According to the National Weather Service, the floods of 1955 and 1964 were the largest ever along the Russian River. The ’55 flood crested at 49.7 feet while the ’64 deluge peaked at 49.6 with the 1986 flood seeing the river rise to 48.56. The torrents in the fifties and sixties both occurred during the Christmas holidays.
In 1955 two Pineapple Expresses arrived just four days apart, inundating Guerneville. The aerial view in the top photo is typical of major floods. It is difficult for the human eye to distinguish between the Russian River, Main Street, and Armstrong Valley. Locals recall Santa Claus visiting hungry families at the Hilton Park Family Campground (River Bend Park) in Forestville, hauling in dinner on a National Guard amphibian.
The Christmas flood of 1964 was a major catastrophe in California. Governor Pat Brown was quoted as saying that a flood of similar proportions could “happen only once in a thousand years,” and it was often referred to later as the Thousand Year Flood. Nineteen people died, at least 10 towns (including Guerneville) were heavily damaged, more than 20 major highways were destroyed, and over 4,000 head of livestock were killed. Yosemite Valley was flooded (lower photo), and residents of Yuba City were evacuated. The uncompleted Hell Hole Dam on the Rubicon River failed, sending even more water downstream. In total, 375,000 acres of the Central Valley went under water. Many homes, including the famous Windmill House in low-lying Villa Grande near Monte Rio, received ten inches of water in the living space. Back then there was no such thing as the National Flood Insurance Program, which Sonoma County joined in the 1970s.