Friday, October 12, 2018
Heppner, Oregon and one day in June, 1903
by Rain Trueax
Sometimes fiction and nonfiction blend in such a way that it’s hard to believe something really happened as it did. One could not write a story with more tragedy and heroism than the year that a small town in Oregon was devastated by a flash flood.
Many times, in high desert communities, little creeks wind through the towns. The towns have built there for the water and sometimes the protection of a valley from windstorms. Sometimes what seems protection instead becomes a trap.
Still today, Heppner, Oregon, about 50 miles south of the Columbia River, has Willow Creek meandering through town. It’s such an innocent little stream, ankle deep in the summer, but it comes from the Blue Mountains in the distance. This is wheat country. Cattle and sheep graze the hills. It won't get much more than 20" of rain a year but much of it comes in intense thunderstorms. The dangerous aspect to such country is such storms can center over one spot-- miles from what is downstream and in its path.
The spring of 1903 had been warm and dry. June 14th was another hot day as families prepared for Sunday services and gatherings. By mid-afternoon, storm clouds were visible over the distant mountains. It was 4:30 when the rain and hail hit them. The storm was loud. Its fury hid something much more deadly approaching—a wall of water and debris coming from where it’d been raining much longer.
The Heppner Gazette reported: "Without a second's warning, a leaping, foaming wall of water, 40 feet in height, struck Heppner at about 5 o'clock Sunday afternoon, sweeping everything before it and leaving only death and destruction in its wake."
The mass of water was a battering ram that destroyed all in its path. Homes floated off foundations. Buildings were leveled. With the steep walls of the canyon, getting above it was beyond some of the residents. When the flood waters moved down the canyon, most of Heppner’s residential area was destroyed. Only three of the town’s businesses were left standing. 247 (one-quarter of the town’s population) were killed.
The flood was finished with Heppner, but there were two towns, Lexington and Ione, 9 and 18 miles downstream and directly in the path of the raging waters. With lines wiped out by the flood, they would be hit with as little warning.
Two men, Les Matlock and Bruce Kelly, saddled their horses and took off at a gallop to warn them. The flood washed through Lexington at about 7 pm, just before they arrived, destroying several buildings. They continued onto Ione, overtaking the flood to warn the citizens there. Because of their brave action, ranchers were able to move their livestock to higher ground, and no one was killed in those communities. However, tragedy was not finished as sewage washed downstream from Heppner, and 18 people were later killed by typhoid fever.
Heppner didn’t recover its original population until years later. It was in 1983 when a dam was built above the town to make sure an event like the 1903 flood never happened again.
I’ve driven through Heppner but didn’t know, until I did some research, that it has a big St. Patrick’s Day celebration in honor of its Irish roots. In 2003, a stone monument was placed in town to mark the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe. The monument, which includes a panoramic image of the destruction wrought by the flood and lists the names of the flood's victims, serves as a reminder of Heppner's day of tragedy. Oregon has had other tragedies, but this one took the most people.
As a writer, I imagine the man who had his children safely up a tree, then saw his wife floating past on their porch and managed to grab her as well. I imagine the two men and their wild ride. The story goes that one of the men rode one horse to death and jumped onto another to continue downstream and warn of what was coming.
Tragedy and heroism in one deadly Sunday.