Downstream of Sacramento, towns and villages throughout the eastern San Francisco Bay Area were struggling with catastrophes of their own. Twenty miles northeast of San Francisco, four feet of water covered the entire town of Napa; to the east, the small town of Rio Vista on the Sacramento River was under six feet of water. The entire population of Alamo, at the foot of Mt. Diablo 50 miles east of San Francisco, was forced to flee rising floodwaters. People abandoned their homes in the middle of the night. Some found refuge, others drowned. The San Ramon Valley was one sheet of water from hill to hill as far as the eye could see. The destructive force of the floods was awesome: houses, otherwise intact and complete with their contents, were carried away in the rapids; horses, cattle, and barns were swept downstream for miles.
The heavy rains also triggered landslides and mud slides on California’s steep hillsides. For instance, in Knights Ferry and Mokelumne Hill, nearly every building was torn from its foundation and carried off by thundering landslides, and a major landslide also occurred at the town of Volcano in the Sierra foothills, killing seven people.
The 1861-62 floods extended far beyond the borders of California. They were the worst in recorded history over much of the American West, including northern Mexico, Oregon, Washington State and into British Columbia, as well as reaching inland into Nevada, Utah and Arizona. In Nevada, a normally arid state, twice its typical annual rainfall occurred in the two-month period of December 1861 to January 1862. All this excess water transformed the Carson Valley into a large lake, inundating Nevada City with nine feet of rain in 60 days.
In southern Utah, 1861-62 became known as the “year of the floods,” as homes, barns, a fiber and molasses mill and many forts were washed away, including the adobe home of a Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee. Lee had carefully recorded the weather throughout January 1862 in his diary, noting a solid period of alternating rain and snow with strong winds for most of that month. In Oregon, two and a half weeks of solid rain caused the worst flooding in this state’s history. Deluges covered huge portions of the lower Willamette Valley where Oregon City is located. Oregon City was the terminus of the Oregon Trail, and it was the state’s capital, where George Abernathy, an Oregon pioneer and the state’s first elected governor, lived and ran a thriving business. The flood destroyed his home, forcing him (and many others) to leave. Arizona was also impacted: floods occurred in the Gila, Verde, Bright Angel and Colorado River basins between January 19 and 23, 1862, and flooding was severe in Yuma, destroying the city.