(Photo courtesy the Trail Historical Society)

Trail Blazers: The great flood of ‘48

Trail Blazers is a weekly series in partnership with the Trail Museum and Archives

With news of evacuations in the Boundary and Central Kootenay over the past few days due to flooding, this week’s Trail Blazers is especially timely.

Read more: Trail Blazers

Read more: Trail Blazers

Jesslyn Jarvis, collections coordinator with the Trail Museum and Archives, sent the Times a photo showing two unidentified men travelling in a row boat along Groutage Avenue during the devastating Columbia River flood in late May/early June of 1948.

The water rose 46 feet above normal that spring, flooding houses and businesses in downtown Trail.

To give a sense of how high that really was, the ticket booth of the Odeon Theatre (now the Royal Theatre) was submerged under water.

“Many people were forced to evacuate or were stranded in their homes,” Jarvis said.

“Those who ventured out waded through water up to their hips or they floated down the streets in boats.”

Immediate relief had crews in bulldozers moving piles of dirt to create walk-able paths above the water.

“Work crews of all ages built sandbag retaining walls on both sides of the river,” Jarvis noted.

“The local branch of the Red Cross fed the large work crews from mobile canteens 24 hours a day, while sea cadets patrolled the fast moving river during the flood,” she said.

“The damage from the high water was extensive: lives were lost, homes were destroyed, and business lost their stock.”

Flooding from the Columbia River was largely resolved by dam construction in the 1960s.

Prior to that, what it brought to Trail was despair and homelessness. But the 1948 disaster also shows how – 72 years ago – people quickly came together in a coordinated emergency response on a level that even today’s experts would likely be impressed by.

The Trail Daily Times front page screamed “Council Declares Emergency” June 1 that year. City leaders made a state of emergency call the previous evening and within hours, B.C.’s then-Premier Byron Johnson declared an emergency throughout the province.

Trail council’s action gave power to the city’s Chief Constable John Laurie, enabling him to swear in special constables to help protect lives and property.

Within an hour of the emergency declaration, police chief John Laurie had sworn in 40 constables who were dispatched to the working areas to keep crowds of sightseers back.

Meanwhile city hall became the nerve centre of a gigantic flood relief effort, and was equipped with extra telephones and additional lines to the city engineer, the city clerk and the police department.

The emergency state also allowed Flood Relief Director J.P. Coates, the city engineer, to ban the sale of gasoline to “non-essential” users because stock of the valuable fuel dropped precariously low.

Fire fighting equipment was dispatched to protect East Trail property and special police guards were stationed on the river wall beside members of the 24 Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Fleets of trucks were on site throughout the night, with crews hauling gravel and hundreds of planks to the reinforce the retaining wall on “Central Trail’s Esplanade,” Times staff wrote, “appearing in a few hours as if by magic as the efficient organization (C.M. & S. Company, now Teck) galvanized into action.”

Another reality with flooding 72 years ago was the potential for disease, as the June 1, 1948, story recounts.

“Hundreds of residents flocked to inoculation clinics in East Trail and Central Trail yesterday afternoon for immunization against typhoid. Before the afternoon was over, the clinics staffed by public health nurses and members of the Red Cross corps were out of vaccine. Dr. J.S. Daly, city medical health officer, had only received 1,000 of the 5,000 first shots ordered. Serum for the second in the series of inoculations is being flown from Toronto and should be here Friday.”

Despite objections from parents and from members of the city council, in session last night, Dr. Daly repeated his instructions to residents to boil water before drinking.

“Dr. Daly admitted the city’s water was pure, but said that with so many basements under water, it was quite possible for the typhoid virus to enter the main supply through even a slightly leaking tap.”


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