The devastating Heppner flood of 1903 is a well-known story in Eastern Oregon. The flash flood that struck at 7 p.m. on June 14 wiped out most of the town and killed hundreds of people.
Heppner, sitting in the confluence of several canyons, has been a prime spot for flash floods throughout its history. These days the Willow Creek Dam has alleviated a large portion of the residents’ concerns, but in 1971 Heppner was still struggling to get funding to build it. On May 25 of that year, Mother Nature stepped in and gave things a little boost.
According to the East Oregonian story, the town had about 30 minutes warning before the flood hit, and people and cars were evacuated to higher ground. On Cannon Street, where the flood hit hardest, water poured through homes, and a garage at the end of the street near Willow Creek washed away. Three large bridges crossing Shobe Creek on Cannon Street were washed out. The water continued down Main Street and Chase Street, carrying dead animals and debris, at a depth of two and a half feet. One car was washed about a quarter of a mile from South Main Street, across the swimming pool (where it knocked out a wall), then a block east on Cannon and finally north on Chase Street for about another block, where it wrapped around a fire hydrant. The swimming pool was reckoned a total loss.
Roads around the area were either blocked by silt and debris or washed out completely. The worst damage on Butter Creek Road was a few miles east of the Vey ranch. Chunks of paving from a 150-foot stretch of road “were stacked like a deck of cards,” said Umatilla County Roadmaster Gene Palmer.
City residents expressed frustration; Heppner had just finished cleaning up from the last flood 23 months earlier. Some vowed to move, saying, “We just can’t take it.” Others were able to find a little humor; a woman quipped, “Well, now I don’t feel so bad about not cleaning this room Monday.”
U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield said the flood offered graphic evidence of the need to move ahead with the Willow Creek flood control project, and offered help with federal relief agencies on Heppner’s behalf. Hatfield had asked the Senate Appropriations Committee only a week before to provide $300,000 for the pre-construction phase of the project. (The dam wasn’t completed until the 1980s.)
On July 1, 1971, work on the first of 34 miles of diversion ditches was begun on land owned by Roice Fulleton at the head of Shobe Canyon, partly financed by contributions of citizens who lived in the path of the floods, but mostly funded by a $20,000 grant under Rural Environmental Assistance program, part of the Soil and Water Conservation Service. When completed, 54 sediment retention dams with 200 acres of grass-seeded waterways and filter strips, in addition to the ditches, would slow runoff by as much as 50-80 percent and keep silt and debris from being washed down Shobe and neighboring McDonald canyons.
Personal note: I was four years old in 1971, and my family lived three houses south of the old swimming pool in Heppner on South Main Street, just below Highway 207. My mom sent me running up the terraces in our back yard the day of the flood, following my older brother, while she brought up the rear with my 2-year-old sister and 1-year-old brother in her arms. I turned around as I got to the top of the terraces and saw the water coming around the back of the house just as Mom made it to the stairs. We stayed with friends who lived on South Chase Street, at the top of the hill, until my parents could get our house back in order. When they went to investigate, they found the mud had only made it about two feet inside the front and back doors. But my brother and I had left the cellar door open earlier that day, and all my mom’s home-canned goods were ruined when the cellar filled to the top with mud.