During the week before Christmas in 1964, Bill Littlefield drove around Shady Cove, offering to help neighbors move their belongings to higher ground. The newspapers, radio and television were warning residents all over the Northwest to brace for a significant flood.
Littlefield, now 79, still lives in Shady Cove. In 1964, he ran heavy equipment in logging operations in a job known as a "cat skinner."
At one house, Littlefield recalls, "The man asked me how high the water was going to get and I held my hand up (to my waist). They laughed at me, but that's how high the river got."
An unusual combination of weather conditions created the perfect storm that broke flooding and rainfall records along the Pacific coast and inland as far as western Montana.
Rain in November 1964 in the Rogue River Basin already was above normal, so that by mid-December, low-lying areas around Shady Cove were dotted with standing water.
"We closed the Rogue-Elk School on the 10th because it was flooded," says Jim Collier, 84, a retired teacher who now lives near Trail.
An arctic front moved in on Dec. 16 and froze the ground. Another storm promptly dumped well over a foot of snow in the mountains above the town. Then a warm storm known as a “pineapple express” hit on Dec. 19 and dumped heavy rains for five straight days.
The warm rain melted the snow and ran over the frozen ground, shedding water like a parking lot instead of absorbing it like a sponge.
Collier and Littlefield were part of a group of men that spent Dec. 22 — the day before the waters crested — rescuing Shady Cove residents from the rising floodwaters. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 200 homes, cabins and mobile homes in Shady Cove and Trail alone were washed away during what is often referred to as "the 1964 Christmas week storm."
High ground in several places became islands. In one area near Highway 62, two men waded out to a new island to rescue stranded cows. By the time they abandoned their quest and tried to return to safety, the water had risen. The men couldn't swim.
"There were some folks trying to throw them a rope, but by this time, the channel was about 150 feet wide," says Mike House, 67, who at the time was a senior at Eagle Point High School on Christmas vacation. "So I walked and swam the rope across to them and tied them up to the rope and said, 'we'll just swing back across the current.'"
House, Collier and Littlefield gathered recently at the Shady Cove library to share their memories of the flood.
"My dad had a half-ton pickup and hauled a 55-foot trailer up a hillside from a mobile home park to the Chevron station," House says. "Then I caught a ride on what was about the last trip the Shady Cove 'taxi' took across the river that night."
The other two men laugh.
"I was the taxi," Littlefield says of the D-8 Caterpillar bulldozer he borrowed from Wilson's Lumber Mill that day. "The river came up so fast that people were standing on the little island there by the bridge and couldn't get out. … People were climbing on it (the D-8) — as many people as could get on."
Compounding Shady Cove's problems exponentially was the destruction of the bridge across Highway 62, the major artery linking the town with its source of food and other supplies.
Collier walked out on the bridge at 2 p.m. on Dec. 23, seven hours before the flood crest.
"There was a great big old growth Doug fir that had washed out, big wad of roots," he recalls. "It hit that center pier, which shook the bridge. The top of the tree was pulled under, which pushed the roots up into the steel that supported the roadway. That was the key log that started the jam, and by 4 o'clock the trash was clear back up around the corner."
It was more than just trees and brush backed up behind the bridge.
"There was that one chicken house with the rooster right on top," says Collier. "Also, propane tanks. The stink from them was considerable. Of course, they would float."
Shortly after 9 p.m., the bridge blew out completely. About the same time, the town's lumber mill was destroyed. Many men were eventually forced to look further afield for work. The mill was never rebuilt.
The next day, Arthur Bigelow found himself cut off from his job at the Lumber Products Co. mill in Medford. The previous day he had driven through two feet of water in Eagle Point just to pick up his paycheck. On the morning of New Year's Eve, he awoke to a different situation.
"We tried to go to work — another guy and I — we got down as far as Dodge Bridge," says Bigelow, 79. "It wasn't wiped out, but you couldn't go across it. It was all twisted. So was the TouVelle Park-area bridge there. They told us we couldn't get to Gold Hill because the river was over the road this side of Gold Hill, so we went back home."
Unable to reach the mill, Bigelow spent the next few days helping newly homeless neighbors scour the riverbanks for their belongings.
About the same time the Shady Cove bridge blew out, the power went out. Some areas of Shady Cove were without power for over a week, and many people had electric heat.
"They set Shady Cove School up as a resource," says House. "There were people camped out there. My mom was the head of the Red Cross at the time and they had the kitchen open there. People were actually bringing food in there — from their freezers — because it wasn't going to last very long anyway … they were serving quite a few meals at Shady Cove School.
"It was rewarding because everybody was helping everybody else out, taking people into their homes — you know, if they lived high enough."
The relief efforts lasted well over a week. As soon as the floodwaters receded, the area was hit by an extended snowstorm. Art Bigelow measured 24 inches of new snow on his back patio a week after the flood crest.
In the Medford-to-Ashland corridor, people had heard about the plight of Shady Cove residents, in part through the efforts of the CB Rogues, a group of about 30 amateur CB radio operators, according to a Mail Tribune story on Jan. 1, 1965.
Residents along the Bear Creek towns of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford received much less flood damage than people in Shady Cove, Gold Hill, Rogue River, and Grants Pass — the communities along the mainstem Rogue. Much of the Bear Creek watershed had received much less snow because of its relatively lower elevation and smaller size. The Emigrant Lake reservoir also helped to reduce the flood peak.
The CB Rogues organized drop-off points from Ashland to Central Point for humanitarian supplies and found businesses to lend trucks for transportation.
"We had four big semis of clothing come to the school and I helped unload some of it," says Collier, of the convoy. "We packed that in, laid it on the table so people could find what they wanted, kind of like a Goodwill setup."
It would be close to three months before a temporary Bailey bridge was installed on what was then Route 62 to allow Shady Cove residents easy access to the larger world. A Bailey bridge is a modular, easy-to-construct bridge first developed by the military during World War II. In the interim, jet boats from Hellgate in Grants Pass were used to ferry people across the river at half-hour intervals.
Says school teacher Collier, "One of my duties was to go down to the boat and get the kids to make sure they actually went to school instead of hang around and cause trouble."
When normalcy returned, the flood damage was estimated at $25 million throughout the Rogue Basin, according to the USGS, about $190 million in 2014 dollars. The 1964 flood was most likely the largest of the five major floods that hit Southern Oregon in the 20th century, the others being in 1927, 1955, 1974 and 1997. Two mega-storms recorded in 1861 and 1890 may have been larger, but because the recording equipment and methods were rudimentary, it can’t be determined for sure.
The 1964 flood was considered a 100-year flood — one that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. But the next big flood could come in any year.
In 1977, the Lost Creek Dam was constructed 10 road miles above Shady Cove, primarily to control future floods. Since that time, many new homes have been built right down to the banks of the Rogue in Shady Cove. This worries Jim Collier.
"The potential is there to get wiped out just like it did in '64," says Collier. "I don't care what some planner says. I saw it."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com.