Historical Report #17
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
Rock-solid in the gene pool of any community – especially a farm community
– is a local concept of its ideal climate. It’s the basis for all
conversation openers like, “How about this !@#$%^! weather?” during a week-long,
misty rain with hay down in ninety percent of the fields. Or,
“Do you think it’ll ever rain again?” after three months of unremitting
sunshine following a snowless winter and dry stream beds.
1908 - Salt Lake City flood being channeled down North Temple
And as we know, droughts can be economically crippling, but – except for the devastating fires that follow inevitably in their wake – they never appear as spectacular nor as memorable as the wet cycles, especially since the wet cycles are accompanied by so many disastrous, indeed deadly floods.
Lewiston’s Edis Taggart has vivid memories of a flash flood in High Creek Canyon during a July 24th celebration in 1923. “There were any number of people picnicking up there with horses and buggies when it started to rain. Then a cloudburst at the top started a flash flood that drove mud and rock all the way down to Cove, taking out all the bridges along the way.” Edis’s Uncle Will Leavitt helped direct two of the celebrants up on a side hill – Edis’s cousins, Spencer Taggart and Lynn Bright. Spencer, a boy of eleven at the time, was so impressed by the deluge that he wrote a poem about it sixty-eight years later, in 1991 (printed below). Miraculously, considering the damage done, there were no fatalities.
Not so lucky for some people were the many spectacular floods occurring over the years through City Creek Canyon into Salt Lake City, changing streets into rivers. As recently as 1983, the city’s State and 1300 South Streets were changed officially to streams lined with sand bags to contain water from City Creek Canyon. The flood water had rushed into downtown, shoving rock and debris in front of it. Spring floods like this one are caused by rapid warming in April and May which, in turn, causes streams to rise dramatically in mountains to the east. This same 1983 runoff caused mudslides in Emigration Canyon and forced evacuation and caused property damage in Pinecrest, Centerville, and Bountiful.
1923 Willard, Utah, flood - a load of mud with a ruined house in the background
In 1923, disastrous, wide-spread flooding occurred along the Wasatch front from Centerville northward, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars damage. At this time, there were indeed fatalities – a family of six camping in Farmington Canyon and two women in the Willard area whose homes had been destroyed by mud and rock slides. Patrons at Lagoon had to be rescued from trees and roofs to which they’d taken flight before the rapidly rising flood waters. At the same time, water and debris plummeted down the sheer rock cliffs that rise east of Willard, mowing down houses, swamping barns, and blocking the highway through town with tons of mud and rock.
Virginia Van Orden remembers trips down to Salt Lake City during which her parents had to detour around similar mud and rock slides in Willard. In fact, flooding and slippage occurred in Willard with deplorable regularity until the late 1930s when the building of reservoirs, pipelines, a dike, and a spillway alleviated the problem. A child at this time, Virginia said the sight of this devastation instilled in her a very real fear of rivers and streams in full spate. Upon being told that her family was moving to Lewiston, she asked her father, “Will there be floods there?” Her father, Jerry Tyner, who was to become Lewiston’s pharmacist, assured her that the two rivers bordering Lewiston would never flood the town. “After hearing that,” Virginia declared, “I was ready to put down roots here forever.”
And Mr. Tyner was right, the Cub and the Bear Rivers are at a sufficiently low level up here in the north end of Cache Valley that they would be highly unlikely to cause any damage to Lewiston. Though, as Virginia soon found out, residents very often found themselves awash in melt water during spring thaws, especially during Lewiston’s early years and particularly during a period of higher than normal April and May temperatures. Rather than coursing over the river banks, however, the water welled up inexorably, like a sponge being squeezed from below.
During drainage studies done by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station in the 1940s and 1950s, engineers found the water table in some parts of Lewiston to be as shallow as four inches below the surface. In cases like that, explains Edis Taggart, “When a heavy snow pack melts inside of twenty-four hours and there’s no place for the melt water to go, you find yourself with a water table two feet above the surface.”
Worse, these same drainage studies discovered that Lewiston’s impermeable layer of clay that serves as the area’s water table is slightly cupped. As Edis told us in a previous paper, “That water table – it’s shaped like a saucer down there.” And so for the early settlers, living here before Lewiston’s network of drains were laid and drainage ditches dug, every spring found Lewiston a veritable land of lakes.
