The deadliest natural disaster in Northwest history | History Files

By Tim Raetzloff | Mar 08, 2019
The Heppner, Oregon, flood of 1903 left 247 dead.

Pop quiz.

What was the deadliest natural disaster in the Northwest, in terms of loss? I bet I get a lot of Mount St. Helens answers. The infamous eruption of May 18, 1980, was a major event, but barely makes it into the five deadliest.

I know many are familiar with the 1910 Wellington avalanche off present-day Highway 2, but it isn’t No. 1 either, although 96 people died in that tragedy. In fact, 1910 was a particularly bad year in the Northwest. Two of the other biggest natural disasters happened that same year.

Three days after the Wellington avalanche, an avalanche in Rogers Pass in British Columbia took 62 lives. Later in 1910, the “Big Burn” forest fire in Idaho, Washington and Montana killed 87.

Yes, the first decade of the 20th century was particularly deadly. The Yacolt Burn killed at least 38 and burned hundreds of thousands of acres in 1902.

But the deadliest Northwest natural disaster? That occurred in 1903, in Heppner, Oregon, leaving 247 dead, nearly a quarter of the town’s population.

Willow Creek, which flows through Heppner, is usually a small, quiet watercourse. But a massive rainstorm in June 1903 turned Willow Creek into a savage, swollen river. The flood surged through Heppner, destroying homes and businesses.

There was no warning. Entire families were killed.

I have visited Willow Creek, which is southeast of The Dalles. It is one of the most peaceful places you could ever want to find. It is no wonder that people loved living along its banks, and didn’t expect it to turn deadly.

One of the most memorable, peaceful experiences of my life was along Willow Creek. But that day in 1903, Willow Creek reminded everyone of the potentially deadly character of nature.

Heppner now is a town noted for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in a big way. Where two state highways cross in the middle of town is painted a huge shamrock. The St Paddy’s Day celebration goes on for four days some years. You wouldn’t know the town had ever experienced tragedy.

The Heppner flood is the second most deadly flood in United States history. The Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania killed an official total of 2,209, though it is hard to know if numbers of that size may be accurately counted.

The Johnstown Flood is not the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. The death toll of the fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is customarily stated as 1,200 to 2,500. No one knows the real total, because the fire killed so many people and destroyed records.

What is known is that there were many fatalities and few survivors. But Peshtigo was largely ignored by the news of that day because it occurred on the same day as the great Chicago Fire.

About 3,000 people may have died in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which of course is a well-told story. But San Francisco, Johnstown and Peshtigo together may not equal the loss of life of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

This is another disaster of such magnitude that an accurate count of the dead is impossible. Estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000, and Galveston, which once rivaled Houston, was effectively destroyed as a major commercial center.

The Northwest has so far escaped disasters of the magnitude suffered elsewhere. Some earthquakes and floods in Asia may have killed as many as 1 million people. We have been fortunate.

End of the quiz.

How did you do? Had you heard of Heppner? If you happen to be there for St. Patrick’s Day, stop for just a quiet moment to recall the memory of what happened there once, long ago.


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