’t that be a shock to the homeowners?

      Those same flood waters swept away George Abernathy’s house, mill, and store which were some of the first buildings built in the City and the first site the early Oregon Trail Survivor’s found.

      He sold his soggy property and moved to Portland, playing a key role in that city’s development.

     They eventually did get the boat back in the water. But the flood waters took out Linn, Canemah, Clackamas, and Multnomah cities as well as most bridges and Ferries. So much destruction. The entire City of Linn was wiped off the rocky shore. Only two homes and a warehouse was left.
 This is the town that was wiped away:

    But the settlers are nothing if not resilient. “We will rebuild.” And usually they build better.

     Within a few short years, in this exact spot, there was a woolen mill built. And by 1869 The Oregon City Woolen Mill was using the power of the falls to produce shipping a million pounds of wool a year to help support the Civil War.
Hope. Hope is always worth paying attention to. And sometimes the best thing you can do to see the hope is to look back and see what happens after the hard times and troubles hit. Can any of you look back and see goodness our of a season of hardship? Please tell. I’m in a season were I would love to borrow your hope.

Thank you for stopping by. Below is a little more about me. 

I started a podcast. If you are a podcast listener and you need a dose of joy-meets-common sense, come on over to Life Caraphrased.

Cara Grandle is a Historical Romance Novelist who prefers to write about the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest. Think trappers and loggers and scroungy-backed woodsmen. She is represented by the Steve Laube Agency. Cara leads the author4TheAuthor writers group on Facebook, home to 190 writers. Together they're pressing back on busy and making a space for their dreams. 

Cara is currently out on submission. Follow her journey on her Facebook author page. Prayers much appreciated.


  1. Having grown up in Oklahoma, it's hard for me to imagine a frozen river. Ours here never freeze. I remember reading a post here about some place, in Canada, I think, where they ran trains across frozen rivers. Although I've lived nearly all my life in OK, I have never seen a tornado. I have seen the horrible destruction they cause. And like the people in Oregon City, the towns were rebuilt. People are resilient.

    1. The crazy thing is I’m scared of tornadoes more than freezing and flooding. I wonder if there is a connection between the fear of what you have experienced vs the fear of what you can only imagine.

  2. I'm not sure what "out on submission" means, but prayers are with you. Hm, hope after a difficult time. Well, yes, my son has had some bad relationships that nearly broke his heart for good. But he has two wonderful children from two of the broken relationships, and has now fallen in love with a woman who is an angel on earth. We all take joy from that. Many other things come to mind, but I'll stick with this story for now.