The Heppner Flood of 1903

Joann Green Byrd

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History; Pacific Northwest / History
  • Bibliographic information: 256 pp., 45 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

June 14, 1903, was a typical, hot Sunday in Heppner, a small farm town in northeastern Oregon. People went to church, ate dinner, and relaxed with family and friends. But late that afternoon, calamity struck when a violent thunderstorm brought heavy rain and hail to the mountains and bare hills south of town. When the fierce downpour reached Heppner, people gathered their children and hurried inside. Most everyone closed their doors and windows against the racket.

The thunder and pounding hail masked the sound of something they likely could not have imagined: a roaring, two-story wall of water raging toward town. Within an hour, one of every five people in the prosperous town of 1,300 would lose their lives as the floodwaters pulled apart and carried away nearly everything in their path. The center of town was devastated. Enormous drifts of debris, tangled around bodies, snaked down the valley. The telegraph was down, the railroads were out, and the mayor was in Portland.

Stunned survivors bent immediately to the dreadful tasks of searching for loved ones and carrying bodies to a makeshift morgue in the bank. By the next afternoon, thousands of individuals and communities had rushed to the town's aid, an outpouring of generosity that enabled the self-reliant citizens of Heppner to undertake the town's recovery.

In Calamity, Joann Green Byrd, a native of eastern Oregon, carefully documents this poignant story, illustrating that even the smallest acts have consequences - good or bad. She draws on a wealth of primary sources, including a moving collection of photographs, to paint a rare picture of how a small town in the West coped with disaster at the turn of the twentieth century.
Joann Green Byrd is a retired journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers, including the East Oregonian in Pendleton, Oregon, and the Washington Post.

"A riveting story about a heart-breaking event."
-Gerald Baldasty, author of Vigilante Newspapers: A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Murder in the Northwest
1. Up Until the Heppner Flood
2. An Ordinary Sunday
3. June 14, 5:20 p.m.
4. June 14, 6 p.m.
5. Side Effects
6. The Worst of It
7. Leadership
8. After Effects
9. Forward and Back
10. Loss and Optimism
11. Resilience
12. Counter Effects
Epilogue: After the Heppner Flood
In Remembrance: The Victims

"...the horrifying but spellbinding tale of a deluge that flashed through the heart of a small Oregon town and, in a matter of minutes, claimed more than 200 lives."
-The News Tribune

"The book's ultimate strength is the way it recaptures the human dimension of the story by showing how various individuals attempted to make sense of what happened to them and their community as a result of an overwhelming natural disaster."
-Oregon Historical Quarterly

"This tale is at once gripping and poignant-a fascinating read with resonance today."
-Everett Public Library

"Byrd's compelling, heartbreaking story- and its interesting comparisons to some contemporary disasters such as Hurricane Katrina- paints a vivid picture of human resilience."
-Seattle Times

"Byrd's research is extensive and well documented. But this book is much more. It is a fascinating look into how the people who experienced a terrible natural disaster survived, rebuilt and carried on with their lives."
-Heppner Gazette-Times

"Writers of historical non-fiction face a greater challenge than those who are privy to flights of fancy through the magic of fiction, particularly when it comes to seeking to provide a riveting experience that not only informs the reader, but keeps the pages turning effortlessly. Byrd somehow manages to include the most essential of details while not overwhelming the audience . . . . Through her tireless efforts, Byrd has both shed important light on a major tragedy and compassionately chronicled the last days of a number of Morrow County pioneers who deserve to be remembered."
-East Oregonian