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December 7, 2010 > History: Historical Storms of Washington Township

History: Historical Storms of Washington Township

The weather in Washington Township is usually mild and pleasant, but records reveal some historic storms through the years. The winter and spring rains of 1861-1862 created widespread damage and destruction throughout Alameda County; northern California tides were high, creeks flooded, snow fell often on the hills and laid in the valley, and ice formed an inch thick.

Niles residents recalled the floods and destruction. Rains commenced in the last of December and continued for six weeks. Alameda Creek flooded and continued to rise. Niles residents became so alarmed they posted a night watchman. Many people awoke to find themselves surrounded by water which flooded cellars and then their houses. Victims rescued what furniture they could and retreated upstairs. One family took refuge on an island and watched as their house and all their belongings were swept down the stream. One man was forced by rising waters to climb a tree. He lighted a lantern, and his wife said he had "gone to roost."

The roar of waters rushing down the canyon was so deafening it could be heard for miles. Floods swept through the valley washing away houses, fences, trees and everything in its path, and stood three to four feet deep on ranches near the creek. "As far as the eye could see there was water, water everywhere," but no one drowned.

The winter of 1871-1872 was a time of rain, storm, and flood. Railroad beds were washed away and trains stopped running. Mission San Jose had no Alameda Creek, but it could not escape the storm. Torrents of water poured off the hills and "swept through the streets in rushing and roaring streams." A cloudburst in February 1876 also flooded the Mission San Jose area and washed out Mission Creek Bridge.

The area was hit with an unprecedented early season storm in November 1892. The gale winds blew down fences and trees near Centerville and tore off the roof of a warehouse in Irvington. Alameda Creek rose to the highest peak known in 30 years, swept away railroad tracks and bridges, and flooded houses in the lower part of Niles. A cloudburst near Mission Creek washed away fences and fruit trees, and caved in Charles McIver's Mission San Jose wine cellar. The stream rose so rapidly that over a dozen families living in the canyon were compelled to leave their belongings and scramble to higher ground. Some people were forced to abandon their homes and seek emergency shelter wherever they could find it.

Indians living on the "island" near Niles were forced to abandon their house. The stream came up into James Shinn's orchards on Alameda Creek's north bank, covered the roadway at G. E. Chittenden's place, flooded over half of the California Nursery grounds, and continued in a mile-wide sheet of water for four miles. Residents had labored for years to maintain a passable road through the canyon, and now they were forced to try to establish some kind of road along the south bank. The flood was the worst since 1862.

Laura Thane, a Niles writer, described the devastation left by the storm in Niles Canyon. "Old landmarks are gone, fine old trees have been carried down with the flood, favorite campgrounds are completely ruined, and the roadway is totally unfit and dangerous to travel from one end to the other of the canyon. In several places the roadway is entirely gone for sections of 500 feet or more; and it is extremely doubtful if a roadway can ever be built along the old line. There is no means of getting in or out of the canyon with a team." The men living in the canyon cut a trail over the hill so they could get to Niles by horseback.

All three of the Niles bridges survived this storm but were washed out in the severe winter of 1911. This storm also washed away valuable land along the creek and destroyed nearby railroad tracks.

The "most severe weather ever known" gripped the area in December 1932. Water pipes and radiators froze and forced schools to close. Snow fell throughout the township and torrents of rain fell causing severe flooding. Writers recorded in 1950 that this was "the last bad flood in Alvarado."

The Alameda Creek Channel has been deepened, widened, and channeled so it no longer poses an obvious flooding threat, but we still have little control over rain and storms.

The heaviest rains of the year soaked the Township in December 1952, but authorities said "Don't worry. There is no immediate danger because Alameda Creek is flowing in its normal course, and Calaveras Dam is nowhere near being full." Then it really began to rain, and the heaviest downpours in 50 years drenched the saturated ground, and the highest floodwaters on record pounded ceaselessly against the Alameda Creek levies. The levee near Niles broke December 24th, and the waters flooded northern Niles and adjacent areas. Residents put aside Christmas and election issues, and helped flood victims dig out and recover. It was a month, a Christmas, and a flood to remember among the historic floods of the area. A more detailed account of the flood appeared in The Tri-City Voice in December 2004.

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