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Recalling the day of the big blow


Columbus Day storm of 1962 stirs clear memories for Outlook readers

by: OUTLOOK ARCHIVE PHOTO - Hurricane force winds from the Columbus Day Storm  in 1962 destroyed 11 airplanes and three buildings at the Troutdale Airport. For nearly six hours on Friday, Oct. 12, 1962, Mother Nature held a raging temper tantrum on the West Coast. Her fury unleashed hurricane-force winds, leveled forests, left millions in the dark and killed 46 people.

But in the light of day on Saturday, local folks emerged to assess the damage the old girl caused. The roof on the barn at Wallace Aschoff’s Wakena Farm in Boring collapsed, killing 25 of his 45 Guernsey cows. Eleven airplanes and three buildings at the Troutdale airport were demolished, and the screen at the former Division Street Drive-In toppled in the wind.

Columbus Day 1962 might have started out as a typical fall day, but by early evening, it had become a moment in time The Outlook’s readers still remember with clarity.

* * *

Friday was a big day for 17-year-old Kathy Robbins. The Gresham High School senior had been named to the homecoming court, and during an assembly that day, a queen would be crowned.

Robbins — now Kathy Edwards — even had her outfit planned for the traditional court parade at halftime of that evening’s homecoming game. Babysitting earnings had afforded her purchase of a new skirt, but the matching sweater was still on layaway at Gordon Stone’s in downtown Gresham.

A storm appeared to be brewing, but it didn’t dampen her excitement. She arrived home that afternoon, bejeweled as Gresham’s homecoming queen and waited for her father so she could pick up the rest of her regal attire.

“When I got home from school, the wind was barely blowing,” Edwards said. “By the time my dad got home, it was really blowing. And that was in just a couple hours. We went to get my sweater, and I remember asking my dad, ‘Do you think we’ll have a game tonight?’ He said, ‘You’ll be lucky to have a school left.’”

Edwards figures it was probably between 6 and 6:30 p.m. when the family sat down to dinner. But when her uncle arrived, opened the front door and the kitchen window exploded, Edwards knew there probably wouldn’t be a homecoming game or parade.

“We were sitting around the kitchen table eating dinner,” she said. “When the window blew out, Dad said, ‘That’s it. Grab your plates. We’re going to the basement.’”

Edwards recalls sitting on the basement stairs wearing her homecoming tiara, reading stories to her younger sisters, ages 7 and 9, “so they wouldn’t be afraid.” She also remembers her older brother, a member of the Oregon National Guard, left during the height of the storm after his unit was activated.

“We were in the basement for three or four hours at least,” she said. “Until the gusts died down. But it was like being in a tunnel. You could hear all this noise outside.”

* * *

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Longtime Gresham resident George Miller was an employee at the Weather Bureau near Portland International Airport the day of the storm. At 3 p.m. Friday, George Miller reported to his job as a weather “observer and briefer” at the Weather Bureau building near Portland International Airport.

The morning had been cloudy and somewhat damp, but by the time Miller got to work, the rain had stopped and a brisk east wind had picked up.

“I took the observations between 3 and 4 p.m.,” he said. “The eastern sky was sort of a greenish-blue, which sometimes indicated a storm was coming, but it didn’t dawn on me that it was anything out of the ordinary.”

Miller and his co-worker Mary Bates, who checked in at 4 p.m., went about their business of collecting up-to-date weather data. Temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure equipment was all located in an “instrument house” outside the building, Miller said, but most of their observations were made by looking out the window.

“Weather forecasting was only a weak shell of what it is today,” Miller said. “No satellites or radar to give a picture of the storm. TIROS 1, the first weather satellite, had just been launched and was tumbling in orbit. The only way it could take a picture was if it was facing down.”

Instead, Miller said, forecasters were reliant on two weather ships — one in the Gulf of Alaska and one between the West Coast and Hawaii — for news of impending weather. The ships’ instruments were no different than what Miller and Bates utilized locally, but weather ship observers reported their findings to stations in San Francisco, which then relayed information up and down the West Coast. It was a cumbersome and slow process along the information highway.

