It was just minutes past midnight of Christmas Eve 1955 when the Gum Tree Levee on the Feather River in Sutter County collapsed, sending a 21-foot wall of water into Yuba City. In the darkness of the night, the town would go into complete chaos, with families fleeing from their homes to escape the deadly flood.
In the end, 40,000 people would evacuate the surrounding area, with over 600 needing to be rescued by boat or helicopter and 38 people dying in the floodwater. It was a devastating natural disaster and a strong lesson for the area that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls “the most prone to intense flooding of any river valley in the United States.”
The storm that caused the rise in waters in Northern California was one for the ages. A bombardment of precipitation slammed the entire west coast, with Shasta County receiving 15.34 inches in just 24 hours on December 20th. A statewide disaster was declared, with the storm resulting in 74 deaths and $200 million in economic losses.
Yuba City and the surrounding communities felt the majority of these losses.
On the confluence of the Yuba and Feather Rivers sits the small town of Yuba City, whose only hope to avoid significant flooding during large storms was its strategically placed levees. Fortunately, the levees of the nearby town of Marysville held during the storm, although some of the floodwater still made its way to the town. The levee south of Yuba City wasn’t as fortunate as the water poured in through the town, and the 5th Street Bridge was completely washed away downstream.
With the collapse of the levee, downtown Yuba City quickly found itself sitting under 8 feet of water, with its 10,000 residents immediately scattering to find dry land. Army units were dispatched from Camp Beale to the scene, where military boats and helicopters picked people up off the tops of houses and on tree branches. If it weren’t for the efforts of the military, many more may have died.
The Christmas Eve disaster received national attention ad President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling it a “major” incident. While the town quickly became an apocalyptic scene, 1,500 police and army officials strolled through the knee-high water in downtown Yuba City with instructions to shoot looters on sight.
Eventually, the town would dry and rebuild. Today, more that 65,000 people live in the small town, with memories of flooding long in the past and new, improved levees on the forefront of their protection. But for the older generation of Yuba City residents, the memory of their town underwater is something that will never be forgotten.
Watch a full documentary of the flood from the Sutter County archives: