1861 Willamette Flood

Is it safe to build alongside a river? Perhaps, but you had better know that river’s flood history. The Willamette River’s flood history was unknown to the Oregon settlers of the mid-19th century, and in December, 1861, they paid a high price.

Key Concepts:

  • Oregon settlers built towns along the Willamette River for economic reasons, but without understanding the river’s flood history.
  • The 1861 flood destroyed Champoeg and devastated much of the rest of the valley, causing hardship that lasted for years.
  • Major floods occur about every 30 years, when deep snow in the Cascade Mountains melts suddenly.

The End of the Town of Champoeg

River access was essential during early Oregon settlement. A river was the only way to move produce or goods (roads were awful, when they existed at all), so the obvious place to put a commercial center was right by a river—on the “floodplain,” we would say today.

The town of Champoeg was just such a commercial center. The main shipping point for French Prairie (the farmland that stretches out to the south), Champoeg was developed during the 1840s and ’50s—mostly by people who had not been in Oregon for very long, and who didn’t know the Willamette River’s history. At its height, the town had perhaps 200 people, with stores, blacksmiths, livery stables, churches, saloons, a hotel, a school, and other services. All the buildings were wood, either sawed boards or logs. Even the foundations were wood.

There had been warning signs. Hardly a year passed when water had not crept into the lowest parts of the town area. An 1843 flood—before Champoeg could really be called a town—covered the whole area, destroying fences and crops stored in barns. Men had to paddle a canoe through the second story window of McKay’s mill to rescue the miller. Water filled the town in 1853, when it was more developed. Nonetheless, new immigrants were happy to buy lots and build.

Toward the end of November, 1861, a huge weather system stretched from California to Washington, bringing 18 straight days of rain to the Willamette Valley. When the water crested on December 6, it was as much as 30 feet deep on the Champoeg bottomland. And when the water was gone, the dismayed residents found that the town was gone too, having simply floated away.

No one in Champoeg was killed, but other people in the valley—particularly those who lived on islands in the river—were not so lucky. Also, perhaps a third of Oregon’s cattle were destroyed, and the resulting economic hardship lasted for years. After the flood, an entire acre in the Champoeg town area was selling for less than $50, where just one lot had previously cost $500. (There were eight lots in a city block.)

Yet some towns gained. Corvallis, for example, was high enough to avoid most flooding, while Orleans, its rival across the river, was washed from the map. Butteville, a few miles downstream from here, replaced Champoeg as the French Prairie commercial hub. Even Champoeg’s school bell ended up in Butteville, and is still there today.

After several years, new immigrants, ignorant of the floods, started building at Champoeg again. But another flood in 1890, nearly as bad as in 1861, brought a permanent end to the town.

In some ways, the losses from the 1861 flood reach down to today. Although Champoeg was a significant town, today we know surprisingly little about it. This is because most of the “ephemera” we would use to learn about Champoeg—the letters, photos, documents, and so forth—were destroyed along with the town. Just recently we were delighted to be given an 1859 invitation to the “Stout Ball” at the Champoeg Hotel, found in the bottom of an old trunk. It is one of the few such pieces of memorabilia that still exist.

Why does the river flood?

Willamette River floods are not just a 19thcentury phenomenon. Major floods occur about every 30 years. The most recent was in February, 1996, when much of the park turned into a lake, and wooden picnic tables followed in the path of the long-gone town. Many Oregonians remember the previous flood in 1964.

Why does this happen? Most flooding in the U.S. occurs simply because of heavy rains. In the East, floods are more likely to come in spring or summer. But Willamette River flooding is a winter phenomenon that follows a two-step process. First, a long stretch of cold, wet weather dumps many feet of snow on the Cascade Mountains, especially at the low elevations. Then we get a “Pineapple Express.” This is the name given to a blast of warm, wet weather that comes from the general direction of Hawaii. The warm rain and wind melt vast quantities of the Cascade snowpack in just a few days—especially the low-elevation snow. The result is more water than the river banks can handle, sometimes arriving in just a few hours.

Today, government officials can see problems developing and can give warning. In 1861, and again in 1890, this was not the case. Some people only learned of the flooding when their beds started to float.

A series of dams built in the 1950s and ’60s eliminated the smaller floods that used to come every few years. But while they can reduce the impact of the large floods, the dams can’t stop the floods entirely. Once a reservoir is full, the excess water must be sent on down the river—even if it causes flooding in Salem, Portland, or Champoeg.

Further Reading

  • For an eyewitness description of the flood, read the handout called “A Personal Account of the 1861 Flood, as experienced by eight-year-old Mary Higley.”
  • For another contemporary description of the flood at Champoeg, and also the flood’s effect on the nearby town of Butteville, read the handout called “River Rivals: Champoeg and Butteville.”
  • Search on the web using “1861 Willamette flood.” This will find numerous interesting flood stories from around the Willamette Valley, such as at www.oregonpioneers.com/Flood_1861.htm.
  • As far as we know, there are no photos of the 1861 flood, even though cameras had come to Oregon several years before. There are, however, numerous photos of the 1890 flood. A good place to look for these is the Salem Public Library: photos.salemhistory.org
  • Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey, printed by the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, 1967. This book is our primary source of historical information about Champoeg. Although out of print, it can be found in libraries and in used book stores such as Powell’s Books.