COLUMBIA FALLS – On Thursday afternoon, the Flathead River through Columbia Falls didn’t look that dangerous. Sure, it was a little high and a little muddy – normal for this time of year. But 48 years ago this month, there was no such thing as “normal.”
On June 7 and 8, 1964, 10 to 14 inches of rain fell over the Continental Divide. That rain, combined with melting snow, resulted in the largest flood to hit the Flathead Valley in nearly a century. On June 9, the Flathead River through Columbia Falls hit 25.58 feet; normal flood conditions are between 12 and 14 feet. That flood was commemorated on Thursday, when the National Weather Service and the United States Geological Survey erected a sign to note the high-water mark of that event at the end of South Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls.
“It was an extreme flood that came through here,” NOAA Hydrologist Ray Nickless said during the short riverside ceremony.
Nickless said the National Weather Service and USGS have been placing signs around the country to note high-water marks as a way to inform the public of how dangerous and destructive a river can be. He said the 1964 flood was known as a “500-year event,” although some say it was even more rare than that. For a flood to be a 500-year event, water must flow at 97,800 cubic feet per second. During the 1964 flood, water in the Flathead flowed at nearly twice that rate.
Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart was in fifth grade at the time and said he vividly remembers the flood. His father was a firefighter then and at one point a house surrounded by water was engulfed in flames. The Columbia Falls Fire Department gathered up boats and doused the blaze from the water.
Even 48 years later, Barnhart said you could still vaguely see the high-water mark on some buildings in town.
“Luckily we didn’t lose a lot of lives, but a lot of people lost homes,” he said.
Shirley Folkwein and her sister Luci Yeats grew up in Columbia Falls and also recall the flood. Folkwein said it was shocking how little warning people had. In fact, Yeats was leaving for summer camp the day before the flood hit and said she doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary about the river.
Her grandmother’s farm was less than a mile from where she grew up along the river, Folkwein said. When the water came up, it flooded the pastures and some calves were marooned on a small knoll. Her father left his night shift at the lumber mill early and forced the cattle to swim to higher ground.
“We’d never seen anything like it in our lifetime,” Yeats said.
The sign put up at the end of Nucleus Avenue stands high above a nearby walking path. Nickless said the marker will help inform the public about what happened here in the past and what could happen in the future.
“Flooding can happen any year and it doesn’t have to get this high to do some big damage,” he said, pointing to the marker.
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