Fifty years ago, Oregon’s deadliest weather event blew through the Western part of the state. Forty-six people died and it caused major damage. Two witnesses shared their memories with OPB.
Columbus Day 1962 began like any other clear day in Western Oregon. Weather reports predicted a storm, but few people took it seriously. Here’s a bit of archival KGW radio tape, courtesy of the station:
Caller: “Um yes, I’m calling to ask if you have any specific reports on this wind that we’ve heard about in our neighborhood.
KGW: “We have the weather bureau forecast and Jack Capell forecast. It’ll be about 60 miles per hour and hit sometime late afternoon.
Caller: “60 miles an hour?”
KGW: “Well, gusts that high”
Caller: “Oh my goodness, that hardly seems possible because it’s so calm.”
But the day was to go from calm to chaos. Huge gusts roared through the valley. They downed electrical wires and telephone poles. They peeled roofs off houses, and scattered old growth trees.
Many people were unprepared. We talked to two Oregonians who remember weathering the storm in unusual places.
Kenn Gilson was 20 years old. He was en route to pick up his girlfriend Sandy to take her to church. He realized something unusual when the radio stations in his car kept cutting out.
“One after another, they’d just bleep off," recalls Gilson. "I eventually got to her place and by that time the only station I could find I believe it was KGW.”
KGW tape: “This signal may not be what you’d expect from KGW but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. You know by now that strong winds have hit the Portland area … we’re recordings gusts up to 85 miles per hour.”
The storm moved up from Salem. It blew down radio towers left and right. Gilson picked up his girlfriend and they continued to the church.
“We waited for the wind to die down but it didn’t. The building was bouncing and jumping so much that we were concerned about the safety of the place. But we heard the organ playing, and we heard people in the basement. So we knew there were people there," said Gilson.
They searched the church for the voices and the organ player.
“There wasn’t anybody in the basement," Gilson Said. "There wasn’t anybody in that church. But us. And the wind.”
It was the wind that made the organ sound.
“And it would go woo-ahhh-wooh," Gilson says. "And then every once in a while it would go “wooh-uh-wah. It was definitely spooky that night.
The couple hunkered down in the basement of the church. On top of the sighing of the organ, they could hear the moaning of the wind.
“Wooo-ooooo-ooh," Gilson, imitating the wind. "But there were multiple sounds like that. You had like half a choir singing all these notes. It was all in all a musical night."
They spent the night in the church in candlelight, listening to the storm.
Jane Nicodemus was outside, fetching laundry when the storm hit. She was nine months pregnant with her first child. A gust of wind picked up the laundry pole and thrust it against the house, taking Nicodemus with it. She was pinned. And she was alone.
Columbus Day Storm
"It upended and just kind of pushed me against the wall and held me there," said Nicodemus. "It was not real heavy, but it was cumbersome and I was a little clumsy because I had a pretty good size tummy on me from being pregnant.”
“And I thought if I have trouble with my baby, I’ll be in a real bad state. If the wind kept pushing me back I wouldn’t have been able to get out," Nicodemus remembers.
Fortunately, the wind subsided enough for her to dash inside.
“The house was shaking. And I was thinking, here we worked so hard to get the house ready for the baby, with his own little room," said Nicodemus. " I’m thinking, 'Please don’t destroy my pretty little house with my baby things in it!”
She called her dad, who drove her to her parents’ home.
“We crept just those four blocks very slowly. A lot of power lines and telephone lines were down. A lot of damage in the trees,“ said Nicodemus.
She remembers the broken power lines flipping through the air like electrified snakes.
“It was very, very loud, and very bright. The lines were breaking, and snapping around like crazy," Nicodemus remembers.
They finally made it. Nicodemus says she was pretty worked up. Then, she felt something in her abdomen. It was a contraction.
“I kind of held my tummy, and my mom said, 'You’re having pains?’' And I said, 'Yeah, it hurts.' And she says, 'You go lay down! You need to get comfortable and quit being so scared.' And I was thinking. I don’t want that baby to come yet."
She lay on that sofa for hours. Her contractions gradually let up, but the storm didn’t.
“It was just such a shock, and an unreal situation," Nicodemus remembers. "I was just getting through the night.”
The storm knocked out power to 98 percent of Portland residents. Some remained without electricity for three weeks. In the aftermath, people lived in canvas tents and cooked outdoors. Neighbors helped each other clear debris, repair fences, and move trees off the roads.
In the scheme of things, Jane Nicodemus fared pretty well. Her home was safe, and two days later she gave birth to a healthy boy.
She says it was a humbling experience.
“The power of nature—is awesome," said Nicodemus. You just have to be out there for a little while and realize that you have no way—when Nature starts putting on a show like the Columbus Day storm, you have no power to stop it. It showed us how powerful nature can be.”
Sources for this story came to OPB through our Public Insight Network. You can share your story, and become a source for OPB at opb.org/publicinsight.
Special thanks to the Oregon Historical Society and Portland General Electric for the use of photos, and to KGW for the use of audio. The Oregon Historical Society is currently featuring an exhibit on the Columbus Day Storm at the Portland museum. Learn more about the exhibit.