Hundreds Stranded in Ashland during the Flood of 1927

Here is the front page of Ashland American newspaper from February 25, 1927 that described the flood (“Rain Deluge Works Havoc”) and the people stranded in Ashland for three days.

A version of this article was published in the Ashland Tidings newspaper on June 4, 2019. This WalkAshland post contains additional text and historical photos.

Were you in Ashland during the flood on January 1, 1997? Heavy snow followed by warm rain flooded the Plaza and knocked out our water treatment plant. Life was inconvenient because Ashlanders had to use Porta Potties for two weeks. But Ashland wasn’t cut off from the outside world as in 1927.

Ashland was thriving in 1927. The Lithia Springs Hotel, then the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland, had just opened on Main Street in 1925 (it’s now the Ashland Springs Hotel). The downtown Enders Department Store, where you could walk indoors from one store to the next for an entire city block, was considered a wonder. Lithia Park was eleven years old and already a tourist draw, though stormy February weather would not have been ideal for taking a stroll in the park.

The Lithia Springs Hotel on East Main Street as it looked in the late 1920s. (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby collection)

Then in February 1927, heavy snow followed by hours of warm rain led to “havoc.” In Ashland, though one bridge was destroyed and several damaged, there was less damage from the flood overall than in 1997. But the word “havoc” described what happened around Ashland.  

The road to Medford was impassable in 15 to 20 places. Highways over the Siskiyou Mountains and the Greensprings were covered with snow. At Jackson Hot Springs, water covered Highway 99 three feet deep when Bear Creek overflowed.  O. M. Franklin and his boat rescued people who were staying in cabins at the Hot Springs.  

Some of the worst damage was to the train tracks both north and south of Ashland.  Southern Pacific railway workers who had been with the company as long as 25 years told the Ashland American newspaper that “the storm has rendered unprecedented damage to their line” that was “the worst in history.”

With the tracks blocked both north and south, hundreds of passengers on two (or possibly four) long passenger trains at the Ashland depot were stranded in Ashland. 

Southern Pacific hired 40 to 50 men to clear and repair the tracks, but it was no easy task. In some places, huge rocks weighing hundreds of tons blocked the tracks. In others, the rushing waters had washed out the grade underneath the tracks. Dynamite was used to blast rocks free. A crane attached to a railway car lifted boulders off the tracks.  

Meanwhile, what to do with all the stranded passengers? The people of Ashland rose to the occasion and entertained the visitors. Ashland did have a lot to offer. There were hotels large and small, plus restaurants in both the Railroad District and downtown. Those of a scholarly bent could visit a public library and a brand new college (Churchill Hall, home of Southern Oregon Normal School, had just been completed the year before).

Scholarly visitors could have spent their days in the Ashland Public Library. This photo is from 1927! (This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

Several stranded passengers were home-seekers, so they had lots of time to view local real estate. One passenger was a fruit cannery man, so he could visit local orchards and canneries. Ashland growers packed and shipped apples, peaches, pears and more all over the United States. The large fruit packing plant building on A Street next to the railroad tracks is still there (currently home of Plexis Healthcare Systems software company).

Visitors wanting to get out of the Railroad District could have headed downtown to the Hotel Austin, at the corner of East Main Street and Oak Street. This large hotel had previously been called Hotel Oregon, and in the 1930s was renamed Hotel Ashland. (Photo from Terry Skibby Collection at SODA. This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

I’m not sure what the Standard Oil executive or the buyer for Skaggs-Safeway stores would have found entertaining, but the railroad company tried its best for them and all the passengers.

According to Maurice Bailey, a railroad employee for many years: “Southern Pacific installed radios in each train to provide entertainment for the stranded guests. At this time, Ashland’s depot was 3 stories high with a dining room, hotel, and offices, so Southern Pacific bedded down all the passengers free, and then hired an orchestra and put on a dance each of the 3 evenings for the benefit of the passengers.” 

Food, music and dancing…what more do you need? How about toilets that don’t stink? So on a practical level, Southern Pacific bought almost all the chloride of lime in Ashland hardware stores to keep the odors down in their railway car toilets.  

After three days, the tracks were finally repaired and passengers could go on their way. I wonder how many of them decided during those three days that they would come back to live in Ashland? If they were anything like current Ashland residents who have told me stories why they decided to move here, I bet a few of them did. 

This aerial view of Ashland was taken in the late 1920s. You can see the Public library lower right; Chautauqua dome top left; Main Street and the Ashland Springs Hotel in the center (then called Lithia Springs Hotel); old Baptist Church (now Oregon Cabaret Theatre) with rounded back up 1st at Hargadine; Twin Plunges and Natatorium towards top center; railroad yard along top. (Brubaker 6378. From the collection of the Ashland Public Library. This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives and made available by Southern Oregon University Hannon Library.)

References:

Anon. Ashland American newspaper articles, Feb 25, 1927
Anon. Ashland Daily Tidings newspaper articles, Feb 21 & 24, 1927
Mr. & Mrs. Maurice Bailey interviewed by student Denise Atkinson in the book History of Ashland Oregon, written by 8thgrade students at Ashland Junior High School, published 1977. Teacher: Marjorie Lininger

Where is this window? Why is it here?


A Creative Hobo

This story describes a creative hobo begging for dinner at an Ashland home in 1898: “An Ashland lady asked a tramp who applied for assistance why he did not work at some trade, and was indignantly informed that he was a professional man. Further questioning developed that he was an after-dinner speaker, and would like to have an opportunity to practice his profession.”

