Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Chronicle’s book “The Flood of 2007: Disaster and Survival on the Chehalis River.”
Southwest Washington residents know all about swollen rivers. So did the Indian tribes who made this country home long before white pioneers arrived.
A Cowlitz Indian legend tells of a holy man warned by the great chief of the above, Hyas Saghalie Tyee, that a great flood would come. He told people to build a huge canoe and very long rope, according to Roy I. Wilson’s book, “Legends of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.” They filled the canoe with food, tied a long rope to a rock at the river’s edge, and placed all the children in the canoe, along with fine braves and a 16-year-old maiden. Rains came and the water rose until the canoe floated above even Lawelatla, or Mount St. Helens. After a time, a child spied a canoe, which turned out to be the top of Lawelatla. As the waters receded, the canoe rested on the Cowlitz River, which means “capturing the medicine spirit.” The children became the ancestors of the Cowlitz people.
A Chehalis Indian legend centers on Honne, the Spirit of the Chehalis, who created animals and people. Before the floods, people and animals could talk with one another, according to the Chehalis, which take their name from a Salish word meaning “shifting sands.” When Honne came to earth, he met people who sustained themselves by eating other people, and animals who ate only leaves and roots but never killed one another, according to Katherine Van Winkle Palmer, author of “Honne: The Spirit of the Chehalis.” He told the animals that a great flood would cover the country, after which he would return and exchange the lives of the people with those of the animals. Honne told the river to rise and it flooded the land, and afterward, people ate plants and animals instead of each other. But people and animals could no longer speak to each other.
No matter the belief, it’s clear that the flooding in Lewis County comes from the heavens, where the occasional torrential rains raise river levels that burst over banks and flood lowlands. Heavy — often record-setting — rainfall has been the key trigger for all major floods in the Twin Cities from the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers during the past 120 years.
One of the earliest significant local floods documented in newsprint occurred in mid-December 1887, when the Chehalis River and its tributaries overflowed their banks.
“As if to make up for a dry summer, torrents of rain have been falling for some days, and the rivers and streams are unusually high for this time of the year,” The Centralia News reported Dec. 15, 1887.
In a twist of historical irony, the 1887 flood claimed the lives of two Chehalis men — Fred Johnson and John Leudinghaus. More than 120 years later, Leudinghaus Road in Dryad was among the hardest hit areas flooded in early December 2007. A Dec. 22, 1897, Centralia News article stated that John Leudinghaus was mourned by his mother, sister and two brothers — most likely Frank and George, the brothers who operated the Leudinghaus Brothers Lumber Co. sawmill in the western Lewis County community of Dryad from 1902 until 1930. The newspaper reported that the two men drowned in a small stream near Seatco, an area known today as Bucoda.
Water flooded several farms, in depths of two to six feet, damaging rail fences and covering a third of the racetrack, the Centralia News reported Dec. 13, 1887.
“Between Centralia and Chehalis, nearly the whole country was under water,” The Centralia News reported. “The N.P. railroad trestles rose from their foundations and delayed the trains about twenty hours.
High waters caused delays of the steamer Toledo, which churned up the Cowlitz River regularly and docked near where the community today bears its name.
Water covered roads and part of the approach to the Lincoln Creek bridge was swung around, a Dec. 13 Centralia News article reported. Those hardest hit were mills with logs set adrift on the Skookumchuck or Chehalis rivers.
A decade later, in late December 1897, the community experienced rising waters twice in the same month, resulting in floods that covered much farmland and knocked out the Claquato bridge, according to the Dec. 3, 1897, edition of The Chehalis Bee. The flood also undermined the piers of the bridge crossing the Cowlitz River at Toledo, the newspaper’s Dec. 17, 1897, edition reported. High water also hampered the steamer Toledo’s progress upriver on the Cowlitz since the water made it too high to cross under the Olequa railroad bridge. However, the water still wasn’t as high as it had been 10 years earlier, in 1887.
On the Cowlitz River in Lewis County, flooding may have been devastating in November 1906, but little information is available about it. A paper from the Lewis County Historical Museum recounts the unconfirmed story of that fateful flood on the upper Cowlitz River.
It says Tom Blankenship and Frank McMahon found a man, Schoumacher, on a stump spearing leaves to keep from starving after the flood. He had been on the stump for three days when they found him during a search along the river to see if anyone needed help. Mrs. Schoumacher, a cousin of Blankenship’s, apparently drowned in the flood, along with her children, so it was referred to as the Schoumacher flood. The family lived just below the Nesika bridge south of the Glenoma area.
In late November 1909, wind and rain washed out roads and railroad tracks and damaged mill companies in what headlines described as the “highest water here for 12 years.”
“The Chehalis and Newaukum rivers rose rapidly, and it was not long until the lowlands were filled with back water, and by Tuesday noon had reached the highest point known here for at least 12 years,” The Chehalis Bee Nugget reported Nov. 26, 1909.
A train engineer and fireman died after wrecking on washed out tracks between Gate City (west of present-day Rochester) and Olympia. Passenger trains were trapped on each side of Pe Ell by floodwater.
“A telegram from C.A. Doty of the Doty Lumber and Shingle Company Tuesday said the Chehalis was higher than it had been for twenty-five years,” the newspaper reported.
“The lowlands between Chehalis and Centralia were also covered with water, and the Southwest Washington Fair grounds looked like a small-sized ocean.”
Mill companies also lost log booms and lumber.
A little more than three months later, on March 2, 1910, the Centralia News-Examiner newspaper reported that houses and businesses flooded when the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers, plus China Creek and Mill Ditch, overtopped their banks. The headline blared that “Many Parts of City Under Water.”
The flood inundated businesses on Tower Avenue and surrounded many homes with water, at times covering the first stories of the houses.
The owner of Cohen’s furniture suffered extra damage when he started using sand to protect his store, sand that a contractor had dumped for his own use. “The contractor came along and, according to Cohen, assaulted and beat him for using the sand,” the newspaper reported.
