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Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 14681

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The "Web-foot State"-?Average rainfall in various parts-?The rainy days in 1879 and 1880-?Temperature-?Seasons-?Accounts and figures from three points-?Afternoon sea-breezes-?A "cold snap"-?Winter-? Floods-?Damage to the river-side country-?Rare thunder-?Rarer wind-storms-?The storm of January, 1880.

I should think that no State is so much scoffed at as Oregon on the score of wet weather. Our neighbors in California call us "Web-feet," and the State is called "The Web-foot State." Emigrants are warned not to come here unless they want to live like frogs, up to their necks in water, and much more to the like effect. And this question as to the quantity of rain is one always asked in the letters of inquiry we get here from all parts of the world. It is impossible to give a general answer, because the rainfall varies in the State from seventy-two inches at Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, to twelve inches on some of the elevated plains of extreme Eastern Oregon. Western Oregon also varies in its different parts; the rainfall of seventy-two inches at Astoria sinking by pretty regular stages southward to thirty-two inches at Jacksonville.

AVERAGE RAINFALL.The average rainfall for four years reported by the United States Signal-Service Station at Portland is 52-82/100 inches. At Eola near Salem the average of seven years is 371-98/100 inches. At Corvallis the average of the last three years, taken at the Agricultural College by Professor Hawthorne, is 31-62/100 inches; but this last low average is produced by the fact of the months of October and November, 1880, having been unusually dry. The average rainfall for October, in 1878 and 1879, was 2-86/100 inches, and for November 4-12/100 inches; while in 1880 the rainfall for those months was only 80/100 and 50/100 of an inch.

The result of the late setting in of the rains in the fall of 1880 was that the grass was very late in resuming its growth, and consequently feed for stock during the early part of the winter of 1880-'81 was very scanty. But, perhaps, it is better to give the number of snowy and rainy days annually occurring, as that is what at any rate the feminine part of the families of intending emigrants desire to know. During 1879, from May to December, there were at Corvallis thirty-five rainy days and five snowy. During 1880 there were sixty-nine rainy days and nine snowy. In these figures are taken in several days which were only showery at intervals, and there are omitted several days when a slight shower or two fell, with bright sun in between, but which it would not be fair to call rainy days. But the distribution of the rain is of more consequence, both to the farmer and to the mere resident, than the aggregate. So I will set out the rainy and snowy days for the several months, at Corvallis:

1879.-From May 17th to 31st, 5; June, 1; July, 2; August, 3; September, 4; October, 2; November, 7; December, 11, and 5 snowy.

1880.-January, 10, and 3 snowy; February, 5, and 2 snowy; March, 5, and 3 snowy; April, 10; May, 8; June, 2; July, 1; August, 2; September, 4; October, 5; November, 5; December, 12, and 1 snowy.

1881.-January, 9 rainy, and 2 snowy; February, 16, 1 snowy; March, 5 showery, no steady rain.

At Eola, near Salem, about forty miles north of this, the figures differ slightly, as will be seen from the following table. But this is an average of the seven years, from 1871 to 1878:

MONTHS. Number of

rainy days. Snowy days. Rainfall,

in inches.

January 14·6 1·8 5·1

February 14·4 ·6 5·7

March 17·4 ·6 6·1

April 11·5 ·28 3·1

May 9·5 0 2·0

June 5· 0 1·2

July 1·8 0 ·24

August 2·1 0 ·14

September 3·4 0 ·78

October 7·4 0 2·93

November 12·2 ·58 5·56

December 12·5 1 5·13

TEMPERATURE.The next question is as to temperature. The following figures speak for themselves-the highest and lowest temperature in each month, and the monthly range, reported by the United States Signal-Service Station, Portland, Oregon:

1874. 1875. 1876.

MONTHS. Highest Lowest Range Highest Lowest Range Highest Lowest Range

January 56° 26° 30° 53° 3° 50° 58° 20° 38°

February 60 31 29 54 24 30 59 32 27

March 65 33 32 55 34 21 59 33 26

April 77 37 40 83 28 55 67 33 34

May 83 43 40 75 40 35 82 36 46

June 82 45 37 82 39 43 99 45 54

July 88 49 39 95·5 46 49·5 90 49 41

August 84 46 38 88 46 42 84 43 51

September 88·5 42 46 86 44 42 90 44 46

October 77 32 45 78 36 42 79 42 37

November 63 27 36 63 28 35 63 34 29

December 57 31 26 63 33 30 56 24 32

For comparison's sake we give a similar table for 1878, 1879, and 1880, kept at the Corvallis Agricultural College:

1878. 1879. 1880.