(Democratic Times, Jacksonville, March 21, 1898)

I published an article in the Ashland Tidings newspaper of April 12, 2019 telling stories of the hobos in Ashland from the late 1800s through the 1920s. For those who don’t read the Ashland Tidings, I would like to share the stories here, and include some additional photos that were not in the newspaper.

In the past ten years or so, there seems to have been an increase in the number of young people begging, or just hanging out with their dogs, in downtown Ashland. Those who curse or snarl rude comments at people walking by can make both tourists and local residents uncomfortable. If we feel overwhelmed by the young “home-free travelers” passing through town now, we would definitely not want to go back in time to the 1890s or early 1900s in Ashland. 

Let’s start with some history first, and then I will explain the “where” and “why” of the window in the photo above.

175 Hobos in One Day!

Here is a quote from the Jacksonville newspaper in 1893: ” Ashland, Or., Dec. 17.–One hundred and seventy-five hobo tourists came in from the north this evening on a freight train on top of box cars. The town has refused to feed them, and there is some fear they will resort to violence, though appearing to be a peaceable set of men.  All are bound for the warmer climate of California.”  (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, December 22, 1893)

175 hobos in one day!  In addition to bringing prosperity and “welcome guests” to Ashland, the completion of the West Coast railroad line in 1887 also brought with it “unwelcome guests.”  Some of the train-hopping hobos were migrant agricultural workers who followed the harvests from Southern California to Washington and back again.  Others were panhandlers and petty thieves — or for the more creative ones, “after-dinner speakers” like the man quoted in the introduction to this article. 

Hobos “riding the rods” underneath a train car…very dangerous! (1894 photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ashland and Medford tried many strategies to deal with the ongoing hobo problem.  Hobos were run out of town.  They were jailed.  They were paid to work.  They were forced to work.  They were even fed and given a place a sleep overnight.  

Were the Hobos Allergic to Work?

In 1914, the Medford police chief made these complaints about hobos who refused to work: “Every hobo in the county wants to congregate in Medford,” said Chief Hittson this morning. “They all wanted to stay in Ashland last winter when they were giving them free soup there. Now there is work on the Pacific Highway, close to that city, and what do they do but come up here.”  (Medford Mail Tribune, April 8, 1914)

The Mystery of the Window

Now I am ready to clear up the “mystery of the window” in the photo for those who can’t place it.  

The coming of the railroad to Ashland in the 1880s caused a boom in the local economy and population. Many people built homes and began businesses near the railroad depot on A Street. Thus the Railroad District became a second thriving neighborhood in Ashland, in addition to the Plaza/downtown area where the town began.

Several devastating fires in the Railroad District caused the City Council to authorize construction of a second fire station on 4th Street just to serve this part of town. With horse drawn fire wagons, it served the area until gasoline powered fire trucks made a second fire station unnecessary.

Firemen and their fire wagon outside the 4th Street fire station, circa 1910 (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)

Ashland’s second fire station at 264 4th Street was constructed in 1908 of hollow concrete block.  With many single men in the Railroad District — who tended to get into trouble – and with the constant influx of hobos hopping off trains at the Ashland depot, a jail cell was added in the back of the new fire station.  

The “mystery photo” shows the jail cell window.  You can see it on the alley side of the building, which now houses Revive, an eclectic collection of “revived” furniture and home decor. 

264 4th Street, 1908 fire station, now Revive furniture and home goods, photo 2019

According to newspapers of the early 1900s, hobos grabbed clothes drying outside on clotheslines, snatched chickens from chicken coops, and generally caused a nuisance begging for food door to door.   This is where the 4th Street fire station/jail came into play, but not how you might think.  

This 1914 newspaper article, which calls the hobos “transient unemployed,” explains it well.  “The city police department have cared for 480 transient unemployed from December thirteenth to January first and 349 from January first to the twentieth.  The Fourth street fire station is used for the place of shelter and most of them come in during the night, showing up after the arrival in the yards of freight trains.  They are fed on soup and bread about midnight and are started out of town in the morning in squads.  Sometimes a breakfast on coffee and sandwiches is needed for those that get in after the main meal.  The food is secured from the restaurant nearby and the price paid for it in bulk is very reasonable.  The program is satisfactory to the unemployed and kept them from soliciting about town, which would be a large sized nuisance considering the large number passing through at this season of the year when employment is impossible.”

Ashland Tidings, January 22, 1914

Two factors in the late 1920s led to a decline in Ashland’s transient hobo problem. One was Southern Pacific’s decision to re-route most of its trains through Klamath Falls in 1927.  The other was the convenience of auto travel.   In 1929, the Ashland Daily Tidings quoted Phil Eiker, a director of the Oregon State Motor Association: “‘Weary Willie,’ the wanderlust citizen who formerly traveled in discomfort on the rods of a freight train, now stands by the roadside and begs a ride from passing motorists….”  (Ashland Daily Tidings, September 17, 1929)

As the number of hobos declined, Ashlanders were happy to have fewer incidents like this one: “Some of [the tramps] thought to demolish Tom Roberts’ saloon at Ashland one night last week, because he refused them drink, but he made it very lively for them, wounding two or three of them with his pistol.”  (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, December 8, 1893)

1922 cartoon – romanticized depiction of hobo eating on a flat car (photo from Wikimedia Commons)