Massive flooding hit Petaluma 154 years ago

Petaluma recently saw its first round of winter storms, and with talk of climate change and El Niño impacting the weather, it’s important to put the rains into a historical perspective.|

The first winter storms have recently hit Petaluma, and with talk of climate change and El Niño impacting the weather, it is important to put the rains into a historical perspective.

The worst winter storms in California’s history hit 154 years ago. The floods of the winter of 1861-62 were unprecedented and described by The Petaluma Argus as “devastating and ruinous” and that, it was “impossible to approximate the number of lives lost.”

The American civil war had begun in 1861. Abraham Lincoln had been president for only a few months. California had been a state for just eleven years, and Petaluma had been franchised for only three years. The transcontinental railroad was underway and the new California legislators of 1861-62 had to convene in San Francisco because Sacramento was virtually washed off the map. What was left of the entire city could only be reached by boat in 1862.

The torrential rains had melted all of the Sierra snows and the American and Sacramento Rivers overran their banks and levees collapsed. By Jan. 1, 1862, the water level in those rivers was 18 feet above the highest mark ever recorded before or since. The Petaluma Argus reported that: “Sunday December 8th was ‘a night of terror’ in Sacramento.”

Little did they know, it was only the beginning.

By Jan. 12, the rains had driven thousands of families from their homes in California. In Petaluma, the roads were impassible. The San Francisco Call, on Jan. 12, said that Oregon, Washington and California alike had “been wrecked” and that “Sacramento has been drowned out of existence.”

Governor Leland Stanford had to be rowed from his offices and the repair of the levees had to be halted in frustration, as they just collapsed again after repair.

One quarter of California’s economy was destroyed in these storms. Thousands of cattle, hogs, horses and mules had been killed. Many more were driven from their paddocks and barns in an attempt to save them. They were never seen again. The earth was soaked, farms were destroyed, buildings washed away. It was pandemonium.

Between Nov. 9, 1861 and Jan. 14, 1862, 72 inches of rain had fallen in the San Francisco Bay Area. About 80,000 people lived in Marin and Sonoma County then, and most were farming the land. Roads in Sonoma County became impassable and the Sonoma County Register stated: “The town of Sonoma is submerged and Santa Rosa is inundated in the most extraordinary flood ever known.”

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., President Lincoln had addressed his new Congress, asking the crucial civil war question: “Can a democracy, a government of the people, by the same people, maintain it’s territorial integrity against its own domestic foes?”

Fort Sumpter had just fallen and the President stated that, with deepest regret, he was now forced to, “call out the war power to fight against these destructive forces.”

At that time, every man in the southern state of Virginia, from 16 to 60, was obliged to join the Confederate Army. It was to be a long, bloody war.

Sonoma County was considering the effects of the Civil War, as well as the immediate effects of the floods. Petaluma undertaker, O.H. Lovett, was advertising “A full line of coffins and grave clothes” for local consumption. It was a timely offer, as it was estimated that there would be well over 500 deaths just within the Bay Area from these storms. Many of those lives lost were Chinese laborers.

The Argus said: “Our city has been visited by the most terrible flooding and (our) farming will suffer materially. It may be utterly impossible to plant the spring crops.”

California’s population was about 500,000 at the start of 1862. But, with Orange County then a lake, and Sacramento County flooded for miles in all directions, no one could tally the death toll as yet.

Twenty-five percent of all the buildings in the state had been flooded and ruined. Even the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles basin had become lakes. The Golden State hovered upon bankruptcy.

But, even in their own desperate hours, Petalumans were rallying to help-out Sacramento. The Argus said that: “Citizens were gathering provisions to be sent, including food and articles of apparel, both mentionable and unmentionable.” They would be delivered via The “staunch and favorite” steamer Kate Hayes from Haystack Landing, up the swollen Sacramento River.

Could this flood happen here again? It’s been called the “500 year storm,” so I guess we’ve got another 350-some years to go. But just so you’re alert, what if our now predicted global warming melts the snow pack in the Sierras?

One more thing to worry about. (Sorry about that).

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at

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