“Without a Second’s Warning” The Heppner Flood of 1903

| | March 11, 2024

Atop a hill in the rolling wheat fields and grazing lands of Morrow County lies the Heppner cemetery. A walk through its manicured lawns and orderly clusters of grave markers reveals much about the community nestled in the narrow valley below.

The cemetery’s ample room for growth speaks to the town of Heppner’s confidence in its own future. Many of the names inscribed on the family plots are those of town founders and figures important to the history of the area. Numerous plots contain multiple generations of family members, a testament to the town’s strong roots.

At the bottom of the hill, meandering in a lazy arc through the small town of Heppner, flows Willow Creek. The stream, which sometimes dries up completely by late summer, normally runs ankle deep and up to seven feet wide in mid-June. On the afternoon of June 14, 1903, however, Willow Creek was fed by a tremendous cloudburst rainstorm and turned into something quite different. The Heppner Gazette reported:

Without a second’s warning, a leaping, foaming wall of water, 40 feet in height, struck Heppner at about 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon, sweeping everything before it and leaving only death and destruction in its wake.[1] As a result, June 14, 1903, is a prominent date among the rows of headstones in the cemetery. The date also appears on a three-panel stone monument that was dedicated in 2003 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe. The monument, which includes a panoramic image of the destruction wrought by the flood and a list of the names of almost 250 people who died as a result, serves as a quiet reminder of Heppner’s day of tragedy.

Floodwaters moved through Heppner, Oregon, on June 14, 1903, destroying the town. The toppled trees in this photograph indicate the force of the flood. The Palace Hotel, one of the few buildings not destroyed in the event, stands at the center of the image.

Heppner is located in Oregon’s Morrow County where Hinton Creek, Shobe Creek, and Balm Fork merge with the much larger Willow Creek. Willow Creek flows north for approximately seventy miles from its source in the Blue Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia River upstream of the town of Arlington, Oregon.

After leaving its mountainous head-waters, the creek enters a narrow valley whose width never exceeds three-quarters of a mile — the kind of landscape often favored by early white settlers who wanted to ensure that their towns had a reliable water supply.

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

Aside from the forested headwater highlands, the bulk of the watershed is comprised of strongly undulating, treeless prairies dissected by numerous watercourses.[2] This geographic province of north-central Oregon is known as the Deschutes–Umatilla Plateau, a semiarid region that receives fewer than twenty inches of precipitation in a year. The rains that do occur often come in the form of intense thunderstorms that dump several inches in less than an hour.[3]

As early as 1858, cattlemen began foraging their herds in the abundant grasses found along the creek bottoms in the Willow Creek Valley, establishing cattle camps that later grew into the valley’s first settlements. The 1860s gold rush in Oregon’s John Day country, to the south of Heppner, prompted further economic growth.

During this time, the Willow Creek Valley served as an important transportation route from the Columbia River steamship landings to the gold strikes.[4] It was not until 1869, however, that the area’s first land claim was established by George W. Stansbury, who built a cabin there.[5] Many others soon arrived, including some Oregon Trail pioneers who had made it to the Willamette Valley but longed for the open prairies to the east of the Cascade Range.

Others were gold seekers who wished to give up their prospecting lifestyles and settle down in what became known as Stansbury Flat.[6] In 1873, Henry Heppner and Jackson L. Morrow opened the first merchandise store in town to supply the new inhabitants who tired of packing in all of their goods from the Columbia River.

In that same year, the town’s citizens named their new town in honor of their leading citizen, Henry Heppner. Jackson Morrow received a similar honor in 1885, when Morrow County was created out of the western portion of Umatilla County.[7]

Heppner’s site along Willow Creek proved advantageous. The Willow Creek valley not only provided productive grazing land for cattle and creek bottomlands for agriculture, but it also formed a crucial transportation corridor inland from the Columbia River.

Heppner itself acted as the center of a “spider’s web of roads” that spread out on all directions.[8] By 1888, Heppner was a booming center for shipping wool, cattle, and wheat to serve a large area of north-central Oregon. That same year, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (OR&N;) completed a spur rail line from its tracks on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

According to the 1890 census, 675 people lived in Heppner; and despite a crippling nationwide economic depression during the 1890s, Heppner’s population nearly doubled by 1900. The town met the new century equipped with two banks, nine saloons, and two major hotels, including the elegant Palace Hotel.[9]

The boom had not been without its consequences. As one visitor noted: “The Heppner Hills often smelled like sheep; they were every place, almost half a million of them.”[10] By 1890, most of the good grazing grass in the nearby hills already had been claimed.

Grazing pressure on the range intensified throughout the 1890s, and soon the thick pad of decayed grass that formed a mat under the prairie and protected the soil was gone, trampled under millions of hooves.[11] While agricultural activities in the immediate area leveled off, commerce connected to shipping and trade in and out of Heppner continued to boom into the new century.