MONTHS. Highest Lowest Range Highest Lowest Range Highest Lowest Range

January 55° 20° 35° 46° 20° 26° 50° 24° 26

February 60 34 26 52 25 27 44 25 19

March 67 32 35 66 32 34 54 24 30

April 71 31 40 67 32 35 76 29 47

May 80 34 46 72 36 36 72 32 40

June 92 42 50 73 42 31 85 40 45

July 79 53 26 90 45 45 81 42 39

August 81 52 29 83 43 40 84 38 42

September 73 38 35 84 42 42 80 38 42

October 61 32 29 64 28 36 68 28 40

November 55 30 25 55 18 37 56 12 44

December 54 19 35 56 8 48 56 20 36

The averages of temperature for the four seasons at these three points, Portland, Eola, and Corvallis, are as follows:

POINTS. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.

Portland 51·9° 65·3° 52·8° 40·1°

Eola 48·3 63·7 51·2 38·2

Corvallis 52 67 53 41

The difference between the extremes is therefore for Portland, 25·2°; for Eola, 25·5°; for Corvallis, 26°. Contrast this with similar figures from Davenport, in the State of Iowa. The winter mean there is 19·9°, the summer 75·2°; showing a difference of 55·3°.

At Corvallis, throughout the summer months and till late in the fall, a daily sea-breeze springs up from the west about one o'clock in the afternoon, and continues till night closes in, and then dies off gradually. However pleasant this is to the settler heated in the hay- or harvest-field, it brings its perils too. I give an earnest caution not to be betrayed into sitting down in the shade to cool down, with coat and vest off, while this sea-breeze fans a heated brow, or a sore attack of rheumatism or its near relative, neuralgia, will very likely make you rue the day. Rather put on your warm coat and button it close, and let the cooling process be a very gradual one. But if, by your own forgetfulness of simple precautions, you have taken cold, and rheumatism has you in its grip, do not turn round and abuse a climate which is one of the most delightful in the whole temperate zone, but blame yourself, and yourself only.

In the winter of 1879-'80 we had a "cold snap." The day before Christmas the west wind suddenly veered round northward. What a bitter blast came straight from the icy north! The cattle set up their poor backs, and crowded, sterns to the wind, into the warmest corners of the open fields, and there stood with rough coats and drooping heads, the pictures of passive endurance. In two days the ice bore, and everything that could be called a skate was tied or screwed on to unaccustomed feet; and a beautiful display of fancy skating followed, as all the "hoodlums" of the town sought out the Crystal Lake or Fisher's Lake.

Then came the snow; and

every one left off skating and took to sleighing. The livery-stable keepers made fortunes by hiring out the one or two real sleighs; but poor or economical people constructed boxes of all shapes and fastened them on runners, making up in the merriment of the passengers for the uncouthness of the vehicles.

But the snow, too, only lay a few days, and we were glad when our old friend the rain fell and restored to us the familiar prospect. For houses here are not constructed for extremes of temperature in either direction; and hot, dry air in the sitting-room, where the close stove crackles and grows red-hot, is a bad preparation for a bedroom with ten degrees of frost in it, or the outside air with the icy wind bringing a piece of Mount Hood and its glaciers into your very lungs.

The only good thing was, that it lasted so short a time. And during this last winter of 1880-'81 we have had no such experience.

FLOODS.Instead, we have had trial of floods-the highest since 1860-'61, the year of the great flood. After about twenty-four hours' snow, the wind went round to the south, and a soft, warm rain followed for nearly thirty-six hours more. This melted the snow, both on the Cascades and on and round Mary's Peak. The Mackenzie, which is the southeast fork of the Willamette, and comes straight from the Cascades, brought down a raging torrent into the more peaceful Willamette. All the tributary streams followed in their turn. Telegrams brought news from Eugene City, forty miles up the river, every hour, "River rising, six inches an hour." Soon the banks would not hold the water, which spread over the surrounding country.

