Monday, December 05, 2016

Forty days and forty nights: The Arkstorm of 1862

December 5, 2016
   When it comes to atmospherics I have often been compared to a certain British Master. On Saturday last, I decided to embrace the accusation.

Daily Whip Out: "An Ode to The Great Western And J.M.W. Turner"

   As I have been researching the life of The Great Western I ran across the date of a flood in Yuma that wiped out all the surrounding towns and made Fort Yuma an island. Googling the flood and the date I came upon this:

The Arkstorm of 1862
   In late December of 1861 a major artic airborne wave trough moved inland over the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California and dropped heavy rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Following this biblical deluge, in early January of 1862, heavy snow fell in the mountains all the way down to the Central Valley. Then a series of warm rain followed, melting the snowcaps and sending water downhill at a rapid rate. There were four distinct rainy periods, starting in December of 1861, another just before Christmas and a third and four in the first weeks of January, 1862. A foot of snow, or more, covered the mountain passes to the north and then it got warm, too soon, and then it rained a warm rain and the water in the rivers became a mighty monster carrying ruin and destruction all along its course. The labor of a hundred men were swept away in a few moments time. Nine inches of rain fell in 36 hours

To paraphrase from the language of the day:

   The insatiate monster took everything in its path, crushing houses and grinding them in the maw of destruction, and sweeping all the broken fragments downriver at a frightening clip. In the light of Wednesday morning, a scene of desolation extended up and down the river bottom with Iron Works, foundry and machine shops all gone.

   Here's an eyewitness account:   
   Dozens of wood houses, some two stories high, were simply lifted up and carried off by the flood, as was "all the firewood, most of the fences and sheds, all the poultry, cats, rats and many of the cows and horses". The Chinese in their poorly built shantytowns were disproportionately affected.

   In March of 1862, the Wool Growers Association reported that 100,000 sheep and 500,000 lambs were killed by the floods. Even oyster beds in San Francisco Bay near Oakland were reported to be dying from the effects of the immense amounts of freshwater entering the bay. Full of sediment, it covered the oyster beds. One-quarter of California's estimated 800,000 cattle were killed by the flood, accelerating the end of the cattle-based ranchero society. One-fourth to one-third of the state’s property was destroyed, and one home in eight was carried away or ruined by the flood-waters. Mining equipment such as sluices, flumes, wheels and derricks were carried away across the state. An early estimate of property damage was $10 million. However, later it was estimated that approximately one-quarter of the taxable real estate in the state of California was destroyed in the flood. Dependent on property taxes, the State of California went bankrupt. The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half.
Here's how it played out in Arizona:
   In western New Mexico Territory (Arizona and New Mexico were connected at this time), heavy rains fell in late January, causing severe flooding of the Colorado River and Gila River. On January 20, 1862, the Colorado River began to rise, and on the afternoon of January 22 it rose suddenly in three hours from an already high stage nearly 6 feet, overflowing its banks and turned Fort Yuma in California into an island in the midst of the Colorado River. At 1 o’clock on the morning of January 23, the river reached its crest. Jaeger City a mile down river from Fort Yuma, and Colorado City, across the Colorado River from it were washed away. The river overflowed its banks to the extent that there was water 20 feet deep on a ranch in the low-lying ground just above Arizona City where the Gila River joined the Colorado. The riverside home of steamboat entrepreneur George Alonzo Johnson and the nearby Hooper residence were the only places in the town unharmed because they were built on high ground. Colorado City had to be rebuilt on higher ground after the 1862 flood.
   The Gila River also flooded, covering its whole valley at its mouth where it met the Colorado from the sand hills on the south to the foothills on the north. Twenty miles to the east of Fort Yuma, it swept away most of the mining boomtown of Gila City along with a supply of hay being gathered there to supply the planned advance of the California Column into Confederate Arizona. Further east the road was flooded, buildings and vehicles swept away and traffic was disrupted for some time thereafter by the mud covering the road to Tucson. The great flood in the Gila and Colorado rivers, covered their bottom lands with mud. Much of the livestock along the rivers drowned and the crops of the Indians along the river were destroyed.
The overflow of the 1862 Colorado River spring flood waters reached the Salton Sink via the Alamo and New Rivers, filling it and creating a lake some 60 miles long and 30 miles wide. This catastrophic weather system has become known as the Arkstorm.

"When it rains, it pours."
—Old Vaquero Saying

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