The spring of 1903 was one of the driest in memory for eastern Oregon, causing local ranchers and wheat farmers to worry over the fate of their crops and herds.[12] On Thursday, June 11, a thunderstorm let loose a brief but intense rainstorm that gave some of Heppner’s fourteen hundred residents hope that the dry spell might finally be broken. The storm also sent a surge through the nearly dry Willow Creek bed that raised some concern for those who lived near the stream.[13]

June 14 was another hot, sultry, early summer day. It was a Sunday, and Heppner’s residents busied themselves preparing for family suppers or evening church services. In mid-afternoon, dark clouds began building in the hills to the southwest of town.

The storm continued to grow and soon produced what the Portland Oregonian would later describe as “heavy wind and viscious [sic] lightning.”[14] By 4:30 pm, rain began to fall in town. The intensity of the storm increased, and soon the hail accompanied the thunder and lightning, turning the quiet afternoon into a melee and sending people indoors to find shelter.[15] The storm produced such a noise people could not hear each other speak.[16]

The din also had the disastrous effect of masking the roar of a wall of water and debris that descended on the unsuspecting residents of Heppner at approximately 5:00 pm.[17] Heppner resident Cora Phelps described the flood a few days later:

It began to rain so hard that we had to go in and we watched the storm out of the sitting-room window and the baby had just woke up and I had her in my arms nursing her and Mr. and Mrs. S. and I went upstairs to watch it and pretty soon Bert camp up and watched too. There are two creeks right close there and the smaller one, Hinton Creek, was overflowing and running over the level ground all between and flowing into Willow Creek. Bert started out and I said; “What are you going to do?” and he said “I am going out to see how bad it is.” He put on his rubber boots and rain coat and went down to the bridge and he said he saw the bridge go and the water came up so fast and he ran back and motioned for us to come and we ran downstairs and just the minute Bert got in the door the rush of water came and all these houses came crashing by. It almost makes me sick when I think about it, for if he had not gotten in just the minute he did, I feel that he would have been swept away. When we met him downstairs, the water and mud rushed into our house about two feet deep and I will never forget how cold it was. Bert said give me the baby for he knew that she was the smallest and most helpless and, of course, Margaret couldn’t walk through it so I picked her up and Bert told us to all go upstairs. I never will forget how thoughtful and brave he was, and he had so much hope. I never had the least ray of hope, I thought the world was coming to an end. I just held the baby in my arms and kneeled on the floor and just prayed and prayed. It seemed like an hour or two that we were up there but I suppose it wasn’t more than a half hour. So many two story houses went just to kindling wood, and not one thing out of their house has been found.[18]

Reports immediately following the tragedy gave conflicting accounts of the magnitude of the wall of water that made up the flash flood. Estimates ranged from as high as fifty feet by those who witnessed the event to about six feet by engineers who studied the aftermath of the flood in the days following the disaster.[19] Whatever its height, there can be no dispute regarding the devastating effects of the flood on the town. A reporter from the Oregonian described the transformation of the town this way:

Scenes at Heppner are indescribable in their gruesomeness, their anguish, their awful desolation. No pen can exaggerate the horrors they present. Every heap of debris may contain a human forming decomposition. Many do reveal such spectacles when uncovered, and meantime Willow Creek, as if to mock the dead, has returned to a purling brooklet.[20] The silt-laden floodwaters carried timbers, trees, and everything else in their path. The thick mass acted more like a battering ram or an avalanche than it did a flood of liquid.[21] Many homes simply floated off their lots into the floodwaters and careened off to crash into other structures, where they broke apart, their constituent materials added to the flowing mass.[22]

At the upper end of town, a structure housing a steam laundry had spanned Willow Creek. This building initially held up the flood but then gave way, taking the laundry owner’s family and its Chinese employees to their deaths.[23] Downstream, the Palace Hotel — a brick structure of more substantial construction — also held up the floodwaters and was credited with partially diverting the flood and somewhat lessening its effect on Heppner’s business district.[24] The town’s other inn, Hotel Heppner, was not as fortunate.

It was of less sturdy construction and succumbed to the waters, killing at least nine guests (other estimates placed the loss of life as high as fifty).[25] Many who saw the flood coming literally ran for the hills, and some climbed nearby trees to flee the water. Hundreds were unable to escape, some even trapped in their homes, and were engulfed by the flood. A few of the lucky ones were swept into the flood and found themeselves still alive, great distances away.[26]

The flood passed in less than two hours, leaving behind a scene of tremendous destruction. The Oregonian reported on June 17:
Houses crushed and telescoped beyond recognition, buildings twisted from their foundations, deposited in streets or on alien property, one-fourth, or one-half, or one mile away; household goods strewn in every direction in reeking mud; trees two feet in diameter uprooted and woven in impeded drift into all kinds of awful fantastic shapes, bodies of men and horses and cattle and pigs all cast in indiscriminate ruin — such is Heppner of today.[27]

Most of Heppner’s residential area was destroyed, and nearly two-thirds of its homes were gone. The town’s business district was wrecked. Main Street was blocked by homes and businesses that had floated from their lots and rested on the street, and all but three of the town’s businesses were demolished. The telegraph and telephone lines were out of operation, and the railroad‘s spur line was destroyed from Lexington to Heppner. The only way in or out of town was across badly damaged wagon roads.