“There was a warning for the storm, but far below what was needed,” Miller said. “It was obvious something was happening when the wind direction changed abruptly somewhere between 5 and 5:30 p.m. And it was very abrupt, changing from east/southeast to south/southwest.”

Hurricane-force winds knocked out power to the majority of the region by early evening. Anemometers anchored near the Portland airport’s runways and on TV towers in the West Hills were rendered useless without power, forcing Miller and Bates outside into the elements to continue monitoring weather conditions.

“Once the power went out, we had to estimate the wind speed,” Miller explained. “Mary worked for years at Crown Point, so she had a good idea on how to estimate wind speed. It lasted about six hours, before the gusts died down. That was a brick building, but we could feel it shaking and hear debris flying around.”

* * *

Gresham resident Gwenda McCall remembers the day as a challenge — riding straw boss on a sibling during unusual circumstances.

“During the (Columbus Day storm), my younger brother attached a sail to his go-cart and enjoyed sailing down our street, steering to avoid flying roof shingles. Needless to say, if our mother had been at home and not at work in downtown Portland, she would have curtailed his fun.”

* * *

Bob Whipps served as a UPS driver in Troutdale for many years and knows something about keeping his appointed rounds. On Oct. 12, 1962, his birthday, Whipps was in a hurry to complete his afternoon delivery of the Oregonian newspaper so he could attend the evening’s football game. Whipps was hoping for bragging rights when his David Douglas Scots beat rival Clackamas High School, where Whipps’ cousin was a student.

“The wind picked up as I was doing my route, and I did not have to pedal all the way home on Southeast 130th, just north of Division. I was thinking this is pretty cool, I am getting done in a hurry and I won’t even be tired. The power went out just as Mom was finished preparing dinner. I wanted everyone to hurry so I could go to the game. During dinner, a big branch from a fir tree hit our picture window. It did not break it, but it did get all of our attention.”

* * *

Joy Beldin, who lives in East County, was pregnant with her son Jeff and found herself stranded at the Troutdale General Store when the storm got serious. The day turned out to have a silver lining, however, as Beldin’s husband had just begun a new job.

“It was dark and ominous-looking outside, as though something was about to happen. As the wind picked up, we hunkered down behind the meat case and watched the wild weather outside the front windows. Signs were blowing off poles and buildings, trees fell and anything loose flew every which way. It was quite exciting, though, knowing we were safely tucked away. It was also a new start for our blooming family, as my husband had been out of work and began a new job working on the KGW tower that blew over in the storm.”

* * *

Wood Village resident Eileen Fligg was a seventh-grader, just leaving school when the storm hit Albany. While blowing trees and flying debris was “cool” at first, Fligg realized the severity of the situation once she arrived at home.

“When I got there, my mother was dealing with a window that had been broken in my brother’s bedroom. Also a piece of glass had stabbed my sister in the foot. Mom got her fixed up, the window boarded up, and we waited for Dad to get home. I remember I had to sleep with my sister that night because I was scared. The saddest thing to me was that my grandparents’ barn was flattened. We had spent many hours playing in the hayloft.”

* * *

Donna Davis lived in a heavily treed neighborhood in Southeast Portland with her husband and 2-year-old. Now a Troutdale resident, Davis had no idea that the unusually low barometer reading her neighbor spoke of earlier in the day was an ominous warning.

“Within about the first 10 or 15 minutes of the hurricane-like wind, seven of our neighbor’s large fir trees came down, taking out the power pole on our street. One of the trees tore the gutter off the end of our house, another tree lit across our roof, cracking the chimney, but by some miracle didn’t pierce the roof. We were without power for a week — we had to rent a frozen food locker at the local store to save all the “stuff” from our freezer.”

* * *

Chuck Bolsinger of Boring moved to Portland from Colorado with his new bride in early September 1962. He recalls thinking, “They never told me the wind blew like this here.”

