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12/15/2013 12:59:00 PM
After Oregon's worst natural disaster, people sought refuge at church
Wikimedia Commons photo
Waters race through Heppner in 1903.
Wikimedia Commons photo
Waters race through Heppner in 1903.

HEPPNER — Four streams meet at Heppner, in north-central Oregon. Today, a dam across Willow Creek makes a small reservoir for boating and fishing. But 110 years ago, the waters made for tragedy.

Built by the Irish-Catholic herdsmen in the region, St. Patrick Church had been finished in 1887. Catholics remembered an earlier flood that had swept through the valley floor, and argued for building on higher ground. Parishioners were thankful that argument had won the day when the Heppner flood of 1903 destroyed much of the town. Many people climbed to St. Patrick's for safety.

“Without a second’s warning, a leaping, foaming wall of water, 40 feet in height, struck Heppner at about 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon, sweeping everything before it and leaving only death and destruction in its wake,” the Heppner Gazette reported on June 18, 1903.

“Owing to the roar of thunder and the noise caused by the heavy rainfall, the roar of the awful torrent was not heard, and a great many people knew nothing of it until their houses commenced to move.”

The paper included stories of people surviving the flood by riding furniture or houses downriver until they were washed ashore. There were reports that bodies had been recovered 10 miles downstream. Some townspeople took breakneck horseback rides to nearby towns to issue warnings. The Gazette's account ended with a partial list of the dead, about a quarter of the town. In all, about 250 were thought to have lost their lives in Oregon's most deadly natural disaster.

There was more death to come: the floodwaters washed raw sewage from Heppner downstream, contaminating wells in both Lexington and Ione. As a result, at least 18 people died from typhoid fever over the next several months.
Now, Willow Creek meanders through the center of Heppner, a stream that normally runs only ankle deep by mid-June. A concrete dam was built in 1983 to protect the town.

A new St. Patrick's was dedicated in 1971.

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