The Great Storm of 1914

by Neal Graffy XNGH

At the first hint of precipitation, today’s media quickly update their “Stormwatch” icons and focus their cameras and microphones on the first trickle of water down the gutter. Each drop of rain is bisected and dissected and we are often inundated with more dire predictions of doom, gloom, death and despair than we are with actual moisture. But sometimes, we do get hit with storms of epic proportions.

The first maps of California depicted it as an island. The nearly nonstop storms from November 1861 through January 1862 came close to realizing that fantasy. In Los Angeles, twenty-eight days of constant rain measured nearly 36 inches while Sonora reported over 100 inches! The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys were flooded to the point where they could have been called lakes rather than valleys. For Santa Barbara, the storms were so severe that the Goleta Slough, once deep enough for ships to sail into, was filled in with silt and debris washed down from the mountains and deposited by the overflowing creeks. Santa Barbara’s estero which generally covered the lower eastside in the wet seasons was reported to have turned into a lake stretching from Garden to Milpas and as far up as Anapamu leaving Olive Street (Canal Street in those days) as a finger of land rising above the water and other high spots like the Gonzales adobe (between Laguna, Garden, Canon Perdido and de la Guerra) appearing as small islands.

Of course there are more rains and floods we could mention but in keeping with our current stormy weather and exciting photos of creeks running high we will set the Way-Back Machine to Sunday, January 25, 1914 when 9.36 inches of rain fell within 48 hours with some 4 inches alone falling over a two hour period. (Disclaimer! The postcards and news of the day declared it to be 9.36″ whereas the rainfall charts of today report it as 6.95″).

This event is to the best of my knowledge the first major photo-documented Santa Barbara storm and I thought it would be interesting to view what happened back then along Mission Creek and for those of you who remember 1995 and 1998, how little has changed.

The Canon Perdido bridge at Mission Creek. Despite the huge pile up of debris, fences and parts of homes, the bridge held firm. 

This was not the case for the de la Guerra Street bridge which gave up and headed downstream. The Ortega Street bridge shows in the distance. 

The scene between Ortega and Haley streets. 

Below Haley at Bath. Though the bridge held, several homes were undermined including a grocer’s store that was picked up and floated across the street where it came to rest against a telephone pole. This is the area that they are currently digging out for the new Haley Street bridge. 

Next time you’re down by the train station take a look over the railing and see how far below Mission Creek is. In the storm of 1914 the creek was way outside of that nice sandstone channel the Southern Pacific Railroad had built for it in the early 1900s and was coursing over the tracks, loading platform and through the depot. The nearby Neal Hotel had water over a foot deep flowing through its lobby. 

A great shot looking up Mission Creek towards the Mason Street bridge. It looks like the photographer was standing in the middle of the creek! The shot appears to be in the middle of the block as the creek curves east towards State just past this point. Perhaps there was a footbridge crossing the creek here like there is today. I don’t think cameras had telephoto lenses back then that would have allowed them to shoot a scene like this from a safe distance back. However they did it, it’s a wonderful photo. The Potter Hotel is at far left. The two homes in the center of the photo were owned by the Kimberly family (of nearby Kimberly Avenue) and are still standing. 

The bridge at East Cabrillo Boulevard. Helena Street in the background as the locals fish for logs and other debris to keep them from jamming up the flow of water under the bridge. 

A view of the first block of West Cabrillo Boulevard. This photo shows that back then as well as today there is never a shortage of people competing for the Darwin Award. 

Cleaning up at State and Yanonali. The view is looking at the east side of the street. Sebastian Larco’s fish shop at 210 State can be seen just to the right of the telephone pole behind the car. Old timers will remember that corner location (a Lunch Parlor in 1914) as the Busy Bee Café (1940s – 1960s) followed by the Rescue Mission (mid60s to late 1980s). Ironically a brewery moved in following the Rescue Mission’s departure replacing the Holy Sprit with a wholly different spirit. 

A field of mud surrounds the Southern Pacific Depot…. 

and it was back again in 1995. 

The area to the east of Stearns Wharf is known as “Fool’s Anchorage” as severe storms generally bring one or more ships ashore. This storm was sixteen years before the breakwater would provide a safe haven so boats on either side of the wharf were subject to King Neptune’s wrath. This little boat has come to a perfectly balanced perch a few feet west of the wharf. Note in the background the waves crashing over the boulevard. There was little sand along this section of west beach until the breakwater came in (see past edhat history articles for more about the waterfront changes). 

The waves tore away the seawall along West Cabrillo Boulevard and a decent portion of the walkway and road went along with it. Compare where the two men are standing to where the “natural” lay of the land is. This gives you an idea of how much “fill” (about six to eight feet in some areas) was added in grading the boulevard and how much sand has been deposited over the years. 

The 1914 storm also saw portions of Old Spanish Town in Montecito washed away as Montecito Creek jammed up at the East Valley bridge overflowed its banks and undermined homes. The downpour caused two fatalities, Louis and Elizabeth Jones, who were drowned while attempting to cross Oak Creek in Montecito to get home to their children.

What does the future hold for us? Well, the storm of January 1995 was so big that “they” called it a “500-year storm” (i.e. a storm that occurs once every 500 years). Two months later, Santa Barbara was hammered again by yep, another 500-year storm. So I figure we’re good for the next half millennium! In case I’m wrong, keep an umbrella handy.

Cleaning up at Mason and State in 1995. Photos courtesy Neal Graffy collection. 1995 storm photos by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara News-Press

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2 Responses to The Great Storm of 1914

  1. Mr WordPress says:

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

  2. stevenschlah says:

    “Lucky Stiffs” indeed. Neal, you, your sister and mother are truly “Angels of Santa Barbara” and are to be applauded for your dedication and work toward the History of Santa Barbara. I’m a fan.

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