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1955 Santa Cruz Flood

The Forgotten Natural Disaster

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     Of the three natural disasters that affected Santa Cruz during the twentieth century, the 1906 Earthquake, the 1955 Flood, and the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake, the mid-century flood is the least remembered -- except by those Santa Cruz High grads who moved away from the area after graduation in the 1950s and early 1960s.

     Of course, for those grads who remained in the Santa Cruz area, the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake is much more memorable not only because it was the most recent of the three biggest natural disasters but also because the damage was much more widespread.

     Prelude. The rain started early in December, 1955. The 6 December 1955 Santa Cruz Sentinel-News ran the headline "County is Drenched by Heavy Rain," with a sub-headline of "Fall Totals 4 1/2 Inches."

     On Monday 19 December the headline was "Weekend Storm Causes Power Blackout" with a sub-headline of "Upper High Street District Hit Hard" and a smaller sub-headline of "Weatherman Says Storm Diminished." [Oh Yeah!?!]

     Tuesday's Sentinel headlined "Santa Cruz Gets Inch of Rainfall" with an important sub-headline of "Storm Brings Empire Grade Four Inches." The text of the article indicated that the weatherman had erred: "Yesterday's predicted forecast for occasional showers was turned into the understatement of the week as heavy downpours during the last 24 hours brought more than 9 inches in the Empire Grade District and one inch to most other localities in the Santa Cruz area."

     The Wednesday 21 December newspaper saw no letup in sight; the headline: "More Rain In Santa Cruz Area is Seen."

     Deluge. On Thursday 22 December the Sentinel sounded the alarm with this headline: "Flood Water Threaten Lowlands" and the sub-headline of "Some Areas Already Under Water; More Heavy Rain Forecast." And a front-page article explained the apparent surprise of many. "Definite flood threats to the lowland areas of Santa Cruz were a startling reality today as California's worst storm of the season nearly drowned the coastal areas....By 1:30 [p.m.] the river level was down to ten feet and unless the rain increased [Emphasis added] the total flood danger was lessened momentarily.

Surging San Lorenzo Closes Arch at Riverside Bride. Jerry Webber, son of Chief Sentinel-News Photographer Ed Webber, climbs the Laurel street river walkway to watch the waters of the muddy San Lorenzo river rise to flood level after five days of rain. This picture was taken at 10 a.m. this morning. [Th 22 Dec 1955 Santa Cruz Sentinel-News; note: dark horizontal lines are scratches from heavy use of this particular roll of microfilm.]

     However, other areas of the state were also receiving heavy rain. "Fast rising rivers -- including the Russian, Eel, Klamath, and Sacramento -- were on a rampage....The worst was yet to come, [for] the weather bureau forecast 'continue heavy rain.' The bureau said 'We cannot promise that the storm will be over by Christmas."

     The night of Thursday 22 December to daybreak on Friday 23 December 1955 was one that many will never forget.

     The following aerial photo appeared on page 58 of The Big Flood: California 1955, which was published in Oct 1956 by the California Disaster Office. [It is available at the Reference Desk of the Central Santa Cruz Library and covers many of the coastal areas that experienced floods as well as areas in the Central Valley such as Yuba City/Marysville.]

SANTA CRUZ UNDER WATER San Lorenzo River, showing an elongated "S" in the upper half of picture, is normally a scenic asset to city of Santa Cruz. Unprecedented rise spread water through main business district, wrecked motels and trailer camps along shore. Five persons drowned within city limits.

     The Broadway Street hill is in the upper left in the above photo. The Riverside Bridge is in the upper right just above the three-way junction of Third St, Leibrant Ave, and Laurel Street Extension. The seven small cabins at the base of Beach Hill were on Front Street as it curved around to meet Pacific Ave at the bottom right. (Some may recall that there were stairs from Front St Extn up Beach Hill to the end of Cliff St, the one street on Beach Hill in this photo which extends through Third St; the other end of Cliff St dead ends on Beach St opposite the Coconut Grove.)

     Here's a photo taken on Friday 23 Dec by Martin Wenks ('54) from the hill near Holy Cross Church looking toward River St; in the distance the San Lorenzo River looks more like a lake than a river.

From the 1954/2004 Cardinal: Celebrating the 50th Reunion of the Santa Cruz High School Class of 1954, edited by Len Klempnauer. (Used with permission.)

     In 1995 Ross Eric Gibson wrote a retrospective of the 1955 Flood for the 17 January 1995 San Jose Mercury under the title of " Christmas Flood of 1955."

     In 1992 Daniel McMahon wrote a paper for Sanndy Lydon's History 25B [presumably local or Santa Cruz history] at Cabrillo College. Several parts of Mr. McMahon's paper are in the Local History Section of the Santa Cruz Library web site under titles of " History of Floods on the San Lorenzo River in the City of Santa Cruz" and " Table of Santa Cruz Floods, 1852-1982," among others.

     Fifty Years After. The 22 December 2005 Santa Cruz Sentinel contains an excellent article by Sentinel Staff writer Shanna McCord titled "1955 disaster changed Santa Cruz's physical, economic landscape." While some of the photos have been used previously, there are some new photos by Bob Wright, one which is of the badly-damaged El Rio Trailer Park on North Pacific. Additionally, Ms. McCord interviewed someone whose story had not appeared previously: Mrs. Ruth Fingal, whose last husband owned a jewelry store in the Palomar Hotel. While this article in the Sentinel Archives lacks the photos used in the newspaper, it is still worth reading.     [New on 4 Feb 2006]

     However, one thing that the above accounts of the "Forgotten Natural Disaster" lack are interviews with those who experienced the Flood. You'll find many recollections of the 1955 Flood as well as more of Martin Wenks' photos in the Flood Stories that follow. [Disclaimer: since many of these were written well after the fact, there's no guarantee that they're completely accurate -- even the recollection of your webmaster.]

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Last revised on 9 May 2010
Copyright © 2005-2010 by Robert G. Lemmon Jr.