The flood stopped train travel into the city and washed away 60 feet of the Northern Pacific main line.
“Since night before last boats have been in constant use in Chehalis in rescuing marooned families,” the newspaper reported.
“Most of the land in the north part of the city between the Skookumchuck and the railroad is under several feet of water.”
Bridges over the Skookumchuck at Main Street and Waunch Prairie both faced danger of being washed away as water cut around them, making them impassable. Water also covered a bridge across the Chehalis River.
“Mayor Guerrier states that the Chehalis is the highest he has ever seen it,” the newspaper reported.
A March 4, 1910, article in the Lewis County Advocate summed up the past week by saying, “The Pacific Northwest during the past week has experienced the most disastrous floods of the past 10 years.” It attributed the flooding to heavy snow in the mountains and warm rains over a two-day period that “made raging torrents of small creeks.”
Damage to Centralia and Chehalis from the flood was listed as minimal — more inconvenience than anything else.
Jitneys Operate as Ferries
Then came 1915, when two days after a heavy downpour began, the Dec. 20 Centralia Daily Chronicle-Examiner headline stated, “Storm is Worst in City’s History.”
When the Skookumchuck River overflowed its banks, it created a solid lake north of Main Street in Centralia to the river, inundating the west and southwest parts of the city, too.
Police worked through the night of Dec. 19 with a huge flat boat moving families to safety, the newspaper reported, but at least one riverside family remained isolated when the swift current made it impossible to reach them.
China Ditch subsided overnight, but the Skookumchuck River continued to pose problems the next day, flooding streets with 18 inches to 2 feet of water.
“All of the business houses on Tower Avenue north of Maple Street were under water,” the newspaper reported. “The jitneys have abandoned their runs to Chehalis, and are operating as ferries whenever possible.
“Old residents of Centralia say the flood is the worst in the city’s history. The loss in the business district and the resident districts will amount to thousands of dollars.”
Of course, a thousand dollars at that time was the national average yearly income.
The school board dismissed Centralia schools until Jan. 3, starting Christmas vacation a little early.
“The Chehalis River is on a rampage and Fords Prairie is now getting the brunt of the flood,” the newspaper stated. “Many residents of the prairie last night moved into the city.”
The Dec. 20 Chronicle-Examiner article noted that Frank Reisinger, a Fords Prairie farmer, and another man narrowly escaped drowning “when their horse went off the hard-surface road and was drowned.”
When the horse plunged over the embankment, the newspaper reported, “Reisinger and his companion leaped out of their buggy and escaped. The horse and buggy disappeared in the water.”
That same day, the newspaper reported that warm winds and extraordinary precipitation in the past 48 hours caused the Cowlitz River and its tributaries to overflow their banks.
Two days later, on Dec. 22, the Chronicle-Examiner reported that the Chehalis and Newaukum valleys saw the highest water in two years. All the sawmills in the area shut down. “Plank and puncheon roads and small bridges have floated away in various places,” the newspaper reported.
The Chehalis Bee Nugget on Dec. 24, 1915, said people in the Cowlitz Valley indicated the water was unusually high, but so far no serious damage had been reported.
‘A Veritable Sea’
Just four years later, on Jan. 23, 1919, The Centralia Daily Chronicle headline screamed, “Present Flood Probably Worst in City’s History.” A smaller headline explained, “Entire North, West and Southwest Sections of Centralia Inundated as a Result of Overflow at Skookumchuck River Last Night — Many Families Forced to Move.”
And, once again, China Ditch was to blame for downtown flood conditions, which worsened when the Skookumchuck River overflowed its banks.
“The residence section was almost entirely cut off from the business section, autos serving as ferries in transporting citizens across the inundated sections,” the newspaper reported. “Tower Avenue north from Maple Street to the river was entirely underwater, as was also First Street and Washington Avenue to the river. Ford’s Prairie was a veritable sea.”
The newspaper reported the water reached its greatest depth in lowlands between Centralia and Chehalis, “and it is feared that cattle will suffer.”
Flooding closed the schools and hampered delivery of both the mail and The Chronicle.
Despite a barrier placed in front of the new Liberty Theatre, water rushed into the building overnight.
The swift current of China Ditch washed away a bridge in an east-west alley between Main and Pine streets, and it lodged against the concrete Main Street bridge.
Several mills also closed down. F.B. Hubbard, president of the Eastern Railway and Lumber Co., said water at his plant was three to four feet higher than he had ever known it to be.
For a while, Centralia was entirely cut off from the outside world after the landslides north and south of the city prevented train travel either direction.
The last southbound train out of town the afternoon of Jan. 22 “narrowly missed being hit by a slide at Wabash north of this city,” the newspaper reported. “Had the train been struck, it would have been swept into the Skookumchuck River.”
“General opinion among the old residents is that the flood is the worst the city has ever experienced,” the newspaper stated.
The Chehalis and Newaukum river valleys were flooded for miles, with water reaching record depths and trees knocking out power lines. The flood also damaged Winlock’s business district.
Two years later, in December 1921, heavy rains over two days once again brought flooding to the community, with The Chehalis Bee-Nugget announcing that the Chehalis river was “within two feet Monday of high water record” and noting that slides in the Grays Harbor District and on the Sound caused loss of life.
The Dec. 16, 1921, issue of the newspaper stated that water flooded Lower Prindle Street and an older house with a weak foundation crumbled. A dam at the Coal Creek Lumber Co. mill gave way, flooding the mill without causing serious damage.
“Centralia was hit by high waters also. China ditch and the Skookumchuck overflowed and flooded cellars and basements, and even entered the lower floor of some of the stores,” the newspaper reported.
Centralia’s community leaders, who worried that the old Fort Borst blockhouse built on the donation land claim of Joseph Borst near the junction of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers would be swept away, moved it first up the Skookumchuck River to Riverside Park, but after the 1919 flood, relocated it again to its present location, according to a July 1976 Daily Chronicle special section.