As the devastation was taking place, two residents, Leslie L. Matlock and Bruce Kelley, considered the fate of Heppner’s downstream neighbor towns of Lexington and Ione. Kelly reportedly said: “Les, this flood is going to hit Lexington too. Maybe we can save the people at Lexington and the valley below.”[28] They took off on horseback down the Willow Creek valley, stopping to cut gaps in the many barbed-wire fences that blocked the way.

They arrived in Lexington, nine miles north of Heppner, a short time after the floodwaters had hit and continued on to Ione another eight miles downstream, shouting warnings to the ranchers and farmers along the way. An intact road and slowing floodwaters helped them outpace the flood, and they reached Ione with enough time to warn the townspeople. Ione’s residents fled for higher ground and watched, through the darkening evening, as the flood ripped through their community.

The flood in Ione and Lexington was much less intense than in Heppner, but the warnings doubtless saved many residents both in town and along the way.[29]

Many such stories arose from the maelstrom of the Heppner flood. There were stories of survival, such as that of George Conser and his wife, who rode through the flood trapped in the upstairs of their home, up to their necks in water, until their home was lodged against another and they were able to pull themselves out.

There were also tragic stories, such as that of Dan Stalter, who lost his wife and six of his seven children before escaping with his remaining child by floating to safety in a wooden dry-goods crate. Surviving the flood seemed to be a matter of having the good fortune to be swept ashore instead of away, for swimming to safety once within the floodwaters was not a possibility.[30]

As soon as the flood was over, residents began the grim work of recovering bodies and cleaning up the wreckage. There were few injured to care for, since people either escaped the torrent relatively unscathed or perished in it.[31] A temporary morgue was set up on the second floor of the Roberts Building, one of the few surviving downtown structures.

Bodies wrenched out of piles of mud and wreckage were brought there to be identified, cleaned, and sent to a hasty burial on Cemetery Hill.[32] The unseasonably hot weather made the gruesome task of recovering bodies urgent, and there were health concerns as the bodies began to deteriorate.

A tremendous hailstorm had accompanied the cloudburst above town, and the flood had swept the ice into deep piles. It was surmised that the thick deposits of hailstones, buried deep in the piles of debris, might act to protect bodies of the victims from the heat and preserve them.[33] By June 18, more than two thousand men were employed by the cleanup effort in and around Heppner.[34]

Outside communities started a relief fund that eventually grew to over sixty thousand dollars (more than 1.1 million in current dollars). Much of the donated money had been set aside by towns all over Oregon for Fourth of July celebrations but was given to the needy residents of Heppner instead.[35]

Help also came from the OR&N, which sent two relief trains to Heppner on June 15, one originating in The Dalles and the other in Portland. The trains not only held supplies for the stricken town but also carried Heppner residents who had been out of town when the flood struck and were returning home to learn the fate of their families, homes, and businesses.

Also on board were doctors, nurses, and an undertaker from Portland who brought with him a supply of embalming fluid, a commodity much in demand in Heppner.[36] Because the tracks and roadbed had been badly damaged, the trains had to stop seventeen miles outside of town, with passengers covering the remaining distance by horse or wagon.

Also en route was a group of OR&N; officials whose task was to assemble work crews and oversee the reconstruction of the rail line into Heppner as soon as possible. By June 21, one week after the disaster, the spur line was reopened and the OR&N; was shipping relief supplies into town free of charge.[37]

Newspaper reports gave widely disparate figures for the loss of life from the flood. Early reports placed the death count at 400 or even 500 persons. Eventually, 247 bodies were recovered, but many reports still list the casualty count at 251.[38] On the morning following the flood, only about half the town’s population was accounted for, resulting in inflated death counts.

Some residents initially were listed among the dead and later were found to have survived, and some peole speculated that many bodies could have been washed all the way to the Columbia River, a distance of forty-five miles.[39] Total monetary losses from the flood were placed at six hundred thousand dollars.[40]

By June 17, martial law was in effect in an effort to instill order on the scene.[41] Orders were given to shoot looters on sight, a precaution against the pilfering that is often an unfortunate reality in these situations. Those who were not willing to work in the cleanup effort were asked to leave town.[42]

Some of heppner’s residents left town in the months following the disaster, but enough stayed to maintain a community on the banks of Willow Creek. The 1910 census showed a population of 880 people, a substantial reduction from 1900; but by the 1990 census Heppner’s population had rebounded to 1,412 people, essentially the same population it had had at the time of the flood.[43]

Engineering studies following the flood were used to develop an understanding of the nature of the flash flood that struck Heppner. The flood’s crest evidently coincided nearly simultaneously with its first waters, a reaffirmation of eyewitness reports of a “wall” of water coming down Willow Creek that day.

