Jeff Jardine: Further evidence of wild weather of 1862

jjardine@modbee.comJune 16, 2014 

From the emails, voice mails and other sources:

DELUGE DEFINED – In February, I wrote about retired Bay Area meteorologist Leon Hunsaker and geologist (and Oakdale native) Claude W. Curran, who were summoned by the Tuolumne County Historical Society to settle the rainfall totals of 1862 once and for all.

Beginning in November 1861 – with the Civil War ramping up and about the same time Julia Ward Howe penned the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – an 80-year-old physician named Perez Snell began charting daily rainfall in Sonora. Between Nov. 11, 1861 and Jan. 23, 1862, he recorded a whopping 102 inches of rain, a record that still stands today. Considering Sonora averages 32 inches a year, many modern-day weather experts simply dismissed Snell’s figures. But Hunsaker and Curran believe they are correct. In 2005, they co-wrote a paper titled “Lake Sacramento – Can it Happen Again?” which detailed how heavy rains and runoff in 1862 turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into a lake 300 miles long and 20 miles wide.

They knew it would take more than the newspaper clippings and other historical accounts to convince other scientists, though. So they kept going. They began comparing Snell’s Sonora rainfall records with those of other parts of the foothills, from Mariposa north to the gold mining camp of Red Dog, near Grass Valley. And they reviewed records from throughout California from that same time period.

They were awed by what they found, Hunsaker said.

“A record-breaking flooding on the Santa Ana River (in Southern California) in Jan. 22, 1862, and by the 23rd, there were record floods on the Sacramento River at Red Bluff,” Hunsaker said. “Record flooding on two rivers 500 miles apart in the month of January.”

All along the way, rainfall totals were double or triple historical averages. They compared two 10-day periods for Sonora and Red Dog in January 1862 and concluded the rainfall “was widespread and proportional.” They based their calculations on the elevations of the towns and their effect on annual rainfall totals. In doing so, they determined that the storms locked into a pattern of moving north rather than in from the west or northwest, similar to the route of the Pineapple Express storms that hammered the state in 1997, causing widespread flooding. Except that in 1862, the storm series lasted for nearly 21/2 months.

The bottom line, Hunsaker said, is that Snell’s numbers were likely dead on.

“Dr. Snell deserves recognition from the scientific community,” Hunsaker said. And as scientists getting up there in years – Hunsaker is 91 while Curran is nearing 76 – confirming the numbers is a major coup, Hunsaker said.

“It’s the most important thing we’ve been engaged in as professionals,” he said. “It’s a big thing when you’re not too far from (pushing up) grass.”

Of course, measuring rainfall requires having rainfall to measure. We don’t need another impromptu Lake Sacramento. We’d be thrilled just to get enough runoff to fill the existing reservoirs.

STILL BEHIND BARS – Last week, I wrote about Eric Peterson, a 24-year-old former Valley resident who was injured in a crash in South Salt Lake City in October 2012 and remains in a convalescent home in Salt Lake City as a ward of the state. He received critical injuries while sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to change. Ryan Troy Cooke, 20 at the time of the incident, had stolen a police car and slammed into Peterson’s car at the intersection. Cooke was drunk at the time, and injured two other people as well. I reported that Cooke received one to 15 years on each count, serving the sentences concurrently, and is paying on the $18,924 in court-ordered restitution. I wrote that Cook already is out of prison. Not so: He’ll remain incarcerated until 2027 or so.

AUTHOR! AUTHOR! – Last week, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that seniority-based teacher layoffs and tenure rights deny poor children an equal education, which makes a new book by Turlock resident Robert Evan Foster timely. “Does Your Child’s Teacher Measure Up?” is written from the perspective of a former teacher and onetime school principal at Desert Trails Elementary School in the high desert town of Adelanto, where, two years after his departure, parents used the “parent trigger” law to convert it into a charter school. The 138-page book is available on

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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