Corvallis stands high on the river's bank; but looking across over the low-lying lands in Linn County, nothing but a sea of moving, brown water appeared, in which the poor farmhouses and barns stood as islands in the midst. The settlers who were warned in time cleared their families out of their houses, and left their dwellings and furniture to their fate. The horses and cattle that could be reached in time were swum across the river to safety on this side, and an excited crowd lined the river-bank, watching the swimming beasts and helping them to land, while every skiff that could be pressed into the service was engaged in bringing across the women and children and their most valued possessions. One man lost fourteen horses which had been turned out on some swampy land four miles below the city; others cattle, sheep, and pigs; and none within reach of the inundation-that is, within a belt of low land averaging two miles from the river in extent-but had their fences moved or carried away and heaped in wild confusion. The worst case I heard of was of a poor fellow from the East, who had just invested his all in a farm of fat and fertile bottom-land a few miles from Salem. He had repaired his house and furnished it, had stocked his farm, and had written for wife and family to join him. The rain descended, the flood came; higher and higher it rose, sweeping off fences, drowning cattle; it entered the house and spoiled all of its contents. The unlucky owner had to betake himself to a tree, whence he was picked by a passing skiff the next morning, bewailing his fate, and offering his farm as a free gift to any one who would give him enough dollars to return to the Eastern State whence he had just come.

But nearly all the mischief to stock came from neglect of timely warning. No one but could have driven all off to safety, for the water-worn belt was a very narrow one. Some men gained largely by the deposit left by the flood on their land, serving to renew for many years the productive qualities; others were in a sad plight-the soil being washed away, deep gullies plowed, and a thick coating of stones and river-gravel left.

The river rose high enough to flood the lower floors of the wheat warehouses from Rosebury to Portland, and in the river-side towns caused a great deal of discomfort and some loss; but no loss of life resulted. It carried away the new bridges over the Santiam River just built by the narrow-gauge railroad, and washed away several miles of their new track. It also broke through several viaducts on the East-side Railroad, and stopped postal communication for a day or two.

THE "CHINOOK."The winter of 1880-'81 has proved disastrous to stock in Eastern Oregon. As a general rule, the sheep and cattle ranges are covered with bunch-grass, which grows from ten to twenty-four inches high during the summer months, and is dried by the sun into natural hay. When winter comes it brings with it snow from six to eighteen inches deep, and this lies light and powdery over the face of the country. The cattle and sheep scratch the covering off, and feed on the hay beneath. The prevailing winds in the winter there are north and south, and neither melts the snow. But now and again comes the west or southwest "Chinook." It breathes softly on the snow, and a quivering haze rises from the melting mass. When the "Chinook" blows long enough to melt the snow away, all goes well. But this last winter, after blowing for a day or two and melting the surface, it gave place to a biting blast from the north, which froze all hard again. The unfortunate sheep and cattle tried in vain to scratch through the icy crust, and died from starvation within but a few inches of their food.

In speaking of the rainfall of the State it is right to mention a considerable stretch of land lying on the east side of, and directly under the lee of, the Cascade Mountains. Here there falls but six or eight inches of rain in the year. The residents have, therefore, to depend on irrigation for fertility of soil. They have abundant facilities for this, as many streams and creeks flow down from the Cascades. With irrigation, very heavy crops of grain (as much as forty bushels of wheat to the acre) are produced.

Western Oregon enjoys a remarkable immunity from thunder-storms. They are of very rare occurrence, and when the thunder is heard it is rumbling away in the mountains many miles off. We have seen some summer lightning on a few evenings, gleaming away over the hills.

Wind-storms, too, very seldom visit us. In January, 1880, one curiously local storm swept from the south through the valley. It bore most severely on Portland. A friend there told me that he was looking across the river to East Portland, where the Catholic church stood with its spire, a prominent object. As he looked, the blast struck it, and, as he expressed it, the building melted away before his eyes. Riding through the green fir-timber in the hills a few days after the storm, I saw several places where the limbs were torn off, and even great trees blown down in a straight line, their neighbors within but a few feet of them standing unhurt.

PLEASANT SPRING WEATHER.The Government records in twenty-five years only show three winds blowing over the State with a velocity of forty-five miles an hour and a force of ten pounds to the square foot. But what a spring we have had this year-1881! While the papers have been full of snow-storms and floods in other places, here we have had balmy sunshine and mild nights, with occasional showers. The old residents call it real Oregon weather, and say it always was like this till two or three years ago.

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