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.
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).
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).
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.
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