By Quinn Beblow and Hannah Link
The flood of May 1936 served as a unifying experience for the Terrace region that would be reminisced upon for decades to come. A number of environmental factors such as heavy snowfall, warm weather and rainfall contributed to extreme flooding of the Skeena River. The Omineca Herald Newspaper of June 3, 1936, reported that “All records for high water in the memory of man have been surpassed.”
The flood first began to have devastating effects in Usk. The waters around Usk get quite high every Spring, but on the morning of May 29th, 1936, as the water began to creep up over the riverbank, the people of Usk began to panic and left their homes for higher ground. Water soon flooded the floor of the post office and general store. As the water rose, it reached a height of five feet above the floor in the Usk church. Due to the funnelling effect of Kitselas Canyon, the once quiet river resembled a lake reaching a height of 10 feet. Hopes of Usk as a prosperous town were swiftly washed downriver.
As the flood continued south, waters rose in Terrace. Residents of the area remember rushing to the riverbank to watch as trees, livestock, and entire homes were carried by the powerful currents.
Fred Hampton described how he “…stood on the bank watching houses wash down.”
Mary Harris added that “all hell broke loose,” and Eva Haugland described seeing “… a hen coop going down the river, and a poor old rooster – he was on top and he crowed as he went by.” Emil Haugland recalled that “on one place there was a horse in the veranda, on a house coming down the river.”
The flood had a lasting impression. Elinor Spencer remembered being brought to the river by her grandfather to “see what was going on.” She recalled that “…there were chickens and there were pigs, and buildings! It’s something even at 8 years old you don’t forget.”
A fascinating story of an object that survived exists about the Usk Chappel. When an officer entered the chappel to assess the damage following the flood, he observed great destruction to the interior. The only item intact was the church’s bible, which was found sitting on a dirtied cloth, untouched by the flood waters. The bible, having been left on a wooden table, had floated during the flood, coming to rest in an upright position.
The Omineca Herald noted feelings of loss within the community due to the flood, declaring that “The country of the Skeena and its tributaries will never look the same again.” Rail lines were cut off for months, and though the paper reported no deaths occurred as a result of the event, the flood caused property damage. It also brought an end to the Remo Ferry, which sank in the violent and high waters.
The community came together to provide relief with many residents offering help in attempts of salvaging homes and buildings. Efforts were also made to provide food and supplies to those stranded by the high waters. Flossy Lambly recalled that “… the Fisheries officer then … told people they could give away salmon to people who needed food.” Will Christy remembered using his truck to “…move a lot of the people out from the low lying areas.”
The flood brought economic issues, food shortages and environmental changes. Emil Haugland explains some of the consequences brought on during and after the flood, saying “We had a lot of trouble getting supplies — they had to be flown in … things went up sky-high. I remember a can of tomato juice that we used to buy for 10 cents went up as high as 35 cents. You had to pay airfare.”
Changes in the environment and to buildings left lasting effects on the area. Will Christy recalled the physical mark that the flood left: “I would be eating dinner in the old hotel there in Usk and you could see the high water mark just below the ceiling.” This watermark served as a constant reminder of how monumental the flood had been in the lives of those who were around to experience it.
Usk would never fully recover from the event, as many felt that building new homes would not be worth the risk of another similar event occurring. Still, buildings were repaired and rebuilt and the community continued on. A replica of the Usk Chappel still exists today and serves as a symbol of the perseverance of this small yet resilient community.
— Quinn Beblow and Hannah Link are summer students at the Heritage Park Museum in Terrace