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December 9, 1861: Sacramento

December 9, 2011
River Dusk

Sacramento River, just below the American River confluence; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Sacramento Union, December 10, 1861:


It is our duty to record this morning the fact that our city has been visited by the most extraordinary flood ever known since the settlement of the State by Americans. We mentioned yesterday that the American and Sacramento rivers had risen to a point about eighteen feet above low water mark–a point never before attained so early in the season….

At about eight o’clock yesterday morning, it was announced that the levee had given way on the eastern boundary of the city, and that that portion of the city was being rapidly flooded….within an hour the fact became generally known that an immense volume of water was steadily advancing from the direction indicated….during the night the water had overflowed and broken down the levee of the American river east of the City Laundry, and had flooded a large area of country southward from that point. An immense volume of water collected in the angle north of Poverty Ridge, and east of the levee which runs diagonally from R and Seventeenth streets to the vicinity of Sutter Fort….at about eight o’clock it commenced to flow over the top….All the streets of the city south of J were flooded by nine o’clock as far west as Eleventh and Twelfth streets….

Residents of that section of the city, even when notified by their friends, seemed unable to realize their danger until their houses were surrounded by a rapidly rising current. Before nine o’clock many women and children in one story houses were entirely surrounded…and in many instances their calls for assistance were distressing. There were at that hour brought into service, and the only means of transporting this class to dry land, mules, horses, wagons, etc….

When the water at ten and eleven o’clock reached the low portions of the city, at Fifth and Sixth streets…its depth was so great as to set afloat and turn over a large number of houses in that vicinity. From very many of these houses…women could be seen…at doors and windows calling for boats, or any means of transportation to the higher portion of the city. Boats were at first scarce, and for some time it seemed as though many lives must inevitably be lost. All the boats at the levee were soon brought into requisition…and were…manned and rendered heroic service in rescuing women and children from their perilous positions….

As the water arrived at the vicinity of the Pavilion, corner of Sixth and M streets, many families were driven from their homes and had no place of shelter. The doors of the Pavilion were locked, and there was no one present with keys. C. L. Knowles, with an ax, burst open one of the doors of the upper story, and then put a notice inviting families to take refuge within. The invitation was not thrown away….

The water continued to back up from the R street levee, and flood in turn M, L, K and J streets. Soon after one o’clock these streets were from two to four feet under water. The inmates of one-story residences generally deserted them….Boats, scows, rafts, and every imaginable kind of water craft was brought into play on our streets. Men, women and children, furniture, provisions and clothing, were removed by these floating craft, and many an amusing incident occurred from the upsetting of portions of the flotilla, and from foot passengers, while walking in two or three feet of water, plunging unexpectedly in newly washed holes in the streets….

Throughout the day there were many rumors afloat1 of persons being drowned. Although these stories were frequently unfounded, there is but little doubt that they were, in several instances, too true. There is but little doubt that there was a teamster drowned somewhere this side of Sutter’s Fort, a man and a child at Ninth and M streets, and a man at Sixth and P streets. We have been unable to learn the names of either of these parties, but the accidents were witnessed in each instance by several persons. The man and child were in a wagon at Ninth and M streets, and the horses plunged into a cister–the lid of which had doubtless floated off; before assistance could reach them, passengers and horses were lost….

A steamboat accident remains to be added to the incidents of the day. At about three o’clock in the afternoon the Swallow from Marysville arrived and attempted to pass through the draw of the bridge. The current was strong, and the boat…was difficult to manage. The boat struck the pier and had her port side shattered in a frightful manner. Two lady passengers were seriously injured by the accident. Their names were Miss Elizabeth Neal and Mrs. M. Wyer, both residents of the neighborhood of Marysville….

The events of yesterday will render it one of the most memorable in the history of our city.

1No pun intended, I assume.

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