Analysis of evidence left by the floodwaters led to an estimate of a peak flow discharge of thirty-six thousand cubic feet per second.[44] To put this figure into context, the average annual flow of the Willamette River at its confluence with the Columbia is thirty-two thousand cubic feet per second.

Heppner has experienced other floods since 1903. In 1948 and again in 1971, Willow Creek overflowed its banks, but the effects of these events were relatively minor in comparison. After many years in the works, a $55 million, 155-foot-high dam across Willow Creek immediately above town was completed in 1983.[45]

While June 14, 1903, was a day of sorrow for the town of Heppner, it is much to the credit of that day’s survivors that Heppner remains a pleasant and prosperous community, better known for its Irish roots and St. Patrick’s Day celebration than the flood that nearly destroyed it. Shortly after the floodwaters receded, Leslie Scott, a reporter for the Oregonian, commented: “The beauty of Heppner is gone, but not its pride. No community could rise more bravely under adversity.”[46] Today it is clear that both the pride and the beauty have returned to Heppner.

READ MORE: The 1948 Vanport Flood


1. Heppner Gazette, June 18, 1903.

2. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Willow Creek Oregon: Letter from the Secretary of the Department of the Army, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, 1965), 13.

3. S.N. Dicken and E.F. Dicken, Oregon Divided: A Regional Geography (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1982), 98.

4. G. French, Homesteads and Heritages: A History of Morrow County, Oregon (Portland, Ore.: Binfords and Mort, 1971), 17.

5. L. McKaughan, “The Heppner Flood of 1903: Coping with Disaster,” 1994, unpublished manuscript, Morrow County Historical Museum, Heppner, Oregon, 2 (hereafter Morrow County).

6. French, Homesteads, 18–19; WPA Writers Program, Oregon: End of the Trail (Portland, Ore.: Metropolitan Press, 1940), 262.

7. Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur, Oregon Geographic Names, 7th ed. (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003), 463–4, 660.

8. French, Homesteads, 38.

9. French, Homesteads, 41–2.

10. Ibid., 29.

11. Ibid., 48.

12. Oregonian, June 8, 1903.

13. Amy Day to Mrs. W. Douglass, July 8, 1903, Morrow County.

14. Oregonian, June 16, 1903.

15. Cora Phelps to unknown recipient, June 28, 1903, Morrow County.

16. Amy Day to Mrs. W. Douglass, July 20, 1903, Morrow County.

17. Heppner Gazette, June 18, 1903.

18. Cora Phelps to unknown recipient, June 28, 1903, Morrow County.

19. J. T. Whistler, “The Heppner Disaster,” Engineering News L:3 (1903), 53–4.

20. Oregonian, June 17, 1903.

21. Heppner Gazette Times, June 11, 1953.

22. E.C. Murphey, Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Destructive Floods in the United States, Water Supply and Irrigation Paper No. 96 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1904).

23. Heppner Gazette Times, June 11, 1953.

24. Oregonian, June 17, 1903.

25. Ibid.

26. E.C. Shank, “Reminiscence: Looking Back at Heppner,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 91:4 (Winter 1990), 378–405.

27. Oregonian, June 17, 1903.

28. S. McArthur, “The Paul Revere of Heppner,” Frontier Times (October–November 1963): 42–3.

29. Heppner Gazette Times, June 11, 1953.

30. Heppner Gazette Times, June 18, 1953.

31. J. Lupert, “The Agony of a Western Town,” The Pacific Northwesterner 31:2 (1987): 17–23, 19.

32. Heppner Gazette Times, June 11, 1953.

33. Oregonian, June 18, 1903.

34. Heppner Gazette, June 18, 1903.

35. S. Warren, “June 14, 1903 — The Day That Heppner Can’t Forget,” True West (November 1987): 20–5, 25.

36. Oregonian, June 16, 1903.

37. Lupert, “Agony,” 23.

38. Heppner Gazette Times, June 11, 1953; Oregonian, June 17, 1903.

39. Oregonian, June 16, 1903.

40. French, Homesteads, 75.

41. Oregonian, June 18, 1903.

42. Warren, “June 14, 1903,” 25.

43. Ibid.; 1990 Census.

44. Whistler, “Heppner Disaster,” 53.

45. Warren, “June 14, 1903,” 20.

46. Oregonian, June 18, 1903.

By: Bob DenOuden

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