Deluge in the Sierra, foothills turned Valley into a lake in winter of 1861-62, experts confirm

02/03/2014 5:19 PM

02/03/2014 8:11 PM

Some Tuesday tidbits:

NOTHING OR ALL – The ongoing drought merits a look back at the wettest year on record.

Did it really rain 102 inches in the Mother Lode from Nov. 11, 1861, to Jan. 23, 1862? That’s what a local doctor reported in readings dating back to the Civil War era and numbers that drew skepticism among weather experts.

To settle the issue, the Tuolumne County Historical Society prevailed upon retired Bay Area meteorologist Leon Hunsaker and geologist Claude W. Curran to confirm or dispel the records of Dr. Perez Snell that some folk simply didn’t buy.

Hunsaker and Curran will tell society members plus anyone else within earshot that, yes, it did rain that much back then.

“Dr. Snell’s seemingly outrageous 1861-62 rainfall measurements are valid,” Hunsaker said in a press release announcing a Feb. 13 event that is open to the public at 7 p.m. in the Community Room of the Tuolumne County Library at 480 Greenley Road in Sonora.

“The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for 300 miles, averaging 20 miles in breadth,” according the release.

Hunsaker and Curran are experts on the era. In 2005, they co-wrote “Lake Sacramento – Can it Happen Again?” a paper on the widespread flooding of Sacramento in the spring of 1862, the same winter when Snell recorded those incredible rainfall totals.

Sonora’s Union Democrat newspaper, which began publishing in 1854, wrote in its Jan. 18, 1862, edition, “SOME RAIN – According to Dr. Snell’s gauge, 81.564 inches of water had fallen up to nine o’clock yesterday morning, since the 10th of November. This is nearly double the quantity that has fallen during any previous year, and yet the rain is still pouring down.”

SIGN OF THE TIMES – About 14 years ago, Erwin and Sonya Schali found a sign in a grove of cottonwood trees on their property near the Stanislaus River east of Oakdale. Routed into the 6-foot-long, 2-by-6-inch board is the wording: “Jefferson Union School District.”

After reading my column Sunday about towns inundated by New Melones and Don Pedro reservoirs in the 1970s, and remembering that the Stanislaus River flooded big time in 1955, the Schalis wondered if there had been a Jefferson Union School District upstream at some point in time. Would that explain how the sign wound up on their land?

There was a tiny town of Jeffersonville near Rawhide, which is near Jamestown, which is near ... OK, enough already. But Jeffersonville students attended Rawhide Elementary, which is now a Waldorf school. There’s a Jefferson Elementary School in Tracy, but officials there tell me it never has been a union school district. The nearest Jefferson Union districts, high school and elementary, are along the peninsula south of San Francisco. To steal a sign from the Bay Area and ditch it more than 100 miles away is way too much work for pranksters or vandals.

Also, the yellow paint still in the routed lettering suggests the sign might be too new to have survived a flood from nearly 59 years ago. Still, inquiring minds want to know: Where did it come from and how did it get there?

Any ideas?

MARMOT DAY? – While on the subject of weather, some Facebook friends posted about Sunday being Groundhog Day, the annual day a large rodent in Pennsylvania emerges to predict whether we’ll see an early spring or six more weeks’ worth of winter. At this point, the six weeks of winter here have been on the calendar only.

Either way, what they predict in Punxsutawney means little here because weather in the East is vastly different that what we experience out West. And, we really don’t have groundhogs per se, and certainly none with access to Doppler radar.

What we do have, though – in the high country – is the marmot, a groundhoglike furball that just about every hiker or horseman has witnessed scurrying around in the rocks along the trails. A decade or so ago, one crawled up into the engine compartment of a camper’s car and hitched a ride to the Valley, where it ended up at the Stanislaus Wildlife Center. The center also tended to a baby marmot in 2001.

The bottom line is because nobody can seem to accurately predict our winters out West, maybe we need our own prognosticating critter. If he/she emerges from his/her den Feb. 2 wearing a pair of Ray-Bans, expect six more weeks of winter. If he/she dons a “Ski Dodge Ridge” T-shirt, you’d better enjoy the winter sports season while you can, because we’re in for an early spring. Or something like that.

WOOD COLONY HISTORY – This, from Lois Belt, who is the press and publications editor of the McHenry Museum and Historical Society: If you want to learn more about the history of Wood Colony, visit the McHenry Museum. The museum has plenty of information on Wood Colony, including photos of original settlers in the area northeast of Modesto, whose stories are depicted in three editions of the museum’s publication, “Stanislaus Stepping Stones.” The winter 1979 issue features the Wolf and Rumble families. The winter 1989-90 edition features the Cover, Garber and Gish families, with other stories detailing the Vlachs and Myrtle Bowman Fisher and Salida’s Flory Industries. This month’s edition will include the overall history of Wood Colony. Copies are available in the McHenry Museum store for $4.95 each.

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