Wettest Month Brings Infamous Flood
After a relatively flood-free decade, heavy rains heralded the now infamous flood of 1933.
The rain started Friday night, Dec. 5, and pummeled the area incessantly until Sunday. Rainfall totals show 1.08 inches fell Dec. 5, 2.17 Dec. 6, 0.4 Dec. 7, 0.39 Dec. 8, and then a torrential downpour of 3.95 inches Dec. 9.
Rain that fell in the hills rushed downstream, swelling the Chehalis, Newaukum and Cowlitz rivers, sweeping across Alexander Park, filling the lowlands, covering the highway to the ocean beaches, and submerging the road between Centralia and Chehalis.
After a weeklong break, heavy rains returned Dec. 17 when 2.40 inches fell, followed by 1.60 inches the next day. A lighter rainfall of 0.67 inches occurred Dec. 19, but then 1.96 inches fell Dec. 20.
The total 1933 rainfall total in the Twin Cities was 59.29 inches, and in December it rained 26 out of 31 days, for a total of 22.12 inches, recorded at Centralia, which still stands as the city’s wettest month on record.
The Cowlitz River at Packwood reached 13 feet on Dec. 21, 1933, a flood stage that 75 years later still marked its fifth highest level ever. Rainfall throughout Western Washington broke all previous records in most places.
Flooding closed many roads, and road patrolmen warned drivers away. But at the Chehalis-Napavine Highway, 39-year-old G.H. Worley of Winlock ignored the warnings and drowned when his car was swept away near the Union School in the Newaukum Valley, five miles south of Chehalis.
Flooding and landslides forced suspension of rail traffic between Portland and Tacoma. It destroyed bridges on the Tilton River north of Morton, at Silver Creek near Randle and the Kiona Creek bridge near Randle.
Road crews rushed to dynamite a logjam at the Nesika Bridge above Riffe to prevent it from being destroyed, but the bridge was damaged. So was the Cora Bridge in East Lewis County.
Livestock died in the flood. Vader area farmer A.H. Compton reported losing a team of horses as well as five cows trapped in a barn near the Cowlitz River, and J.T. Ritzman, a farmer on the east side of the Cowlitz, lost a team of horses.
Centralia merchants saw several inches of water invade their businesses.
Road and highway damage in Lewis County was estimated at $35,000 to $50,000, with the worst damage — $25,000 — occurring on Bear Canyon Road from Onalaska to Morton, according to The Lewis County Advocate. A huge mudslide shoved hundreds of tons of mud and debris — as well as 300 feet of the highway — into the canyon.
Chehalis was “mail-less” for the first time in 25 years, a headline stated, as floods kept trains out of the city for 33 hours, leaving the town without mail between Saturday night and Monday morning.
“While some of the old timers recall a time when higher water was reported in certain spots, it is generally agreed that all county records for high water and damage over the district were broken,” The Lewis County Advocate reported.
In late February 1936, heavy rainfall again brought flooding to the area, when 3.5 inches of rain fell between a Tuesday and Thursday; more than two inches fell in a 24-hour period, but no property damage was reported.
In late December 1937, floodwaters again menaced the Twin Cities and South Thurston County as the Chehalis River at Grand Mound measured 18.39 feet, which today marks the fifth-highest level ever reported at that station.
Despite the flood, physician E.D. Taylor used a rowboat to reach the bedside of a patient who had lived in the Lincoln Creek area for 30 years and suffered from an appendicitis attack, the Centralia Daily Chronicle reported.
A 25-year-old “cripple” was believed to have drowned in the swollen waters of Elk Creek near Doty, the newspaper reported. The man, Glen Hoke, who suffered from paralysis, was believed to have fallen into the swollen creek less than two miles west of Doty, in water that measured 15 feet deep.
Once again, Centralia residents had to pump water from their basements.
The following month, on Feb. 13, 1939, the Centralia Daily Chronicle reported that heavy weekend rainfall once again overloaded streams and rivers, flooding the lower end of Prindle Street and the Chehalis airport.
On Dec. 13, 1946, high water on the Cowlitz River forced several families to evacuate from their homes as the river at Mayfield hit its third-highest level of 24.75 feet. D.F. Higby, who lived across the river from Toledo, moved to Winlock temporarily as water surrounded his farm. Also in the Toledo area, the Ike Imboden family moved, and the Wallace family relocated machinery to higher ground and prepared to evacuate. The Harland Shepardson family had to use a boat to reach their farm.
Major flooding occurred in many areas of the Pacific Northwest in May and June 1948, an event considered by the National Weather Service to be second on a list of top weather, water and climate events of the 20th century.
The greatest spring snowmelt flooding, which lasted 45 days, caused several rivers in eastern Washington and northern Idaho to reach record levels. In less than an hour May 30, 1948, flooding wiped out the community of Vanport, America’s largest wartime housing project, as Columbia River dikes near Portland gave way. The property now is Delta Park north of Portland. Other Southwest Washington towns suffered flooding.
On Dec. 10, 1948, the Lewis County Advocate reported that the Chehalis and Newaukum rivers closed roads in two spots while heavy snows set records in the Cascades.
“Flood conditions prevailed on rivers and small streams in the Chehalis area again for the second time in less than a week,” the newspaper reported. Both rivers were “well above flood stage.” The rivers had crested and started to recede a week earlier when a second storm hit. The airport road was closed, and Highway 99 between the two cities “ran like a ribbon bounded on two sides by water.”
The Newaukum River inundated the Hamilton Road between Madsen’s corner and the Napavine road, and later water covered Highway 99 south of Chehalis near the Newaukum River bridge.
And on Nov. 27, 1949, the Cowlitz River at Packwood nearly reached 12 feet, topping out at 11.98 feet.
In the early 1950s, heavy rainfall at times led to localized but not horrific flooding.
In February 1951, heavy rain over two days led to localized flooding in the Twin Cities and rural Lewis County. China Creek flooded city streets, and river water seeped into homes and businesses. The Cowlitz River below Mayfield measured 22.50 feet Feb. 11, which marked the seventh-highest level ever.