“Walking home from my workplace near Lloyd Center on that fateful day, I was crossing the bridge over I-84 near Benson High School when a sudden gust of wind nearly sent me airborne. Trees were whipping back and forth, and wires overhead were dancing like crazy. The entrance to the house our apartment was in was partially blocked by downed trees, and broken wires were whipping around, sparks flying. I went around to the back and climbed the outside stairs. The door was locked, and I pounded and yelled, and finally my wife heard me and let me in. For what seemed like many hours, we just sat there as the house shuddered, listening to the roaring and moaning of the wind and things banging and crashing and thudding.”

* * *

Troutdale resident Donnie Endicott was 12 years old and keeping an eye on her 8-year-old brother while their parents went grocery shopping. The pair was working on a jigsaw puzzle when the picture window in their home on the bluff overlooking the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., started to bow. They sought refuge with a neighbor across the street after windows began to explode. On Saturday, brother and sister spent the day in Portland with an uncle and aunt while mom and dad repaired the house.

“(My brother) found some kids to play with in the neighborhood. He got involved in a war throwing loose roof shingles until one of the other kids got him right above the eye with one. He came into the kitchen with his head bleeding pretty good and asked my aunt for a band-aid. Aunt Joyce was in the process of dying her hair blonde and had just applied a serious amount of peroxide on her head. She took one look at my brother’s bleeding eye, threw a towel over her un-rinsed head and hauled him off to the nearest emergency room. An hour and a half and five stitches later, they got back to her house and she removed the towel from her head — and most of her hair. The shrieking seemed to last for an eternity. It took a few months before she would speak to my brother again.”

(Editor’s note: Donnie Endicott is the sister-in-law of Outlook reporter, Anne Endicott)

* * *

Gresham resident Neil Horton was a long-haul truck driver between Portland and Seattle. He was in North Portland loading his truck when the storm arrived and unable to get home because the bridges had been closed. He hunkered down at a nearby bar and grill, dining on candle-warmed stew and playing pool until the next morning. He made it home, collected some belongings and left for the coast to go deer hunting.

“I was low on gas but finally found a station open in Beaverton. They had a hand pump down in the tanks to get gas, and it took an hour to pump 17 gallons of fuel. We took turns pumping gas. It took three hours to get to Oney’s on Highway 26, where our camp was. Sunday, I got a bear and headed home.”

* * *

Sandy resident Ginita Stinebaugh was 11 years old, living in a “tiny house up from the cutoff from Troutdale Road to Springdale.” When the wind picked up, the back door blew open and the family’s beagle, Gomer Pyle, ran out. Stinebaugh’s father loaded his wife and daughter into the family station wagon and drove to a relative’s house in Troutdale to ride out the storm.

“On the way down there, we were dodging trees that were falling into the road. It was so scary. After getting us settled where we were safe, Dad took off back up to the house to find our beloved dog. Hours passed. No dad. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, there was a knock on the door. There stood Dad with Gomer Pyle in his arms. They both had cuts and scratches from blackberry bushes. That’s a man who puts it all on the line to take care of his family!”

* * *

Edwards and Miller still hold reminders of that unprecedented day.

Miller, a longtime Gresham resident, retired from the weather service in 1994 and maintains a file with copies of his handwritten Columbus Day weather logs. He went on to become an accomplished historian and author and frequently speaks at gatherings of weather folks and historical societies.

The house in which Edwards rode out the storm still stands on Southeast Stark Street and remains in the family.

She did finally ride on the back of a convertible in a homecoming parade. In 2005, to commemorate Gresham High School’s 100th birthday, organizers asked past homecoming queens to be part of the Teddy Bear Parade. Edwards was accompanied by her longtime friend Jack Valberg, a former football player for GHS and the one responsible for Edwards’ nomination to the homecoming court in 1962. Valberg died in 2006. For Edwards, it was a sweet reminder of a lesson learned 50 years ago.

“It was so important for me to be homecoming queen, but something like that storm is a wake-up call,” she said. “You realize what’s important — family, friends and home.”