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Close The Flood Gates!!

Written by Melissa LaFortune
Published January 15, 2023

The History of Flooding in the City of Martinez, California

Following suit with the State of California, the City of Martinez proclaimed the existence of a local emergency on January 4th, 2023 due to severe storms and the threat of flooding (City of Martinez, 2023). With these recent storms and flood warnings in Martinez, it is timely to consider other flooding events that have occurred throughout the long history of our city and how they compare to today’s.

The flooding seen today by the City of Martinez is actually quite mild compared to what it has experienced throughout its past. Flooding in Martinez was a common occurrence before the Alhambra Creek was renovated by the City around the turn of the millennium. Before the renovation, Alhambra Creek would flood the downtown streets during times of extreme rainfall and high tides, which occurred almost annually (City of Martinez, 2013).

The recorded history of flooding in Martinez is almost as old as the city itself. The Great Flood of 1862 was the most destructive flood in the history of California (Hartlaub, 2023). The January 18th, 1862 issue of the Contra Costa Gazette writes of a flood that would “never be forgotten by the people of California” as it would “form an epoch in her history”. The article continues to detail the destruction in Martinez specifically where “the water rose higher than ever known before”. It was reported that multiple streets were flooded and a “rapid stream” ran through Martinez into the Straights of Carquinez (Contra Costa Gazette, 1862).

A view of the flooding on Main Street of 1940 (MHS).
Jim Hoey on a horse during the February 27-28 Flood of 1940 at Alhambra and Thompson Street (Now Masonic Street). Jim Hoey was the District Attorney of Contra Costa County (Joyce Rugeroni; MHS)

Other devastating, but not as severe, floods continued in Martinez after the Great Flood of 1862. On January 22, 1914 the Daily Gazette published an article describing yet another flooding that had at this point become an expected occurrence. According to the Daily Gazette, Martinez was the “heaviest sufferer from the big flood” in the county. It was reported that Alhambra Creek broke banks in front of the County Hospital, and that Smith Street, which is now Alhambra Avenue, was also “badly washed out by the floodwaters”. However, the Lasell Store (1885-1985) was kept “nearly dry for the first time in years (Daily Gazette, 1914). The Lasell Store at that time existed on the corner of Castro Street and Thompson Street, which is now Masonic Street. The Lasell Store was the “largest retail mercantile establishment” in the county (Martinez Historical Society [MHS], n.d.). The Lasell Store building which exists today at 911 Alhambra Avenue, was built in 1917 adjacent to the original site at the Corner of Castro and Masonic Streets (MHS).

Behind the Mission Courts Apartments and subsequent flood damage during the Flood of 1940 (MHS).

Another flooding event occurred in Martinez in late February of 1940. The February 28th issue of the Contra Costa Gazette reported thousands of dollars in damages and property loss after the downtown streets were flooded once again. Several families were forced to evacuate their apartments on the ground level floor of the Mission Court Apartment building.

The Mission Court Apartment building was built in 1920 and is located at 1005 Ferry Street. It was reported that evacuations were necessary once “ turbulent flood waters streamed into every room”. Mud up to two inches deep remained in the apartments after the water was drained.

According to the Contra Costa Gazette, the downtown streets of Martinez were also flooded from Las Juntas to Ferry Street with over two feet of water.

On April 2nd of 1958, yet another flooding event occurred that submerged the downtown Martinez streets. A bulldozer was used to remove mud from drainage areas. Damages due to the flood were estimated to be up to $450,000 in Martinez (DarasTatam, 1993), which would equate to about $4.4 million today. Mary Goodman remembers being evacuated from her elementary school, St. Catherine’s, by being picked up and placed in a row boat when the streets were flooded (Goodman, 2023).

Recurrent flooding of the Alhambra Creek into the downtown streets continued into the late twentieth century. The damage from the 1997 Flood lead the City of Martinez to establish a plan to renovate the Alhambra Creek to prevent future flooding. In 2000, the creek was widened and rerouted. Before the creek was rerouted it ran underneath the City Hall Apartments on 700-716 Main Street. The City Hall Apartments  were built in 1914 and the first apartments built in the City of Martinez (MHS). It was reported that the business owners on the ground level would open the front and back doors and let water run through when the creek would flood. After the renovation, the Alhambra Creek now runs next to the former City Hall Apartments, which now houses a Starbucks (Goodman, 2023).

The renovation of the Alhambra Creek (MHS).
Looking west on Escobar from Estudillo on April 3 1958 (MHS).

Although the renovation of the Alhambra Creek has prevented Martinez from experiencing intense flooding during storms and high tides, it necessitates constant maintenance. The Alhambra Creek must be given continual attention in order to prevent future flooding events that were once commonplace in Martinez’s past (City of Martinez, 2013).

References

City of Martinez. City of Martinez Proclamation . 4 Jan. 2023, https://www.cityofmartinez.org/home/showpublisheddocument/3194/638087928306900000. 

City of Martinez. Martinez General Plan. 2013, https://www.cityofmartinez.org/home/showpublisheddocument/2091/637816481071000000. 

Contra Costa Gazette, 18 Jan 1862, page 1.

Daily Gazette-Martinez 22 Jan 1914, page 1.

Goodman, Mary. “Mary Goodman Oral History Interview.” 14 Jan. 2023. 

Hartlaub, Peter. “How Bad Was California’s ‘Great Flood’ of 1862? It Was a Torrent of Horrors.” San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, 12 Jan. 2023, https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/How-bad-was-California-s-Great-Flood-of-17711100.php. 

Martinez Historical Society. Walking Tours. N.d., https://freepages.rootsweb.com/~npmelton/genealogy/cchoey.htm. 

Rugeroni, Joyce. Contra Costa County Biographies. 2014, https://martinezhistory.org/tours/walking-tour/. 

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