Things were going well for California in 1861. It had been a state for 11 years. The crazy tumult of the Gold Rush had subsided and there were serious plans to construct a railroad connecting the Pacific Coast to the rest of the country.
Of course the country was embroiled in a Civil War, but that had little impact on the day-to-day life of ordinary Californians.
Then in November it started to rain, not enough to be worrisome. It snowed in the higher elevations and the ground froze. Then came the storm on Dec. 9, and for the next 40 or so days it rained and the snow melted.
William H. Brewer wrote letters to his brother, recording what was to be the wettest 40 days in California history. Brewer was the chief assistant to Josiah Whitney's team making a state geological survey that would take four years.
"The rains continue," he wrote on Jan. 19, 1862. "Since I last wrote the floods have been far worse than before. Sacramento and many other towns have again been overflowed, and after the waters had abated somewhat they are again up. That doomed city is in all probability again under water today."
But it wasn't only Sacramento that was underwater. The whole Central Valley had turned into a lake. Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Nevada and Utah felt the fury of the storms.
"This year at Sonora, in Tuolumne County, between November 18, 1861 and January 14, 1862, seventy two inches (six feet) of water has fallen, and in numbers of places over five feet," Brewer wrote.
He estimated that an area 250 to 300 miles long and some 20 miles wide covered the central part of the state.
"Thousands of farms are entirely under water -- cattle starving and drowning.
"Benevolent societies are active, boats have been sent up and thousands are fleeing to this city (San Francisco). ... You can imagine the effect it must have on the finances and prosperity of the state. The end is not yet. Many men must fail, times must be hard, state finances disordered. I shall not be surprised to see our Survey cut off entirely."
The survey wasn't cut off, but California did go broke. The governor and the legislators weren't paid for a year and a half. The Legislature temporarily met in San Francisco while Sacramento was battling the floods.
California rivers had been filling up with the tailings of the gold mines. Additionally, the ground was frozen and then it turned warm, the snow melted and the rain kept coming.
There are no reliable numbers on how many people died. Some wrote it was in the thousands. Agricultural journals estimated that 10,000 cattle and 100,000 sheep drowned.
The Pacific Rural Press tried to put on a happy face after the storms by predicting the abundance of water would mean prosperity for the state's future crops. It was wrong. The storms were followed by a three-year drought.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.