The frontier town of Pendleton, first settled in the 1860s and incorporated in 1880, was almost swept away in December 1882 when incessant rains and warmer than usual temperatures created flood conditions that sent the Umatilla River over its banks.
The “sudden and unexpected calamity” began with warm rains early in the week, and by the afternoon of Dec. 13 some of Pendleton’s residents were beginning to worry about the rapid rise of the river. Most, though, expected a small amount of flooding as had happened in previous years. As the evening progressed and the water continued to rise, some families moved to higher ground or into the upper stories of downtown buildings and the Umatilla County Courthouse, while others scoffed and stayed put.
By the early morning hours of Dec. 14, downtown Pendleton was a rushing torrent of water. Townspeople raced frantically about, seeking shelter or trying to help their friends and neighbors. Men on horseback or driving wagon teams ferried goods and people, and those on foot forded streets through sometimes chest-high water. Frightened animals were raising a din, and dozens of drunken men staggered up and down the inundated sidewalks and shouted. The main bridge across the river was swept away by a combination of water, dead and dying animals, farm equipment and the wrecks of houses. One house was reported to have floated down the river with lights still burning inside.
The flood reached its peak at 6 a.m. and remained at that stage for three or four hours, after which it subsided as quickly as it had risen. In the aftermath, it was found that in the parts of town closest to the river only three houses were still on their foundations. And while no lives were lost in the flood, some had close calls. Dr. Aubrey and Fount Perry and their families found themselves afloat, but fortunately the house lodged against a large tree. They cut a hole in the siding and climbed out into the tree, where they were rescued several hours later by men in boats.
Railroad work crews also spent most of two days clinging to the upper branches of trees or, in one case, on the roof of the Bradley residence at Happy Canyon near Nolin. A Chinese labor camp downriver from Pendleton was completely washed away. Railroad tracks and trestle bridges were destroyed, severing communications between Pendleton and its neighbors, and while the O.W.R. & N. Railroad continued to carry passengers and mail on a limited basis, in some areas they had to use boats to skirt washed-out portions of the line.
Looters also took advantage of the chaos and helped themselves to clothing and household items left behind in wrecked homes.
By the following week, after cleanup efforts began, damage estimates ranged from $80,000 to $100,000, or approximately $1.75-$2.2 million in 2016 dollars — considerably less than the original damage estimates by some of up to $1 million in 1882 dollars.