Heppner Flood of 1903

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Sunday, June 14, 1903

It had been a day of rest in the prosperous community of Heppner, Morrow County, with a population of some 1500 persons.  Late afternoon found the householders at dinner or supper, as it was then; or perhaps the dishes had been cleared away, and the families were preparing for evening service at church.

There was storm in the air...

The storm had broken about 5:15 p.m. as witnessed by the fact that the town clock stopped at that time, evidently because of the electrical storm in the air.  There was no apparent damage to the clock, however, as it ran as usual after it had been started again.

Many of the folks were just getting ready for church, it being Sunday evening, and the children washed and dressed in their best clothes.  The little girls had their hair curled and looked very nice in their silk dresses.  Many were found the next morning literally buried in the mud.

Dark clouds, the roll of thunder, spatters of rain and hail. A flash of lightning stopped the town clock at 5:16 p.m.

An ominous roar--not thunder, not wind, a grinding, terrifying roar-- the likes of which the community had never heard before; a swirling, crashing, breaking and tearing,  an onrush of leaping, darting and tearing, crushing tumbling wall of water. shrieks of terror, screams, moans and anguished prayers in an indescribable pandemonium--and the dead and dying were buried beneath water and mud and debris, and strewn in the underbrush at the edge of a flood for two miles down Willow Creek. The destruction continued one awful hour.

A cloudburst about one mile south of the city had piled up a wall of water 200 yards wide--to sweep without warning down the narrow gorge, leaving death and destruction in its path.

Two hundred and forty-seven bodies were recovered.  The property loss was $350,000.

Many lives were spared and the town was saved from probably total destruction because of a row of trees along the boundary of the chief residential street.  As debris piled against the trees, the water was damned somewhat, and was forced back into Willow Creek's regular channel.

The holocaust was not without its heroes, and strange quirks of fate.

As the onrushing of water struck the community, Leslie Matlock, son of a former sheriff of Morrow County, and Bruce Kelly, sensing potential disaster for communities in the path of the flood, started horseback and rode 18 miles just ahead of the water, spreading the alarm. contemporary accounts of the flood relate that Matlock's horse dropped dead in the course of the ride, than he continued on a fresh horse.

Because of the warning, ranchers on Willow Creek below Heppner were able to drive their stock to higher land where they were safe.

August Lundell, Heppner, saw the flood coming in time to race to a tree, which he climbed, dragging his two children up with him.  A moment later their house came swirling by, with Mrs. Lundell clinging to the wreckage.  Lundell caught her and dragged her to safety in the tree.

Portland swung into relief work, contributing money, clothing and supplies.  A relief station was opened in the old Bank of British Columbia building at Front and Ankeny Streets. J.P. O'Brien, superintendent of the O.R.&N. Railroad, dispatched a special relief train carrying help, empty cars for the return of injured survivors--and a supply of embalming fluid, for which Heppner authorities had made urgent appeal.  A special train also was dispatched from The Dalles, and work crews hastened to replace and repair railroad bridges and trackage washed out and damaged between Lexington and Heppner.  The railroad carried all relief supplies without charge.

Cities and towns throughout the state, and the Northwest, added to the relief fund and supplies as soon as the extent of the tragedy became known.

(by Harold C. Donner
taken from The East Oregonian, June 12, 1953)

For more more information or to purchase a video of this tragedy, contact Robin Baker Krebs at:

The Morrow County Museum
P.O. Box 1153
444 N. Main Street
Heppner, OR 97836
Ph: (541) 676-5524