Flood submerges South King County beginning on November 14, 1906.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 9/23/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3585
On November 14, 1906, a massive flood changes the course of the White River. For years, floods plagued King County farmers, but this time Pierce County farmers bear the brunt of the river. This chronic flooding leads to the construction of Mud Mountain Dam, 40 years later.

Rivers In Time

The White and Green rivers once merged north of downtown Auburn. Both rivers flowed out of the Cascade Mountains and made their way to Puget Sound via the Duwamish Valley. Originally, the Stuck River was a tiny brook that broke off from the White River a few miles south of the Green River confluence. The Stuck paralleled the White for two miles, sometimes only a few hundred feet apart, until it turned southward and flowed into Commencement Bay.

Nearly every year, the rivers would flood. Beginning in the 1870s, farmers used to dynamite logjams and bluffs in an attempt to divert the water away from their farmland. This only diverted it to some other farmers’ property. Sometimes the flood was pushed into Pierce County and other times it was diverted into King County.

In 1899, a group of farmers blew up a bluff with more dynamite than they realized. Logs were blown high into the air, and a landslide diverted much of the White into the Stuck River. King County farmers were jubilant; Pierce County farmers were not. King County farmers immediately began building an embankment to protect their land.

By this time, the original water courses were totally obliterated. Lawsuits were brought forth by Pierce County farmers to determine the “natural” flow of the rivers, but the State Supreme Court sided with King County. In effect, they ruled that White River runoff into the Stuck was legal. Nevertheless, some King County farmers continued to patrol the bluffs and logjams with rifles.

High Water

The fall of 1906 saw heavy rains, and a warm Chinook wind that melted snow up in the mountains. By November 14, the rivers began to crest. The water rose rapidly, and a logjam near Kent soon submerged land west of town. Wooden sidewalks began to float.

Farm families had to leave their homes and come into town for protection. Some families carried their furniture upstairs, before first floor rooms filled with water. Soon roads and railroads washed out, and Kent became isolated -- no way in, no way out. Some parts of the valley were submerged under more than 10 feet of water.

Some looked on the bright side during their dilemma. Kent had no sewer system, and the flood was a cheap way to clean up the town. Others weren’t so cheery. North of Kent, a vast lake formed near Renton, and washed out hundreds of feet of Interurban tracks. Pierce County lost bridges, and the town of Puyallup lost its water mains. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

Pulling the Plug

A few days later, as the water began to recede, an amazing thing happened. Valley residents had seen flood waters drain away in the past at a slow, steady rate. This time, as the water level lowered, the drop-off suddenly accelerated. In some areas, the water could actually be seen to disappear, as though someone had pulled a plug.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t until the water had almost completely drained that locals found out the cause. A massive logjam south of Auburn had pushed the White River into the Stuck channel, wiping out most of the thin strip of land that separated the two rivers. The break diverted all of the White River to the south, draining the valley right before their eyes.

A nearly dry river bed now lay a few miles south of the old confluence of the White and Green Rivers. Now the Green River flowed on its own up through the Duwamish Valley to Elliott Bay. The White River channeled through the Stuck, and met up with the Puyallup River in Pierce County. Pierce County farmers were less than thrilled.

Repercussions

King County sent armed guards to the White River, fearing that farmers to the south would try to dynamite a new channel. Pierce County farmers sued instead, hoping the courts would turn back the river into its old channel. District Army engineer Hiram A. Chittenden (1858-1917) was called in for assistance, and although he noted that the original path of the White naturally flowed north to the Duwamish valley, its new course to Puget Sound was half as long. “Nature has transferred the course and it will be simpler to perpetuate it than to change it again,” he concluded.

In the end, both counties came to an agreement -- Pierce County would keep the White River, but King County had to pay 60 percent of flood control. In 1914, construction began on a diversion dam and drift barrier a few miles southwest of Auburn. Later, levees were built and the channel was dredged.

This was still not enough, and in 1933 another major flood inundated the Puyallup Valley. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were called in, and by 1948 they had built Mud Mountain Dam, seven miles southeast of Enumclaw. At the time, it was the highest rock- and earth-filled dam in the world, and has prevented any major flood since.


Sources: “High Water in the Stuck,” White River Journal, June 25, 1898, p. 1; “Willing to Compromise; White River Farmers Propose Terms of Peace – May Be Settled,” White River Journal , September 22, 1900, p. 1; “Valley Suffers by Disastrous Flood,” White River Journal, November 16, 1906, p. 1; “The Flood Meeting; A Large Turnout and a Most Harmonious One,” The Auburn Argus, January 5, 1907, p. 1; “White River Dam Contract Is Let,” The Auburn Globe, April 11, 1914, p. 1; “The River Nobody Wanted,” The Seattle Times, January 27, 1957, magazine, p. 2; “Flood Control has Long, Long History in Auburn-Kent Areas,” Auburn Citizen, September 16, 1964, p. 2; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, White River Flood Control Project, Mud Mountain Dam (Seattle, 1939); Additional information provided by the White River Valley Museum.

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