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Christmas 1964 brings a flood of memories

-  Troutdale's Otto family tells their harrowing story of surviving the Sandy River's fury 50 years ago


Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Glenn and Helen Otto bought their home on the Sandy River in 1951. After the Christmas Flood of 1964, the residence was nearly surrounded by water and high and soggy, Glenn said.

Winter break in December 1964 brought the promise of a white Christmas after exceptionally cold weather dropped a hefty blanket of snow across the region.

But just as residents began to clear walkways and driveways for the arrival of holiday guests, the temperature rose sharply and a monsoon developed.

Government Camp recorded a high temperature of 14 below zero on Dec. 17, but by Dec. 23, the mercury had risen to 50 degrees. It’s estimated that nearly 16.5 inches of rain fell between Dec. 21 and 26, rapidly melting snow and pouring a torrent of water into the Sandy River.

By the time the Christmas Flood of 1964 receded, 750 homes between Hoodland (on the western flank of Mount Hood) and Troutdale were damaged or destroyed.

Two people were confirmed dead, and residents of several mountain communities were stranded when local bridge accesses washed out. The entire state was declared a disaster area.

It was a memorable Christmas to be sure, but not one of the Norman Rockwell variety.

Len Otto grew up in a white, two-story house on the bank of the Sandy River just west of the Troutdale Bridge. A noted local historian and author, Len and his four siblings recalled their narrow escape from raging flood waters and credit their mom with saving their home and the Troutdale Bridge.

Glenn and Helen Otto purchased their riverfront home in 1951. Why the couple set up housekeeping where they did was always a mystery, Len said, given his mother’s paralyzing fear of the water.

“She survived the Vanport Flood of 1948 with nothing but the clothes on her back,” Len said. “Her home, her belongings and her schoolwork were destroyed. Needless to say, she did not like high water, nor even rivers.”

Rising waters spurred action

As dawn broke on the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 22, Helen Otto must have had a foreboding sense of deja vu. The river had reached what Len referred to as “freshet stage,” swollen and off-color from runoff, but not yet to the level of concern.

Still, it was running high and fast, as Len discovered when he took the daily river reading for the National Weather Service.

“In the early 1960s, a guy came to the front door and told my mom they wanted to install a river gauge on the bridge,” Len said. “He convinced her that it would be a fun and educational experience for her kids to be part of the science of the National Weather Service by taking daily river readings.

“Each day, one of us would go out, read the gauge and record the river level. Then once a month, we’d send a copy of the readings to the Weather Service. That morning, I took a river reading as usual, but an hour later, when I took another reading, the river was coming up fast.”

By mid-afternoon, the river had become a violent, chocolate-colored deluge. The volume of water and its fast current pushed Helen Otto into action. Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: TROY WAYRYNEN - Len Otto stands on the Historic Columbia River Highway, near the spot where the road over Beaver Creek collapsed during the Christmas Flood of 1964. Otto and his four siblings grew up in the white house on the left.

Joann, the eldest of Glenn and Helen’s children, remembers her mother’s frantic efforts to save her household from the rapidly rising water.

“Mom had been working all day moving items upstairs from the basement,” she said. “This included jars and jars of fruit that she had labored to can. She was exhausted. I do not recall precisely, but I suspect that we were quickly put to work helping Mom move things and packing for moving out.”

Throughout the day, Helen also had been on the phone — a lot, according to Neal Otto, who was little more than 3 years old at the time. Not only was she relaying data from the river gauge to the Weather Service, she also was in contact with Multnomah County, which owned the Troutdale Bridge at the time.

“I remember the nervous, somewhat frantic energy of her voice,” Len said. “She was trying to communicate the urgency, the danger of the bridge getting swept downriver — and not so incidentally our home, though I doubt she told them that. There’s no question in my mind that she laid out what was happening point-by-point.”

Structures ride the raging waters

Shortly after Helen’s conversation with the county, trucks began arriving, dumping load after load of basalt boulders into the river to protect the bridge’s abutment. While the fortification effort did push the raging water away from the bridge’s foundation, it couldn’t stem the tide of debris that raced by the Ottos’ home.

As Len and his siblings watched, uprooted trees with their root balls still intact resembled massive projectiles as they barreled downriver, slamming into the bridge or barely squeezing underneath. But when trees and debris gave way to buildings, even the Otto children realized the serene Sandy River was in full-on fury.

Lester and Eleanor Clark lived upriver from the Ottos. As the river widened its path, it took with it the ground below the couple’s home.

