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December 21, 2004 > The Disastrous Flood of 1955

The Disastrous Flood of 1955

Incorporation fever reigned in Niles, Centerville, Mission San Jose, Irvington and Warm Springs in December 1955. Residents attended incorporation sessions to learn more about the proposed city of Fremont. Judges Allen Norris and Edward Quaresma endorsed a yes vote in the coming January 10 election. All eyes were focused on Election Day.

Then it began to rain. It rained steady for five days. A three-inch cloudburst drenched the already saturated ground. The heaviest rains in over fifty years dropped more than ten inches of water on the upper slopes that fed Alameda Creek the night of December 22 through the morning of December 24. The water level at the Sunol Dam was near five feet. Alameda Creek rose almost 20 feet and threatened the concrete bridge that carried Highway 9 (now SR 238) south of Niles to Mission San Jose. The highest floodwaters on record pounded ceaselessly along the levees of Alameda Creek.

The levee which separated the Pacific Coast Aggregates gravel pit from Alameda Creek near Centerville gave way. The eighty foot pit filled up in four hours and then the raging waters spilled over the Machado Corners and into Crandall Slough. Highway 7, (now Fremont Boulevard) closed between Centerville and Alvarado. When this levee broke the water threatening the Bell Ranch Bridge, a mile downstream dropped two feet. People were forced to evacuate their homes. A new levee broke and parts of Alvarado were flooded but the town of Alvarado was spared a worse disaster by the other new dikes and the cooperative efforts of many people. Farmers south of Alameda Creek were left wringing their hands over ruined cabbage and cauliflower fields.

The most shattering blow came the afternoon of December 24 when the levee on Alameda Creek south of Niles broke and hurled torrents of silt, mud, debris and water into the new Valle Sierra tract. More than a hundred families had only a few moments notice to escape the rushing waters. A First Street resident heard the water coming, grabbed his daughter and ran. The flood poured into Grau Lake, surged down School Street and formed a river seven feet deep at the corner of Hillview and First. Water was knee-deep at the Niles School in a few minutes.

Firemen and volunteers rushed to help their neighbors. Dozens of rowboats and boats with outboard motors hastened to assist stranded and struggling people. Firemen in a power boat rescued a family stranded on top of their car on Second Street. Another family was rescued from their position on their garage roof. Civil Defense workers and Sheriff's reserves were everywhere evacuating homeowners in rowboats. Bill Estudillo drove a county road grader into the Valle Sierra and brought out "men and women and children hanging all over her."

The flood rushed across town isolating Adobe Acres and Hacienda Gardens and then drowned the roaring hearth fires of the Kraftile, American Forge and Pacific States Steel plants just north of Niles.

It was a sleepless night for many people, especially residents of Niles and Alvarado. The Red Cross sheltered some flood refugees in the girl's gym at Washington Unified High School. The Red Cross station wagon helped transport evacuees from the Niles stricken area to homes for emergency rest. Many volunteers did not sleep for many hours. Saturday morning, December 24, the rains subsided and sunshine danced over Washington Township. The waters retreated and local residents surveyed the damage.

Over a 100 homes were damaged in Niles, about 75 in Alvarado and 50 in Alviso. Half the crops on more than 8,000 acres of farm lands were destroyed. The steel mills were damaged and 600 men out of work. Several hundred feet of the Niles Canyon Highway were gone and the road closed. Levee repairs were estimated at $20,000 and the total storm damage at over $3,000,000 in 1955 dollars.

Residents, especially homeowners from the tract homes of Valle Sierra in Niles were angry. They took time out from mopping out their flooded homes to try to fix the blame for the disaster on someone. Their concerns were not resolved but left to federally-funded flood control projects begun over a decade later.

There were some bright spots in this scene of disaster. The Niles United Steel workers and the Pacific States Steel Mill hosted their annual Christmas party for some 200 youngsters at the dry Niles Theater in spite of the fact that part of Niles and the steel mill were flooded.

Local residents opened their hearts and pocketbooks to aid flood victims. The Washington Township Chamber Of Commerce set up a flood relief fund through the Red Cross. The Rotary Club and the News Register were the first contributors. The Red Cross provided emergency bedding and clothes. Banks arranged special loans and the Niles Supermarket set up free coffee and sandwiches. National Guardsmen from Centerville pitched in as volunteers to help clean muddy homes. A labor pool where volunteers could appeal for help was set up in the Centerville Armory.

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