Views of Sacramento City during the great flood
March 1, 2024

The Great Flood of 1862

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, South American fishermen first noticed periods of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s. They referred to this condition as El Niño de Navidad, as El Niño typically peaks around December and can greatly impact the severity of winter storm conditions. Today, Californians have become accustomed to the ritual of forecasting winter storms and the conditions they bring. Some eagerly await the opportunity to surf waves created by the swells, while others prepare for the potential devastation of heavy rainfall. However, it is important to note that while El Niño may contribute to winter storms, it is not solely responsible for all of them. Additionally, the latest winter storm which prompts a state of emergency proclamation, is not necessarily the worst. As winter storms continue to impact our state, it is crucial to remember the story of the Great Flood of 1862, which is the most destructive flood in California’s history to date.

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The Great Flood of 1862

Men standing on wood in flooded area, 1862
Lawrence and Houseworth Photograph Collection, California Historical Society


Among California’s most notorious weather events was the “Great Flood” of 1861–62, then the largest in the recorded history of the West and, as the New York Times reported, the “most disastrous flood that has occurred since its settlement by white men.” Although it did not occur in an El Nino year, a perfect storm of conditions conspired to create . . . the perfect storm.

The flood affected not only California, but the Pacific Northwest, Nevada, Utah, and states in the Southwest as well. It all began in December of 1861, when San Francisco received 10 inches of rain, followed by a whopping 24 inches in January.

In Southern California in February, the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers became one, covering the approximately 18-mile area from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach. In both Oregon and California early heavy snows in November were followed by warm rains in December and January, which melted snow in the Sierra and Cascades, and in Oregon resulted in flood waters that extended south from the Columbia River to the California border.

As December progressed, the trough of rain, sometimes referred to as an “atmospheric river,” began to slide south, where it remained fixed in California for all of January, allowing, according to meteorologist Jan Null, “heavy rains to fall statewide just shy of the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights.” During this time Los Angeles received 35 inches of rain, while the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Sonora was pummeled by over 102 inches between December and January.


Inundation of the State Capitol, City of Sacramento, J Street from the Levee, 1862
San Francisco: A Rosenfield, publisher, 1882© California State Library, California History Room
In Sacramento, the heaviest rains were made worse by breaks in levees built to protect the city from floodwaters, causing the Sacramento River to reach a flood stage of 24 feet. During the flood, the California Supreme Court moved operations to San Francisco—where it remains today—and newly-elected governor Leland Stanford had to travel to his inauguration ceremony in a rowboat.

Finding fodder for inspired sermons amidst such conditions, the noted Unitarian minister from San Francisco, Thomas Starr King, wrote to a friend in Sacramento in December 1861: “My dear Haven, I suppose you are up to your waist in water and work, and are as happy as a clam, now that you are surrounded with misery and some means of relieving it.” He continued, “Last evening I preached on the disaster . . . [from David] ‘The floods, O Lord, the floods have lifted up this voice.’”

William Brewer, a geologist visiting California from Yale University, wrote that “The great Central Valley of the state is under water,” and John Carr, a passenger on a steamer between Sacramento and Red Bluff wrote, “The boat had to stop several times and take men out of the tops of trees and off the roofs of houses. In our trip up the river we met property of every description floating down—dead horses and cattle, sheep, hogs, houses, haystacks, household furniture, and everything imaginable was on its way for the ocean.” It is estimated that approximately one quarter of the taxable real estate in California was destroyed by flood waters.

Max Zorer, California Flood Mazurka, date unknown
California Historical Society
After the flood, books and even songs were written in commemoration. To honor one of many organizations that helped feed and clothe people, the Howard Benevolent Society, Max Zorer composed the “California Flood Mazurka,” which featured Sacramento’s flooded J Street on its cover. And it’s thought that inspiration for the sad yet humorous song “Oh My Darling Clementine,” about a California Gold Rush forty-niner who loses his daughter to a flooded river, came from the 1863 piece titled, “Down by the River Lives a Maiden,” by H.S. Thompson.
El Nino for President Banner, Berkeley, 2015
Courtesy of Alison Moore
In more recent history, the development of surfing has made this kind of wild winter weather desirable. Especially with big wave surfing which involves experienced surfers paddling into or being towed into waves that are at least 20 feet (6.2 m) high.
Even as California surfers welcome the promise of massive swells that a strong El Niño brings, the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” comes to mind. The water story in the settled West has often been one of feast or famine: punishing drought followed by often damaging and deadly floods.

Should California’s next El Niño bring any miseries of the sort wrought by the waters of 1862, we can all take comfort in another of the works of sermonly inspiration used by Thomas Starr King in the winter of 1862, this one from the Book of Solomon:

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”


Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison
This post was originally titled “El Nino for President!” and published on February 23, 2016 and has since been updated