“We saw the Clarks’ house float by, and I remember Mom screaming in horror,” Joann said. “I suspect she also feared for us and the possibility of losing everything to yet another flood.”

Across the street from the Otto home was a 6-acre chunk of property belonging to the Willamette Valley Advent Christian Conference church camp (now Glenn Otto Community Park). Len recalls watching the enormous cookhouse structure hang precariously over the eroding riverbank before slowly slipping into the churning waters.

“I think that it was at this point that it finally entered my thick skull that we had a problem,” he said.

Friends help family evacuate

Sometime during the day, Helen, the Otto siblings suspect, had secured the family’s three flat-bottomed boats used during the summer months.

Helen had righted the boats, which were resting upside down on the boat ramp behind the house, then strung them together and tethered them to a nearby oak tree. Glenn returned home earlier than usual, “sensing urgency,” according to Len, and proceeded to further secure the boats, especially now that the river had risen and the boats were floating.

“I remember dad pulling with all his might on those boats, which were being tugged equally hard in the opposite direction by the current,” Len said. “Mom wanted to save her canning — Dad wanted to save the damn boats.”

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF TROUTDALE HISTORICAL SOCIETY  - Looking east toward the Troutdale Bridge, this photo shows the section of road that collapsed after Beaver Creek eroded the asphalt underneath and caused a gas line to explode. The Otto home is on the left. With the help of family friends, Carl and Lorraine Klingner, the Otto family split up between two cars to evacuate. The plan was to meet up the street at Troutdale City Hall. Lorraine bundled Joann, Ken and Len into her car, as Helen, Glenn, daughter Mary and son Neal, along with Carl Klingner, gathered a few remaining items before leaving the house.

“We were hurrying because we had been told that the Beaver Creek Bridge and the road around it were in danger of being washed away,” Joann said. “It was our only way out.”

Mary Otto remembers her second-grade class had just exchanged Christmas gifts before school was dismissed for vacation. In the frenzied hurry to evacuate, she forgot to grab her “crafty thing with yarn.”

“As we were in the car driving away from the house, crossing Beaver Creek, I remembered I had forgotten my gift,” Mary said. “I’m certain I was teary. We turned around and Mom ran into the house to grab it for me, which was a deal because the bridge over the creek was vulnerable.”

Gas line explodes

Lorraine Klingner remained “warm, friendly and comforting” to her charges while waiting for the second car carrying her husband and the rest of the Otto family to appear.

The 10- or 15-minute wait, Len said, was “torture for us as kids” and even more so when the gas line under the Beaver Creek Bridge exploded when the road collapsed.

“The road had already washed out (under the bridge) and a few thin plies of asphalt were all that separated the five of them from being carried away by the water,” Len said. “I, for one, am glad I didn’t lose the major part of my family that night.”

The Ottos spent Christmas with family and staying with friends. Len recalls seeing his home from higher ground between the trees overlooking the Sandy River a couple days later, calling it an “island in the still raging river.” Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF TROUTDALE HISTORICAL SOCIETY  - A view of the gigantic gap in the historic highway looking west from the Troutdale Bridge. The Sandy River and Beaver Creek were one stream at that point, following the roads collapse, Otto said.

In 1984, on the 20th anniversary of the Christmas Flood, Glenn Otto told The Outlook, “The flood washed out the power, telephone, gas and water lines. We were forced out. We have two and one-half acres of land, and only one quarter-acre of it where the house sat was above water. It wasn’t high and dry, exactly, more high and soggy.”

But the Sandy River wasn’t quite done with its tantrum.

In mid-January 1965, the river flooded again. It finished off a few of the damaged homes it missed the first time and added a few more to the list. While the river wasn’t running as high as it had been during the Christmas go-around, folks were still spooked and hadn’t yet fully repaired their homes. More than 300 people evacuated during the “second coming of high water.”

In 1979, Helen was finally able to move far from the edge of any body of water, when she and Glenn built a home in Wood Village.

After decades of service in local and state politics, Glenn died in 1994. Helen died in 2009.

Len can’t remember his mother ever dipping her toes in the river, much less owning a bathing suit. She made sure her children learned to swim, but the river remained a personal demon.

“As we got older, one of the common things Mom always said was, ‘I’m a nervous wreck,’” Len said. “Everything about that river made her nervous. Nature took over in the winter and then there were the drownings in the summer. It took Mom 28 years to get Dad to agree to get the hell out of there, but it’s still a mystery why they lived there as long as they did.”

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