In a Drought Year, Let’s Talk About the Epic 1964 Flood

Rio Dell bridge crumbles as flood waters rise in 1964. (Photo by Rudy Gillard. Provided by Greg Rumney.)

50 years ago this December, the 1964 flood swept across Northern California crushing homes and drowning roadways. In a drought year, the images of rushing water like those shown here seem especially amazing. Yet, the two weather related events–flood and drought–could have similar results. The ’64 Flood shaped our social and physical landscape.  Entire thriving communities disappeared beneath a wall of water.  And, possibly, entire communities could wither from the lack of water. 

Surprisingly, there is very little information about the ’64 Flood. However, in this, its semi-centennial year, stories of heroism, terror and tragedy are beginning to trickle out.

Greg Rumney, whose book co-authored with Dave Stockton, The 1964 Flood of Humboldt and Del Norte, will be released on Jan. 27, eagerly recounts many of them. He tells with awe how, as the Rio Dell bridge, pictured above, was trembling under the onslaught of the enraged Eel River, a Dr. Robert Treadwell of Scotia learned that a woman, Charlotte Cowart, was giving birth in Rio Dell and needed his assistance. Treadwell drove to the bridge only to be stopped by the California Highway Patrol. Refusing to listen to their instructions, Treadwell gunned his vehicle and made it across the bridge just before an entire section of the structure dropped into the water leaving an impassable gap.

Rumney’s book, see preview here, began many years ago when the young photographer began working with Rudy Gillard who had been a photographer in Humboldt County for years. “Rudy,” he says, “told me stories about being the photographer for the 1964 flood.”

Rumney began collecting historical photos. He now runs a site called The Old Photo Guy which contains a multitude of antique images. This led to the current book and will soon result in a documentary also about the 1964 flood. He expects the film to come out in December just in time for the anniversary of this event that shaped the social and the physical landscape of our communities. Currently, he is interviewing survivors of the flood.  He hopes to capture more incredible stories like that of a last minute helicopter rescue as a home was swept away and pets left behind which he has already been able to collect. He has gathered video taken at the time, too, to add to the stories and the understanding of what happened.

The book and film promise to entertain as well as explain a bit of what happened. The next question to ask is ‘Who will be the photographers and filmmakers documenting the drought of this year?’ 

Fortuna inundated with flood waters in 1964. (Photos above and below provided by Greg Rumney and taken by Rudy Gillard.)


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