Two years later, on Feb. 10, 1953, the Skookumchuck River reached its eighth-highest level ever, cresting at 86 feet at Centralia.
Flooding occurred Dec. 12, 1955, on both the Cowlitz and Skookumchuck rivers. The Dec. 23, 1955, issue of the Daily Chronicle noted that boat traffic took over on a good part of Prindle Street, enabling stranded residents to come and go after the fast-rising Chehalis River backed up into the area.
The Cowlitz River below Mayfield marked its eighth-highest level ever, cresting at 22.05 feet Dec. 12.
The same day in Centralia, the Skookumchuck River crested at 85.60 feet, marking its 10th-highest level ever.
Shortly afterward, a freak “twister” whipped through Lewis County, heaping more trouble on already soggy communities after four days of heavy rain and flooding rivers.
In November 1958, a steady downpour of heavy rains created a flash flood that swamped the Garrard Creek bridge south of Oakville with floodwaters measuring 10 feet high, according to a Nov. 12, 1958, Daily Chronicle article.
Mellen Street Bridge Strains Against Logjam
The following year, in October 1959 after warm rain melted mountain ice and snow, floodwaters destroyed two Forest Service bridges near Randle.
But this flooding was just an appetizer for what was to follow a month later.
In November 1959, a swollen Cowlitz River and its tributaries cut off Packwood in East Lewis County.
Highway approaches to Packwood were washed away, completely isolating the town, according to a Nov. 23, 1959, Daily Chronicle article. Telephone lines toppled. Surrounding areas of farmland flooded, killing cattle and damaging farm equipment and automobiles. Families had to be evacuated.
On Nov. 23, 1959, the Cowlitz River at Packwood reached its third-highest level ever at 13.54 feet, and the following day, the river crested below Mayfield at 23.71 feet — the fifth-highest level ever.
The south and east ends of Randle also flooded after a sprinkling of rain turned to a downpour, dumping 3.26 inches within 24 hours.
Floodwaters washed out several bridges and threatened the Cora bridge between Randle and Packwood with a huge logjam, and three feet of water swirled through the Cowlitz Veneer plant at Randle.
In the Twin Cities, flooding of the Chehalis River reached its peak more than a foot above flood stage, but no major flooding was reported. The Skookumchuck crested two feet below flood stage.
Swollen waters from the Chehalis River shoved a king-sized logjam against the new Mellen Street bridge in Centralia, and pilings holding the scaffolding groaned and tilted under the stress, but the bridge remained intact.
On Nov. 20, 1962, the Cowlitz River overflowed its banks, cresting at 13.23 feet at Packwood and, the following day, at 21.83 feet below Mayfield. Those river levels marked the fourth-highest level seen at Packwood and the ninth at Mayfield.
Mudslide Buries Randle Couple
But that paled in comparison with the deadly storm of January 1965, which killed two people in East Lewis County and ranked as one of the U.S. Geological Survey’s most significant flood events during the 20th century.
A Jan. 28, 1965, article in the Daily Chronicle described the flooding, noting that high waters were receding after a surge in water levels caused by heavy rains and warm temperatures. The flooding closed roads in the Twin Cities and flooded Fords Prairie residents.
On January 30, 1965, the Cowlitz River below Mayfield measured 24.36 feet, which is the fourth-highest level ever recorded.
That same day, a Daily Chronicle article reported that Mr. and Mrs. William Mullins, both about 70, died after a flash flood during the night brought a forested hillside through their ranch home on Cline Road east of Randle. The slide swept 100 feet across the road and into a hillside. The bodies were found under three feet of mud, with the house torn to shreds and nothing left but the roof sitting on a pile of logs, roots and stumps.
Another slide buried the home and garage of John Mullins a mile east of the Cora Bridge near Randle, shoving it off its foundation. He and three other occupants fled to safety, although his wife was injured while fleeing and gave birth to a son at the Morton hospital shortly afterward.
Eight families were evacuated from their Cline Road homes and took refuge with friends and relatives. The Cowlitz Veneer mill also flooded.
The Skookumchuck River crested slightly below flood stage, while the Chehalis rose about its flood stage at Mellen Street. Crews sandbagging on Reynolds Avenue tried to curtail water problems in the Lum Road area, where residents complained about flooding from Coffee Creek.
Rainfall in the Twin Cities measured more than six inches in a week. High water closed the roads in Centralia, Napavine and Randle.
The USGS declared the Pacific Northwest storm, which occurred between December 1964 and January 1965, one of the century’s most significant flood events. It caused $430 million in damage and came as a result of excessive rainfall on snow.
The 1960s also saw the deliberate flooding in 1963 of the town of Mayfield and in 1968 of Kosmos and Riffe when Tacoma City Light built power-generating dams on the Cowlitz River.
During mid-January 1968, flooding in the Randle and Packwood areas damaged roads and homes.
The Dec. 9, 1970, edition of The Daily Chronicle reported that the steam-electric plant’s Skookumchuck Dam helped stop weekend flooding when western Lewis County “soaked up some three inches of rain and the Chehalis River went more than four feet over flood stage.”
The dam at the Bloody Run site northeast of Bucoda, constructed to supply water to the Hanaford Valley coal and steam electricity generating plant, was being filled when the heavy rains began, so water that normally would have flowed into the Chehalis River was diverted into the reservoir storage.
On Jan. 26, 1971, the Chehalis River at Centralia reached 70.20 feet, about five feet above flood stage of 65 feet, while the Skookumchuck River at Centralia reached 86 feet, a foot over flood stage. Both crests were the eighth-highest levels on record.
Damage from the January 1971 flooding was estimated at more than $400,000. The flood was described as the worst since 1937.
