Vancouver and the Great Flood of 1894

Vancouver floods during the Great Flood of 1894.
Photo Courtesy of CCHM.

As the Columbia River continued to rise, so did the destruction of Vancouver, Washington.  At first no-one noticed the water rising in town, or didn’t care much, as they weren’t expecting a summer of flooding.  “It is not probable that there will be anything like a high-water season”, declared the Vancouver Columbia on May 15, 1894.  But the newspaper was wrong.

First the Columbia’s strong currents and swift moving water wreaked havoc on Vancouver’s waterfront businesses stripping away the deck boards from the wharves, loosening the pier foundations and setting buildings afloat.  Like a bloated man gorging glutinously on a last meal, the Columbia River wasn’t satisfied with just the waterfront.  With an insatiable hunger, the Columbia’s rising waters demanded more and set its hungry sights on the levee and downtown Vancouver. 

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Friday, May 25, 1894

For the last two weeks, the Columbia River has been rising and receding, drawing both anxious and curious onlookers who wanted to witness the restlessness of the mighty river.  Within the last 24 hours the Columbia River has risen 24 inches and, as of yesterday evening, the floodwater was within 7 feet of the high-water mark set by the flood of 1876.  Many of Vancouver’s older settlers headed for high ground above the high-water mark of the flood of 1876, but most did not. 

Friday, June 1, 1894

The Columbia River continued its destructive climb, at first breaching the levee and then surpassing the high-water mark from the flood of 1876.  The lower end of Main Street has flooded and as much as a mile or more of Vancouver’s wooden sidewalks were washed away by the flood.  It’s impossible for residents to escape the impact of the flood now.

Transportation between Vancouver and Portland was crippled.  The ferry service between the two towns has been interrupted, and the flooding has made getting to the ferry landing on either side of the river very challenging.  The only rail bridge between Vancouver and Portland was also destroyed by the flood and will have to be rebuilt.  Also, the Portland & Vancouver wagon road was damaged requiring it to be rebuilt as well.

Friday, June 8, 1894

For the past two weeks the Columbia River has continued its relentless climb resulting in widespread flooding of downtown Vancouver.  The city’s streets, gardens and lawns are all covered in muddy water.   Sunday morning the Jaggy & Company store began taking on water, forcing the proprietor to move his merchandise to the second floor.  By Monday night the first floor of the store was covered in 16″ of water.

Finally the mighty Columbia River crested Wednesday and Thursday, setting the Vancouver flood record at 34.4′ above sea-level.  Inch by inch, the water has spread across the lower part of town reaching almost to Fourth and Main Street. A rise of another foot of water and the floodwaters would reach Sixth and Main Street.  The foot of Main Street is clogged with flood debris; a chaotic jumble of lumber from the destroyed docks intertwined with fencing and the remnants of dock buildings washed away by the relentless flood waters.

Friday, June 15, 1894

The river has fallen more than 2 feet since cresting more than a week ago, but the Columbia River still remains several feet above the high-water mark set by the flood of 1876.  The lowland farms suffered tremendous loses, with many of the outbuildings and much of the fencing washed away by the flood.  Not to mention the crops that have been ruined by the flood.

Friday, July 13th, 1894

While the floodwaters have been receding slowly over the last couple weeks, Vancouver is not waiting to begin flood damage repairs.   Vancouver has already started rebuilding and looking towards its future.  The town’s wooden sidewalk planks have all been replaced.  Frank Eddings, who won the contract to rebuild the Salmon Creek Bridge, has already started rebuilding the bridge.  With the Columbia’s floodwaters now receding, businesses in the lower part of downtown have started to clean up with many already open for business.

Life continues to get back to normal.  Telegraph communications between Vancouver and Portland resumed last week.  And mail from California, interrupted for the last 10 days, finally arrived on Tuesday.  More than 125 years later and the flood of 1894 is still the Flood of Record, the highest known flood, for Vancouver, Washington. 

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