The disastrous Heppner flood of 1903
Heppner was a thriving community in the sheep, lumber and wheat industries of early Morrow County, Oregon, at the turn of the century. But heavy rainfall in mid-June of 1903 resulted in a terrible flood that ranks as one of the most disastrous for a community of its size in American history.
The Heppner vicinity had experienced a prolonged period of dry weather in the early months of 1903. The community was anticipating rain as the hillsides were brown and parched. Sunday, June 14, 1903, quickly became a humid afternoon with the threat of thunderstorms. By mid-afternoon, dark clouds began rolling in and lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled loudly over the landscape. The area frequently experienced what locals called "waterspouts," which are short, fierce storms that release heavy rainfall, which runs down hillsides and canyons, producing raging flash floods.
South of Heppner, the black skies poured torrents of rain down the slopes. Soon, the water accumulated in gullies and gorges with such force that it flattened small shrubs. The flow of water was suddenly dumped into the narrow canyon of Willow Creek, and it became a raging swirl of mud and debris. By 5 p.m., the creek had become clogged with debris and a monstrous lake was created.
Most of the residents of Heppner were unaware that the deluge was about to burst upon the town. Families were just sitting down to dinner. The rising water created by the dam was more than 20 feet high when the dam burst and rushed toward the unaware community.
Many buildings were wrested from their simple foundations and smashed together as the onrushing water channeled through the town. The rushing water did not have time to spread out and dissipate as it plunged through the heart of the community.
People made frenzied attempts to rush from their homes and head for higher ground. The terrifying screams of women and children was added to the roar of the water. Many of the aged or very young failed to outrace the flood. Those who managed to reach high ground watched in horror as their neighbors were overtaken by the muddy water and piles of debris.
The flood soon passed, but as the waters receded, the daunting task of searching for the dead had begun. Much of the downtown section of Heppner was scrubbed bare, with piles of debris on the outer edges of the flood waters.
Monday morning found the survivors searching for friends and family members. A casualty list was posted, and more than 247 names were recorded as perishing and higher numbers of deaths were reported. Nearly a quarter of the town's 1,200 people had died.
It was one of the nation's worst natural disasters and perhaps one of the most overlooked.
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