40-Foot Logjam Threatens Rainbow Falls Bridge
In January 1972, rivers once again reached high levels after 4.92 inches of rain fell between Jan. 17 and Jan. 21. On Jan. 21, the Chehalis River at Centralia measured 71.65 feet, its all-time high at that time and the fifth-highest level ever, while at Grand Mound it was 18.21 feet, the sixth-highest recorded level. That same day, the Skookumchuck at Centralia reached 86.60 feet and near Bucoda it hit 16.82 feet, both the fourth-highest levels.
A Jan. 21 Daily Chronicle article began, “Western Lewis County literally was a sea of water Friday morning as the worst flooding on record isolated entire communities, closed schools, led to evacuation of countless persons from their homes and caused at least one trailer house to wash into the Chehalis River at Adna.”
The raging floodwaters of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers spilled over their banks, causing a great deal of damage but no injuries or deaths.
Pe Ell, Doty and Dryad were cut off by high water over most of the roadways. Lewis County sheriff’s deputies evacuated about 80 people by boat in the western portion of Chehalis, just east of the freeway. Another 58 people, 13 dogs, nine cats and a chipmunk were evacuated from the Chehalis Avenue Apartments and the Prindle Street area.
About 55 people evacuated from the Oakville Indian Reservation spent the night at a grange hall in Brady.
In Centralia families also were evacuated on Long Road and high water closed Harrison Avenue and North Pearl Street. The Riverside Motel, hit hard in the January 1971 flooding, experienced the same disaster. High water blocked roads, leading some school districts to cancel classes.
Water covered portions of the northbound lanes of Interstate 5, forcing traffic into one lane. The county engineer’s office reported that “more roads than not” were covered with water. Some were barricaded and closed. A trailer court near Mineral was flooded. The highway to Pe Ell also was closed in several places. Bridge approaches were washed out at Lost Valley Road west of Boistfort and Round Top Creek bridge east of Mineral. A huge 35- to 40-foot-high logjam threatened the Rainbow Falls State Park bridge. Another logjam threatened the Pigeon Springs Road east of Onalaska, with debris 10 to 14 feet high covering the roadway.
Two feet of water entered the Yard Birds Shopping Center, damaging 80 percent of the merchandise. A house that had been teetering on the edge of the Newaukum River crashed into the water.
More than 200 people were evacuated from their homes. Unofficial early estimates put the damage at $3 million to $5 million. Damage to county roads and bridge approaches topped $100,000, with three bridges damaged extensively and more than 50 roads closed by water and washouts during the flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers had diked about 1,500 feet of the airport access road and prevented flooding of the Chehalis-Centralia Airport.
When the Salzer Creek Dike ruptured, the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds suffered extensive damage of $250,000 or more. At the height of the flooding Jan. 22, 1972, water rose to the eves of the concession stands, ruining food preparation equipment. A dike around the fairgrounds, constructed in 1952, washed out Jan. 21 “during the worst flooding in county history,” according to a Feb. 1 Daily Chronicle article.
Flooding occurred again in 1974, at the end of January when the Chehalis River crept over its banks for a second time in one month. A Feb. 1, 1974, Daily Chronicle article said the Chehalis was expected to crest two feet over flood stage. Heavy and continual rains once again caused the flooding, with a total of 4.78 inches falling between Jan. 23 and 31. It also estimated that January flooding caused an estimated $10 million in damage.
In Packwood, the upper Cowlitz River and its tributaries also reached higher levels because of heavy rainfall. January precipitation at Packwood was 17.36 inches, two-tenths of an inch more than reported in 1972—“the year of the all-time county record flood,” according to the article.
During January 1974, the county suffered an estimated $10 million in damage when the Chehalis, Skookumchuck, Upper Cowlitz and their tributaries all exceeded their banks, with the Chehalis cresting at 69.1 feet on Jan. 16. Slides also occurred on roads throughout the county.
Mudslides and Helicopter Evacuations
In late 1975, major flooding occurred on both the Cowlitz and Chehalis rivers.
On Dec. 2, 1975, The Daily Chronicle reported that heavy rains, melting snow and warm temperatures created an 80-foot-long, 4-foot-deep mudslide that covered the Bear Canyon Bridge on the Onalaska-Morton Highway.
Mudslides, logjams and high water isolated parts of East Lewis County and threatened White Pass Highway bridges. As much as three feet of water from the Cowlitz flooded access roads from Randle to Mount Adams Veneer, Cispus and other areas.
In Packwood, about 75 people were evacuated from the High Valley Road area when floodwaters wrecked the Butter Creek bridge.
Electricity also was knocked out to all of eastern Lewis County for a while.
In Randle, Doug Hilton and his family narrowly escaped a rumbling slide on the Bennett Road that missed their house but carved a 100-foot-wide swath from the top of the hill to a field across the road. Two to four feet of water threatened houses in the area.
On Dec. 4, 1975, the Cowlitz River at Packwood reached 12.8 feet, the sixth-highest level, while at Mayfield the river measured 25.26 feet that same day, which is the second-highest level recorded there.
A helicopter evacuated 14 people trapped by washouts and mudslides in the Randle area, according to a Dec. 3, 1975, Daily Chronicle article. One of those evacuated was Luther Mullins, whose parents were killed in a 1965 slide on Cline Road. He and his family were evacuated along with several other families.
In East County, high water damaged bridges, seeped into homes and covered roads with as much as three feet of water, mud and debris.
On Dec. 5, 1975, the Chehalis River at Centralia measured 71.17 feet, its seventh-highest level, and at Grand Mound it measured 17.73 feet, the eight-highest level.
In the Twin Cities, residents prepared for high water as the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers rose quickly. Several roads were under water, and the rivers continued to rise. The Chehalis Apartments were evacuated.
Water washed out part of Independence Road and damaged a new bridge in the area. Floodwaters from the Chehalis also threatened the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds, where workers connected a pipeline to one of several huge sump pumps within the dike around the fairgrounds. The pumps were installed after the 1972 flood.
More than 70 percent of Stan Hedwall Park was covered by floodwaters. At Alexander Park, high water washed out roads, bent fences and sprung gates, scattering debris.
