Palo Alto History. Org

The Christmas Flood: "All Through the House...was Mud"

The San Francisquito Creek had been flooding for centuries, but it wasn’t much of a concern to anyone.  Three days before Christmas 1955, however, it became a major problem for everybody living in the new housing developments that surrounded Greer Park.

The 1955 flood was not the largest San Francisquito flooding ever seen.  Floods in 1911 and 1862 had been more extensive, but with few homes having yet been built, damage was minimal.  After all, flooding was good for undeveloped apricot orchards.  But by the mid-1950s, an enormous housing boom had taken place to the west of Bayshore Highway. 
 And the new residents living in those recently constructed Eichler housing tracts found their Christmas plans drenched in flood waters.

That winter had actually been a dry one in Northern California.  Most folks were glad to finally see rain fall on December 9th, bringing relief to the parched crops of the Santa Clara Valley.  But precipitation also marked the weather reports of December 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st and still more rainfall was due.  On December 22nd it rained all day and into the evening as the San Francisquito Creek rose to dangerously high levels.  As debris and wood got caught under the bridge over Bayshore Highway, the creek began to back up.

By 11:30 PM, flood waters had jumped the levees on the Palo Alto side of the creek, bursting a 20 foot gap in one levee wall.  Creek water began to rush downhill joining overflowing canals and gutters and sweeping down Greer Road and into the surrounding homes along the way.  At the dead end at Seale Canal near Greer Park, water began to seep further out, inundating homes throughout the low-lying subdivisions south of Embarcadero. And there was more bad news for the Greer Park area: At Matadero Creek, flood waters burst their banks at Greer Road Bridge, bringing more flood waters nearly two feet high.

By 1:45 in the morning, evacuees were everywhere.   Those who tried to make their escape in cars soon found the water rising so rapidly that they had to abandon any plans for a vehicular exit.  Over 1,000 people were forced to abandon their homes as emergency trucks and buses mobilized to move flood victims.  At 1:50 AM, shop teacher David Downs used his assigned key to open up Jordan Junior High School, which became a place of refuge for the rest of the night.  At one point more than 600 evacuees crammed into the school, most of them without shoes, socks or dry clothing.  

There were some close calls too.  While helping to evacuate families, Palo Alto police officer Otto Niehues fell into an open manhole that had its cover popped off by extreme water pressure.  Niehues managed to save himself only by somehow catching the edge of the rim with his hands as he fell (Oddly, Niehues later would become a victim of the 1998 rains
as a much older man. During a severe El Nino downpour he was nearly killed when hit by a car and he never did fully recover from those injuries).

Other heroics took place nearby.  A 75 year-old Greer Road woman too feeble to leave her house was rescued by two neighbors as she was unable to battle the dark swirling currents on her own.  At Van Auken Circle, John Vecsey and four other men balanced a table and two chairs to steady a surplus navy life raft and rescued their neighbor, Winnie Coughlin.  They then returned to save her guests, seven dogs and a parrot.  Bill Bronson of Moffett Circle, a victim of polio, had to walk through blocks of flooded streets on crutches to make it to the safety of a nearby school.

Others, who were in less danger, let the Yuletide spirit help make the best of a difficult situation. Higgins Court residents merrily sang “Jingle Bells,” as they piled into a truck to make their get-away from high water levels.  And things could not have been better for a pet duck named Ginger that the Hacker family of Chabot Lane had won at a state fair.  Mrs. Hacker told a Palo Alto Times reporter that Ginger had last been seen happily swimming down their street. Indeed Palo Alto did seem to have become a virtual home for ducks --- Mrs. Sullivan of Indian Drive told the Times that one of her excited girls had squealed, “Oh a duck pond in our own house” when she first observed the transformation of her living room.

In the end, no one was seriously injured in the 1955 flood, but damage was extensive.  More than 650 Palo Alto homes were flooded, totaling $1.1 million in damage.  And many Palo Altans had to forego caroling and Christmas hams to spend their holidays cleaning mud from living rooms, salvaging damaged furniture and shoveling out lawns and driveways.

In the years following the Christmas Flood, attempts were made to remedy the danger posed by the San Francisquito Creek.  Yet events would repeat themselves again 43 years later. The 1998 Flood
that would again overflow the levees at the San Francisquito Creek was even worse than its 1955 predecessor.   

And the similarities between the two floods were unsettling.  In 1998, in 1955, water from the creek overwhelmed the levees, rushed down the eastern side of Palo Alto and settled in the lowlands near Greer Park.  Again residents woke up to water in their bedrooms and again there were some near death experiences.   

Since then, more improvements have been made to creek walls and levees, and better warning systems have been put in place, but many feel that it is only a matter of time before residents are seeking the high ground again.  After all, history has a way of repeating itself. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"Before San Francisquito Creek was basically wild before it was cleaned up on both sides.  Kids played in the creek making forts and finding Indian artifacts that they didn't recognize at the time but now realize what they were.  Played all the way from Newell Road to Bayshore under the highway.  There was lots of shrubbery along the sides and in creek and lots of poison oak.  

The flood in 1955 changed the creek.  it was cleaned out then.  They removed the couches, bed springs, everything and anything.  No more playing in the creek after that."

"My daughter is furious because she slept through it and the rest of us were up all night watching it come up.  And it just about came to our door but it did not come into our house.  But my son remembers that the man across the street for some reason got sick and they took him away in a rowboat.  So there was enough water to take someone away on a rowboat.   A lot of our neighbors got out, but we stayed and guarded the house."

"I found this article and marveled that my Mother, Winnie Coughlin, was in it. We had just moved into our new home 2 months before and my mother said that we needed rain and I prayed for it. Wow, and I was only 9 at the time. But I do not remember 7 dogs, but 4, and 1 cat and a Parrot. Waking up and seeing our guest floating on her bed was wonderous. But I will always remember the policeman who carried me on his shoulder to safety. We just recently moved to Roseville, CA after growing up and living in Palo Alto in the same house for 54 years. What memories. Thanks for the history."


"After the 1955 flood, Eichler started building up the elevation on the lots. If the house is level with the road then it is a pre-1955 Eichler. If the lot slopes up from the road to the house then it is a post-1955 Eichler. This saved us from flooding in 1962 when Adobe Creek overflowed. I was 5 at the time. The streets and sidewalks were flooded but the houses were safe. I remember my dad getting our big green Army surplus raft out and rowing us down the street."


"I remember that flood. We lived at the sharp corner of Embarcadero and California. My father told me the next morning about seeing a man rowing down the street in a rowboat. I always imagined he was just having fun, now I know he was rescuing people."

-Steve Gallagher

"I too was 6 years old. I lived on Saint Claire Drive (between Middlefield and Cowper). I remember the devastation - my best friend lived on Clara. I think the best thing that happened after this flood and the one that came afterwards was the cement lining of the creeks with acceleration ramps to keep the flow going towards the bay from the foothills."

-Thomas D. Marovich, Sr. 

"I was 6 when the 1955 flood hit. We lived at 2755 Greer Road, on the corner of Metro Circle. My parents had a Christmas Party that night, but the guests had to leave early. My dad woke me up at 1:45 am. My bed was floating. The National Guard evacuated us. The high water mark on the walls of our house was 4", so we were at ground zero in that flood. We spent Christmas with my grandmother in SF. "

 -Dennis Driscoll

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Mean cleaning debris after the 1955 flood. (PAHA)

The corner of Colorado and Clara on the morning of December 23, 1955.