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High Waters! The floods of 1955 and 1964
The floods of 1955 and 1964 couldn’t have come at a worse time. The hillslopes of Humboldt County had just undergone the most intensive land disturbance in recorded history, as a result of the post World War II logging boom. Hillslopes were stripped of their protective forests, roads criss crossed the slopes in all directions, and many areas were intensively burned after the logging was completed. When large rainstorms hit the disturbed slopes, most of the water quickly drained off, rather than slowly soaking into moss and litter covered soils beneath hundreds of feet of protective forest canopy. The results were catastrophic, as many of these photos show. Today there are still parts of the Eel River that are still recovering from the floods of 55/64. Sediment loads are still very high and the fish habitat is still on a slow march toward recovery. For example, the lower mainstem of the Eel River has lost most of its pre-flood habitat diversity. Sediment loads must dramatically decrease before we can expect the habitat to return, and this will take widespread effort involving a combination of upslope and instream restoration efforts. Treating roads for sediment production is an important place to start. Using bioengineering approaches to reduce bank erosion can also help, but working in dynamic channels is always a risk.
The Bull Creek Watershed reshaped by timber tax
When the land and timber tax structure changed in 1947, land-use practices took a sudden turn for the worse. Prior to 1947, landowners in Humboldt County paid 60 cents per acre in timber tax, and 20 cents per acre land tax. When the combined taxes rose to over 3 dollars per acre, many landowners were motivated to clear their lands just to reduce their tax burden. (After the timber was cleared, only the 20 cent/acre land tax was paid).
The Rampaging Eel River literally ripped the Paul Mudgett Memorial Bridge asunder. Rio Dell is in the background. The Eel River sawmills were formerly located at the lower left. Note the debris remaining where houses smashed against the left side of the span.
In the Bull Creek watershed, a comparison of aerial photos between 1947 and 1954 shows the dramatic changes to forest cover in just a 7 year period. The 1947 photo-collage shows a dense cover of forest, with scattered grasslands showing up as light areas. By 1954, the light areas reflect intensive clear-cut logging. When the storms came in 1955, the recently logged and burned hillslopes fell apart.
Click on map to view a larger image.
The cabin shown here was half-buried by the 1955 flood in the Bull Creek basin. Sediment from landslides and road failures filled channels and buried bridges. By 1964, even more of the basin was logged, and the next round of flooding brought even more severe impacts. Parts of Bull Creek are still recovering today from these impacts.
The Clark H. Gleason Archive
Humboldt Historical Society