Preliminary estimates put damage to public property in the county at $250,000 to $300,000, according to a Dec. 6, 1975, article.
By Dec. 7, 1975, the Daily Chronicle reported that floodwaters had begun to recede after the worst flooding since 1972.
Once again, Lewis County commissioners declared the area a disaster.
On Dec. 9, an article on the flood damage noted that Nick Askin, owner of a Toledo construction company, had more than $20,000 damage to his property on the south side of the Cowlitz River where he operated a rock pit. Much of his equipment was under water and his employees were out of work.
The weather once again headed a list of the top stories for the year, voted the No. 1 news story of 1975.
Bear Canyon Washed Out
After a period of relative calm, on March 9, 1977, the Skookumchuck River at Bucoda measured 16.51 feet, its eighth-highest level ever recorded there, when 2.52 inches of rain fell in a week.
On Dec. 2, 1977, the Skookumchuck at Bucoda measured 16.18 feet, the ninth-highest level.
That same day, the Cowlitz River at Packwood measured 13.73 feet — the second highest level ever recorded — and two days later, the Cowlitz below Mayfield measured 23.69 feet, the sixth-highest level.
A Dec. 2, 1977, article described how a logjam in Bear Creek kicked out a huge supporting timber from beneath the 150-foot-high Bear Canyon bridge, sending it into the canyon below. Mudslides poured onto three highways, isolating the East County area.
The Tilton River rampaged through Bear Canyon five miles west of Morton, and a buildup of water and a logjam knocked out all but the west approach to the Bear Canyon Highway bridge. That left many families without an exit, so they had to be evacuated by helicopter, boat or log skidder.
A Daily Chronicle article Dec. 3, 1977, noted that flooding forced people in the Randle area to leave their homes. More than a dozen were evacuated to the White Pass Grade School’s multipurpose room. The county road between Randle and the White Pass schools became impassable with water over the roadway, and the White Pass Highway closed for hours between the school and the town. The Johnson Creek Bridge six miles west of Packwood on the White Pass Highway was washed out, stranding evacuees at the school. A washout on the Butter Creek Bridge on the Skate Creek Road, which was built in 1976 after the previous bridge was destroyed during 1975 flooding, left residents near Packwood’s High Valley stranded. The sheriff’s office used a helicopter to ferry people in and out of the valley.
Sheriff’s officials estimated 100 homes were flooded in the east end. Eight homes were lost in the Packwood and High Valley Park areas, and about 25 cattle were reported lost near Randle.
The Twin Cities also saw local flooding, such as four feet of water in Riverside Park and nearly six feet at Wilbur Parkins Park.
A Dec. 5, 1977, article noted that the county’s flood toll might top $6 million, including $2 million to replace the Bear Canyon bridge.
No plans were in the works to raise Kresky Avenue between Centralia and Chehalis, which was inundated with as much as two feet of water during the flooding. The road was rebuilt several years earlier in a project paid for by the county and the two cities.
A Dec. 7, 1977, article noted that high water flooded a campground east of Randle. A Forest Service road connected Packwood and Randle until the Johnson Creek Bridge was repaired. Farm families stranded by the Bear Canyon Bridge washout worried about perishable goods — milk from a dairy farm that needed to go to Chehalis and Christmas trees that needed to be shipped out. The tree farm was isolated between two collapsed bridges, so he went to work building a bridge.
A Dec. 14, 1977, article on Packwood picking up the pieces after the flood stated that, “Older Packwood residents, especially those in the heavily damaged High Valley subdivision, have their bags packed and their emotions strained as they live in fear of new flooding.”
The Amos and Molt families were driven from their homes on Edmonds Road in Packwood by the flooding. Their homes sustained damage inside, and Fred Amos caught pneumonia as he walked out in the flooding and was hospitalized.
His wife, Bee Amos, told the Chronicle, “We have lived here 21 years and this is the fourth and worst flood.” She gestured with her arms and said, “The first flood was three inches, then six inches, then two feet and then four feet.”
The flood left the Amos family, who live on a fixed income, with mud in their oven, holes in their walls and all their furniture and appliances ruined. Floodwaters destroyed the floors and doors, too.
“All we can do is move back in,” she said. “We can’t buy another house or pay rent.”
The article also noted that the Bear Canyon Bridge was expected to be out for two years, forcing people to drive 10 miles east to Morton before heading west.
On Dec. 15, 1977, the Daily Chronicle reported that Lewis and Pierce counties were particularly hard-hit by the flood.
Seventy-four East Lewis County residents affected by the flood lined up to receive aid after the president declared disasters in the Washington state.
Private damage in Lewis County, where more than 100 homes were damaged, was estimated at $1.7 million. Altogether, the flooding destroyed 11 homes and caused major damage to 46 homes and nine apartments, while 37 homes had minor damage. Forty-four applied for unemployment insurance, many of them from the Packwood Lumber Co. sawmill, which closed Dec. 9 and remained closed for several weeks after four feet of water inundated the mill.
Wood Treatment Chemicals Wash Through Neighborhoods
After frequent flooding in the 1970s, the decade of the 1980s brought only one major flood, when the five-day rainfall between Nov. 20 and Nov. 24, 1986, totaled 8.08 inches, leading to heavy flooding on Nov. 25.
On that day, the Chehalis River at Centralia reached 71.99 feet and at Grand Mound 18.41 feet, both the fourth-highest levels at those recording stations.
The Skookumchuck River at Centralia marked its 11th-highest level, reaching 85.59 feet on Nov. 24, while the Cowlitz River at Packwood reached its sixth-highest level of 12.80 feet that same day.
In Centralia, water poured into homes and businesses, resulting in evacuation of the Washington Elementary School and several families, according to the Nov. 24 issue of The Daily Chronicle. The flood closed roads throughout the county, and others with high water left motorists stranded when their engines quit in the deep water.
Floodwaters poured into the doors of Washington Elementary, drenched a science classroom at Olympic Middle School in Chehalis, and flooded the basement of Cascade Elementary School in Chehalis.
