Sixty years ago this month, the Kaweah River flood of 1955 tore through Three Rivers in the middle of the night, wiping out bridges, homes and buildings.
The waters rushed down the canyons after midnight on Dec. 23.
Remarkably, no one was killed. But those who lived through it warn newcomers to be vigilant.
“If and when that high water comes, you get the hell outta Dodge,” said Schatzi Lovett, 88. “You can replace what you lose, except for a life.”
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Lovett was one of four people who shared their flood stories at a Three Rivers Historical Society meeting two weekends ago.
Vern Dixon said he could hear boulders crashing in the river as floodwaters knocked them around.
I shined the flashlight out the window and the water was right there.
Vern Dixon, Three Rivers
“It just makes a noise that I’ve never heard,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Dixon owned Dixon’s Market store along the middle fork of the Kaweah River, where he and his wife lived with their new child, Randy.
“Something woke me up,” he said. “I reached over to turn the lamp on – there was no electricity. I managed to find a flashlight – my bedroom window was on the river side – and I shined the flashlight out the window and the water was right there. So I woke my wife and said, get out of bed, get dressed and get Randy, and we’ve got to get out of there.”
They drove to his folks’ home, where another couple had found refuge after losing their home in the flood.
“The house was on fire when it went down the river,” Dixon said.
John Austin of Three Rivers, author of Floods and Droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin, said it was an 85-year-flood (meaning there’s only a 1.2 percent chance of a flood that size during the year.)
“This was a big flood. It’s one of the four biggest floods of historic times,” he said. But bigger floods have occurred on the Kaweah and could occur again.
1861, 1867, 1937, 1950, 1955, 1966, 1969, 1997Years of notable floods of the Kaweah River
In the 1860s, there were two very large floods on the Kaweah – both bigger than a 100-year flood – so Three Rivers remains at risk of devastation, because there are no dams or levees upriver to protect it.
Earl McKee was working as a cowboy at the time.
“It rained 8 1/2 inches in 18 hours,” he said. “I don’t think I ever saw that much rainfall in that short a time in my life.”
Two days later, he went to feed cattle in Greasy Cove but didn’t make it. As he tried to cross Dry Creek on his horse, the water swept the horse downstream and McKee off.
“I grabbed his tail” and made it to safety, he said. The danger wasn’t over. McKee said he had to go back into the river to uncinch the saddle to save the horse from drowning.
McKee said a friend lost a Visalia saddle downstream when the Kaweah flooded his saddle room.
The Visalia saddle is a legendary brand dating to the 1800s in Visalia and later San Francisco.
McKee went looking for the lost saddle.
“I saw something shiny in the sand,” he said. “By golly, it was a stirrup, and buried in that sand was his Visalia saddle. I dug it out, and that thing must have weighed 150 pounds … It dried out and he rode it the rest of his life.”