Edis describes spring melt water as concentrating at that time in “swales” – those depressions or low-lying sweeps of land, not always noticeable in dry weather, that could be found throughout Lewiston before the extensive leveling that has been done over the decades. These swales were apparent, however, in cold weather when walking or traveling by horseback, say, up or down Main Street. Cold air tended to collect in these low-lying areas, and when one entered a swale, the temperature dropped precipitately.
During spring snow melt, water would also collect in these places, making many of the town’s streets impassable by foot, and turning fields into wide expanses of shallow lakes or slews, including the street and fields next to the Taggart family home at that time, the Lewiston Tithing House. The spring lake on the southwest corner of the Taggart place is pictured at right.
The Lewiston school was similarly affected in the spring, sporting a slew on the east side that stretched northwest and southeast for half a mile and hung around at times all the way into June. A temporary boardwalk had to be built across this moat for Lewiston’s students to get to the school.
Especially troublesome, recalls Edis, who was a student himself during
the late 1900s, was getting to Lewiston school’s two outhouses. (Two
and three holers, incidentally.) The school is pictured below
in the dry season, the outhouses can be seen on the left. The outhouses
themselves were above water, but were nearly surrounded by one of
these slews. “In order to get to the outhouses, you had to take a
long walk around the slew,” explains Edis. “You had to allow for that walk,
Rowing to school in a boat at that time was a regular occurrence for some students, and Edis recalls that rafting on these seasonal lakes was a source of great fun for them as well.
In 1914, the first drainage ditch was dug along Center Street east to the Cub River. Its open section can still be seen along the front of Gilbert’s farm (recognizable by its tall blue silos) and down past the Lewiston cemetery. The ditch helped considerably in cutting down the spring flooding of the town, as did the others dug and drains laid later throughout Lewiston. The spring outhouse adventure at Lewiston school was brought to a blessed halt in 1918 when indoor plumbing was installed.
Dee and Virginia Van Orden's back field and garden to the right, with Dee Van Orden surveying the damage on the left. The area up there was awash in the 1983 spring snow melt. Views are northeast and north toward little mountain.
Extensive leveling and drains laid in the decades since the Agricultural Experiment Station’s midcentury drainage studies certainly helped to contain Lewiston’s annual water problem. Nevertheless, during the rapid 1983 spring snow melt, some of Lewiston’s residents found themselves having to sandbag their homes against the rising water. Dee and Virginia Van Orden had a lake north of their house then that was large enough and deep enough to make waves. After this 1983 flooding – the most serious in the recent past – four of the residents along Main Street clubbed together to run a drain down their back lots to help in future spring snow melts, thus continuing the effort against Lewiston’s tendency to float its residents downstream.
But the town’s impermeable layer of clay is not likely to disappear and, because of its uneven, saucer-like profile, the water table is perilously near the surface in many areas. Another heavy snow cover coupled with rapid warming may still cause part of its population to turn on pumps and set out sand bags. Certainly it makes attempting to dig a basement under Lewiston’s houses a chancy proposition indeed.
So we could update Jerry Tyner’s 1931 assurance to his little daughter
in this way: “Yes, Virginia, there will be no devastating floods in Lewiston
-- but there are years, as you know only too well, when your feet can get
High Creek Flash Flood
When almost twelve, I was in a flash flood in Utah’s northern mountains.
The day began sunny and bright, the mountain air fresh and invigorating, the pines at their greenest.
Mid-day large thunderheads appeared above the rocky peaks – first sun-lit white, soon grey, then black – menacingly black.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled a distant threat
The storm’s emergence was very fast – large rain drops, then a cloud burst, every cloud wrung out.
Our small creek turned into an angry river out of control – filled with snapped and up-rooted trees, and pounding boulders.
This whole madness, over laid with streaked lightning and thunder, ended as it began – suddenly.
Bridges were out, car-size boulders blocked our road, dead trout lay strewn about.
Spencer L. Taggart
Photos of the 1908
Salt Lake City flood, the 1923 Willard mud slide, and the 1923 flood-driven
boulder, all courtesy of USU Special Collections
Photos of the Taggart lake, the Lewiston Tithing House, and the Lewiston school in the dry season, all from the Edis Taggart collection
Photos of the Van Ordens' back field and garden from the Dee and Virginia Van Orden collection