Sierra history: The Gold Rush Flood of 1850 |

Sierra history: The Gold Rush Flood of 1850

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Flood waters that inundated Sacramento in January 1850 led to a levee system.
Courtesy California State Library |

Editors Note

This is the first in a two-part series. Look in the future to for Part 2.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — The first big wave of Gold Rush Argonauts reached California via ship or overland trails in 1849. It was an epic human event that captured the imagination of millions and generated newspaper headlines around the world.

Between 1848 and 1854, more than 300,000 people arrived in California, most of them male. The diggings were soon filled with multi-ethnic foreign nationals, many speaking in their native tongue.

Occasionally, miners had communication issues on the job, but most of the time the men got along.

California’s early mining frontier was unlike anywhere else in the world by 1850. The Gold Rush is a remarkable, iconic period in American history and the massive number of immigrants who arrived helped set the stage for the rich cultural diversity of the Golden State.

Of course getting rich quick was first on everyone’s mind in late 1849, but the very wet winter of 1850 would test the mettle of all the recently arrived newcomers struggling to eke it out in northern California.

People complained that it was an unusual season with incessant rain and very few of the extended periods of pleasant dry weather that publications advertised as the state’s normal winter climate.

When powerful Pacific storms in November washed out extensive networks of expensive water flumes needed for gold panning on the Sierra west slope it caused an economic disaster for many newly formed mining companies.

Thousands of men now had no work and many left to spend the winter holed up in San Francisco. It also proved once and for all that California’s well deserved reputation for a mild, benevolent climate also has a violent dark side that rears its head on occasion.


After 165 years, the winter of 1850 still ranks as the 15th wettest in San Francisco since 1849 with a total 33.10 inches of rain.

After an unusually wet October in San Francisco, another 8.66 inches of rain soaked the city in November 1849, third wettest on record.

One severe storm before Thanksgiving blew down a Presbyterian church on Stockton Street and heavily damaged sailing ships at anchor in San Francisco Bay.

December continued the intense streak of storms. Three days before Christmas an “extraordinarily severe gale accompanied by lightning, thunder, hail, and rain” blasted the Bay Area for 48 hours, causing considerable losses to shipping.

In Sacramento, recently arrived physician Dr. Henry Gibbons had a precipitation gauge with which he measured a colossal 12.50 inches of rain in December — and then another 4.50 inches in the first week of January 1850.

That’s nearly as much as the region gets in an average winter. When the inevitable flood hit, it was considered “the greatest in the Sacramento Valley since its settlement by whites.”

At least it was the first to be accurately documented. Valley Indians often spoke of a “Great Flood” in 1805, but details were lacking other than that many of them lost their lives in the event.

Dr. Gibbons observed the water’s rapid rise in Sacramento on Jan. 9 as muddy torrents began rushing into the city’s main streets.

An embarcadero had been built near the Sacramento River to handle cargo and gold rush passengers from San Francisco.

By the following morning, flood waters in Sacramento extended a mile inland past the wharf.

It would take another 10 days for the water to recede until parts of the embarcadero and the city’s main streets were dry land again.


Another eyewitness account in the Sacramento Valley described huge expanses of ranch and crop land under water and hundreds of cattle, hogs and mules drowned, swept away as they tried to reach higher ground.

No levees had yet been built around Sacramento City and the town was virtually submerged. The water was so deep that a small steamboat used the town’s main streets to complete its deliveries.

A vast amount of property was destroyed and many of the town’s lighter buildings washed away. This flood was the first of several in the early 1850s that quickly led to the development of an extensive channel and levee system to protect the city of Sacramento and surrounding lands.

Preliminary work on the levees in the weeks after the January flood proved critical when more storms in March and April dumped another 14.25 inches of rain on the region, that combined with a rapidly melting spring snowpack.

In March, waters rose “within a foot of the great inundation” in January, but losses were substantially less as levees now protected the main commercial district.

In fact, the man who preached the idea of building additional levees after the earlier flood was elected mayor of Sacramento on April 1, 1850.

The floods of the early 1850s led to the elimination of hydraulic mining since the eroded sediments filled stream and river channels which exacerbated high water problems in communities downstream.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out Marks blog:

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.