Traffic on Interstate 5 was limited to one lane after high water reached over the roadway between mileposts 77 and 79 in the Twin Cities. Three feet of water covered parts of Kresky Avenue between the Twin Cities.
The Southwest Washington Fairgrounds once again found buildings flooded with 10 feet of water after a dike at the south end of the grounds broke due to heavy rainfall. But the damage wasn’t as severe as in 1972, when flooding knocked out electricity, water and the sewer system, according to a Dec. 5, 1986, Daily Chronicle article. An inspector recalled the water stood inside the fairgrounds for two weeks in 1972. In 1986, however, cleanup and recovery were faster because utilities remained intact.
After the 1972 flood, the fairgrounds installed storm sewers, which made it more resistant to flood damage in 1986, the inspector said. Asphalt and concrete on the ground and under buildings reduced flood damage and cut down on floating debris.
One additional problem posed by the flooding of 1986 occurred in Chehalis, home to the American Crossarm and Conduit Co., a wood treatment plant on 16 acres in the city that closed in 1983. When floodwaters inundated the city, they carried at least 10,000 gallons of wood treatment products — pentachlorophenol in diesel — off the site into neighborhoods to the north and northeast, affecting apartment buildings and about 200 homes. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Research has studied the area since then, because PCP has been considered a potential carcinogen. A fire occurred at the old plant in 1987. The EPA finished remedial cleanup at the site in 1996.
Two Die When Vehicles Become Swamped
The National Weather Service ranked the November 1990 flood as No. 10 on a list of Washington’s major weather events in the 20th century, behind such famous events as the Columbus Day storm, the January 1950 blizzard, massive forest fires in 1910, and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
But the November flood came after two others in the Lewis County, including the devastating January 1990 flood that left two local residents dead.
Accompanied by howling wind, the skies opened Jan. 9, 1990, and poured 3.36 inches of rain over 24 hours onto the Twin Cities, transforming already full rivers and streams turned into raging torrents that cascaded through the streets of downtown Centralia, according to a Jan. 20, 1990, Daily Chronicle special flood section.
In the Twin Cities, 6.65 inches of rain fell in six days, between Jan. 4 and Jan. 9, causing heavy flooding on Jan. 10.
The Skookumchuck reached its second-highest levels of 87.10 feet at Centralia and 17.33 feet near Bucoda. The river hit its all-time high levels during the February 1996 flood.
During the January flood, as water invaded homes in Centralia, residents left their houses and patients at a convalescent center in the southwest part of the city were relocated to the Centralia Middle School gymnasium.
When his truck quit running in high water on Waunch Prairie in North Centralia Jan. 10, 76-year-old Lloyd “Tuffy” Anderson left his vehicle and tried to wade through the Skookumchuck’s overflow on Oakview Avenue to reach his home. He drowned.
Mud and water washed out many county roads, and Chehalis River floodwaters inundated part of Interstate 5 between Centralia and Chehalis.
The Chehalis River at Centralia and Grand Mound reached its third highest level ever, topping at 73.50 feet Jan. 10 at Centralia and 19.34 feet at Grand Mound.
Although roadblocks indicated the freeway’s closure, 72-year-old Orville Decker of Winlock drove around the barricades on the freeway and his car plunged into high water near the National Avenue exit in Chehalis. Rescuers pulled his wife to safety, but Decker drowned.
Floodwaters damaged homes and possessions, businesses and workplaces. People downstream at Rochester and Oakville braced for flooding, but escaped the worst of it.
Even though rainfalls totals were less than in 1986, the reservoirs in January 1990 were already full and the ground had been saturated by months of rain, increasing damage from flooding in the Twin Cities, the newspaper reported.
Flood insurance companies estimated early on that they would be paying $15 million in damage claims and the county figured damage to roads at $400,000. The Southwest Washington Fairgrounds estimated its damage at $1.3 million, and the Chehalis-Centralia Airport incurred major damage as hangars filled with three to five feet of water.
Eastern Lewis County also experienced damage in the storm with millions of board feet of timber knocked down by high winds.
On the heels of the January flooding came additional lowland flooding on Feb. 11, when the Chehalis River reached its 10th highest levels — 69.91 feet at Centralia and 17.46 feet at Grand Mound. The Skookumchuck River reached its sixth highest level in Centralia, measuring 86.38 feet, and near Bucoda it reached 16.60 feet, the seventh highest level.
November 1990 brought fierce flooding to many Washington towns, killing two, causing $250 million in damages and sinking the Lake Washington floating bridge.
But in the Twin Cities, the lowland flooding in November didn’t compare with the devastation wreaked by the January flood. While the Skookumchuck in Centralia reached 86.50 feet — its fifth-highest level — it topped out at 17.23 feet near Bucoda, its all-time record.
The Chehalis River at Centralia measured 71.30 feet on Nov. 25, its sixth-highest level, and at Grand Mound it reached the seventh-highest level of 18.12 feet.
The Cowlitz River at Packwood also overflowed its banks, measuring 12.48 feet Nov. 24, the eighth-highest level.
A very wet year in 1990 was followed by a damp spring in 1991, when on April 6 the Skookumchuck River once again overflowed its banks, measuring 86.68 feet at Centralia, its third-highest level ever, and 16.82 feet near Bucoda, the fourth-highest level. It was the worst April flooding on record in the area.
The Chehalis River also overflowed, flooding low-lying areas, and measured 17.66 feet at Grand Mound, the ninth highest level.
Swollen Cowlitz Released From Dams
After a few dry years, Lewis County’s east end and south end residents found themselves under siege from Mother Nature during flooding in late November 1995. The heavy rains and snowmelt resulted in the worst flooding in Toledo since 1933.
The Cowlitz River below Mayfield registered its all-time record historical crest of 26.19 feet on Nov. 28, 1995, after heavy rains and unseasonably warm temperatures.
