Historic floods

🕔May 28, 2007

Don Goalder was living in Usk during the Canada Day flood of 1976. “It wasn’t much of a flood,” he says. “The ground got wet around my house. But it did damage the ferry dock, so there was no ferry service for a few days.”

“But it was nothing compared to the flood of ’36.”

Ah, yes…the flood of ’36. Don has a photo that shows the same house in 10 feet (three metres) of water. Of course, he explains, at the time it still belonged to the previous owner, a colourful character whose life ended one day when he drove his truck onto the ferry—and right off the other side, into the river. “His wallet was found, but not him or his truck.”

In late May, 1936, temperatures in the north climbed as high as 35ºC, causing snowmelt and flooding conditions throughout BC, Alaska and the Yukon. The Terrace area was particularly hard-hit. Frank Floyd, a farmer, reported: “We lost about 12 acres of land in three days. The river was like something gone wild. Great waves , like rollers, came down the river carrying chunks of land, trees, and lumber.”

Several farms on Braun’s Island were swept away, along with many horses and cattle. CNR electrician William Reid counted 23 houses—some from Usk—floating down the river.

There was not much left of Remo, just downstream from Terrace, where all the houses but one were gone. (The ferry-man there managed to save the ferry, but lost his personal possessions, which are documented to have been his violin, nine volumes of the Harmsworth Encyclopedia, and100 dollars in cash.)

Upstream, all the waterfront property in Old Hazelton was severely damaged. In Kispiox Village, 20 houses were washed away when the river cut an entirely new channel. Up and down the river, bridges, roads, and sections of railway were washed out.

Even bigger: 1948

And then there was the flood of ’48, when rapid snowmelt due to high temperatures in late May and early June caused severe flooding not only in BC but in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and beyond as well. By June 2 there were 9,000 people in BC homeless as a result of flooding, and 4,000 Canadian soldiers were employed in rescue operations.

Here in the Northwest, Terrace was completely cut off from the outside world when the railroad and highway washed out in numerous places. The tracks were out for two weeks between Smithers and Houston, and no trains travelled between Hazelton and Prince Rupert from May 22 until June 23.

On May 27, communications were cut between Rupert, Terrace and the interior. That same day, the Skeena reached a higher level than during the “big flood” of 1936. Canadian Pacific Air Lines set up an emergency air service between Rupert and Smithers, using amphibious aircraft.

Many people were evacuated, or moved to higher ground, throughout the Northwest, notably in Terrace, Usk, Glen Vowell, Kispiox, and Telkwa. The highway just west of Telkwa was flooded for five weeks.

Despite the damage, and a few deaths, BC fared far better than the northwest US where 10,000 homes were swept away and50,000 people left homeless, with 41 known dead and at least 28 missing.

One positive result from this flood: the income tax deadline was extended from May 31 to June 30.

Ice-jam flood takes out Bulkley bridge

It was April 8, 1966—Good Friday—and Maggie Priest was heading into Smithers with her husband and children. They were partway across the old Bulkley River bridge when they came to a halt behind another car. “The driver of the other vehicle was waving his arms and yelling ‘Go back! Go back! The bridge is going to go!’” Maggie recounts.

“We backed off the bridge, and the other fellow too, and then we stood and watched as the bridge broke up and floated away.”

This flooding was not caused by unusually high water, but by an ice jam that formed from large chunks of breakup ice washing down the river. Some ice chunks were10 ft (three metres) square, and four feet thick. The ice piled up nearly 15 feet (five metres) above the river level, backing up the water behind it and flooding the fields on either side. Finally, the pressure broke the bridge apart.

“I’ll never forget that noise,” Maggie recalls. “The crunching and grinding of those huge chunks of ice as they were pushed together—and then the groaning and cracking and screeching of the wood and metal as the bridge finally broke apart.”

“I’m sure glad we got off of there in time!”

It was nearly two weeks before a temporary bridge could be erected. In the meantime, residents of Telkwa and the east side of the valley were cut off from Smithers. Some were carried back and forth by helicopter, which was provided without charge. Others drove the 40 kilometres along the winding, gravel Telkwa High-road to cross at the bridge in Moricetown, then back up the highway to Smithers—a long trip!

Meanwhile, the ice jam had not gone away, and was still wreaking havoc in low-lying areas. The town’s sewage system was one of the casualties. On April 10, in an effort to break up the pack, engineers set off dynamite in the ice—which only resulted in damaging the water-pumping station, leaving the town now without water.

Over the next two days, the Highways Department exploded several hundred pounds of dynamite in the ice, clearing three quarters of the jam. However, not far downstream, nearly a kilometre of ice became stuck and caused more flooding, forcing work on the ailing pumpsite to be discontinued.

Finally, on April 13, about 3,650 kg (8,000 pounds) of dynamite were set in the ice by helicopter, and the jam finally cleared.

The present Bulkley bridge was built in a new location, on the south end of Smithers, in the early ’70s. According to the Highways Department’s Rob Blackburn, it was built to a 100-year flood standard—but bridges nowadays are built to a 200-year standard.

Except for personal communications with Don Goalder, Maggie Priest and Amy Copland, all information above comes from the book Rainstorm and Flood Damage: Northwest British Columbia 18891-1991, by D. Septer and J.W.Schwab, published by the BC Ministry of Forests Research Program.