As the swelling Cowlitz River reached the already full reservoirs behind Mossyrock and Mayfield dams, Tacoma City Light officials determined they needed to increase the flow of water through the dams. Water poured from the Mayfield dam at a rate of 62,000 cubic feet per second, compared with an average flow rate of 13,000 cfs.
On Nov. 28, the high water from the Cowlitz washed out the Kirkendoll Dike, a revetment east of Toledo designed in the early 1960s to keep the river in its banks.
When water poured over and through the dike, a Toledo tree reforestation nursery lost 40,000 seedlings. Water washed out Collins Way and left 14 families in the neighborhood without a way to access their homes. Residents built a temporary dike, but that was destroyed a few months later during the February 1996 flood, according to a September 1998 article in Washington Geology.
Repairing the Kirkendoll Dike was expected to cost roughly $500,000, and another $750,000 to make other necessary flood control improvements.
During November 1995, the surging Cowlitz River also flooded other parts of Toledo, including homes and the county and city parks.
At Randle, the river crested 5.5 feet above flood stage at 23.48 feet. Residents in High Valley near Packwood were evacuated after Butter Creek left its banks, and Highway 12 was closed in Randle because of the high water from the Cowlitz.
The Twin Cities avoided major problems but experienced some localized lowland flooding, forcing road closures that shut down the Lucky Eagle Casino.
Highest Ever, Until 2007
Then, in February 1996, Lewis County experienced what the National Weather Service ranked No. 8 on a list of Washington’s most significant weather event of the 20th century.
With rising freezing levels in the Cascades and several days of heavy rainfall measuring three to four inches within 24 hours, the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers both crested at their highest levels yet.
At 11 p.m. Feb. 8, the Skookumchuck River at Centralia crested at 87.30 feet, two-tenths of a foot over the 1990 record. At Bucoda, the river measured 17.87 feet, also its highest level to date.
The Chehalis River at Centralia crested Feb. 9 at 74.31 feet, its second highest level ever, broken only by flooding in December 2007. The river at Grand Mound also peaked that day at 19.98 feet, the record level until December 2007.
As tiny tributaries transformed into raging torrents and rivers burst over their banks, Governor Mike Lowry declared a state of emergency in Lewis and 12 other counties. Schools and businesses shut down, roads closed and floodwaters from the Chehalis once again closed Interstate 5 between Centralia and Chehalis, with water more than six feet deep. The rising waters forced road closures in the western part of the county and in South Thurston County.
Hundreds of homes in the Twin Cities experienced damage from the flood, with water levels topping those set on the 100-year floodplain maps. After the flood, Centralia city officials began recommending that all new buildings be raised one foot about the 1996 level.
The floodwaters rushed through Fords Prairie and caused tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage.
High water returned in December, when the Skookumchuck River near Bucoda reached 16.76 feet Dec. 30, 2996, its sixth-highest level, and the Skookumchuck River at Centralia reached 86.17 feet, the seventh-highest level. The Chehalis River at Centralia crested that day at 70.18, its ninth-highest level.
The 21st century dawned with a relatively flood-free few years in Lewis County, other than occasional localized flooding when streams and creeks overflowed their banks.
In early November 2001, heavy rainfall measuring 1.5 inches one day, followed by 4.8 inches the following day, the Twin Cities experienced localized flooding on roads.
In January 2003, East County experienced some flooding as the Cowlitz River at Packwood crested at 11.93 feet on Jan. 31, which was the 10th highest level. It was more than 3.5 feet above flood level.
Mudslides occurred on the White Pass Highway at Mossyrock Dam and on State Route 508 near Bergen Road. The White Pass Highway was closed near Randle and traffic rerouted to Silverbrook Road.
The flooding also affected the Cowlitz watershed and fishing activity, according to a Feb. 14, 2003, Chronicle article.
The high water also reached the level of the drain into the South County Park at Toledo, raising the lake level to that of the Cowlitz River, making the float and boat launch unusable. The water also submerged the island at the middle of the lake.
These flooding incidents were relatively insignificant compared with what loomed on the horizon.
Swept Away on the Upper Cowlitz River
After heavy rain in November 2006, the Cowlitz River at Packwood hit an all-time historical high crest of 14.59 feet on Nov. 6.
The raging river claimed the lives of two people Nov. 6. A 20-year-old Seattle elk hunter died when his pickup was swept into the rising waters east of Packwood after the riverbank gave way. On Highway 12 east of Randle, the driver of a pickup was seen trying to climb out the window as his rig was swept along in the strong current of Cowlitz River.
Searchers evacuated 200 to 225 people in 60 to 70 hunting camps near Jody’s Bridge east of Packwood. Sheriff’s deputies used boats and helicopters to rescue Packwood and Randle residents whose homes faced inundation by the floodwaters. A vehicle on Skate Creek Road near Mineral drove into a sinkhole, closing the road, and a tree toppled onto the power lines in the Mossyrock area, cutting electricity to about 50 homes. Sheriff’s deputies rescued many flooded residents near Randle and Packwood. Homes and businesses on the south side of Highway 12 were submerged. The flood left hundreds of Packwood and Randle area residents homeless.
It also eroded the bank behind the City Hall at Toledo, and city officials estimated it would cost $1 million to rebuild part of the riverbank, according to a Dec. 6, 2006, Chronicle article. But the Toledo area escaped major flooding.
The flood caused an estimated $21 million in damage to homes, businesses, and public roads and bridges in Lewis County. Gov. Christine Gregoire declared an emergency in 18 counties, including Lewis.
Then came early December 2007, when on Dec. 4 the Chehalis River at Centralia and Grand Mound reached all-time highs of 74.78 feet and 20.23 feet, respectively. The story of that flood is still being written by the survivors and a community wondering what place this deluge has in the history and future of flooding in Lewis County.
"The Flood of 2007: Disaster and Survival on the Chehalis River" is available for purchase at The Chronicle, located at 321 N. Pearl St. in Centralia. Call 360-736-3311 for more information.