Potlatch flood 1996 – 20 year anniversary memories

February 21st, 2016 by —

The City of Potlatch was completely isolated as the largest flood in any recorded history (1996) surrounded the town, making it an island with only helicopter and foot traffic as means of transportation. The only emergency route was over Rock Creek and Four Mile Road. Other than that, residents had to rely on emergency hospital transport by helicopter and foot transport across the bridge for food and other necessities.

2 flood of 96

20 years ago! Looking out toward where the Riverside dance hall once stood makes it easy to visualize how that popular dance hall finally succumbed to constant flooding.

No place to go

Late Friday, Feb. 11, residents had nowhere to go. To the north, Highway 95 was closed from the Potlatch junction to Benewah County because of water covering the road. To the south, Highway 95 was closed because of the raging Palouse River at the Riverside bridge near Peck’s Gas Station.With this bridge being the main gateway from Potlatch to Moscow, Pullman or Palouse. Only foot traffic was allowed and even crossing by foot was precarious. Those walking were warned to stay single file and to hug close to the far side of the road. Officials said they were concerned the bridge would drop into the river. That worry made even the bravest souls have second thoughts about their efforts to secure supplies for their families as well as neighbors and friends.

To the east, deep water and eroded asphalt closed Highways 6 and 9 and the lone route west through Palouse was impassable because of high water that had Main Street Palouse under five feet of water.

1996 flood potlatch plummer and wagner

Plummer and Wagner, near the “Y” on Hwy 95, found they also had a river running through their business. Harold Joseph Rohn said, “A few years ago Dale Rose pointed to the high water mark that was still visible on the inside wall of this building.” Sheila Wetzel said, “Yes it was ‘great’… Had to stay at the coffee shop for two days. Water was up to the top step at my house.” Carol Kilborn Nicholson said, “I remember that well. I was working right across the bridge from there at Ireland’s.”



Many residents were left stranded away from their home as the water rose and had to find shelter wherever they were. Some Princeton and Harvard residents drove on the Burlington Northern railroad tracks to get home when Highway 6 closed north of Bennett Mill.

“Oh the flood of ’96, how we remember it!” Barb Coyner of Princeton said. “Trying to cross the deep water, my little Subaru stalled out and we started floating into the raging water. Terrifying. Youngest daughter Libby immediately freaked and we uttered a heart-felt prayer. Lo and behold, the engine restarted and that trusty little car barged through the swirling current. NEVER try to drive in deep water–NEVER! The whole flood ordeal left oldest daughter Clover on the other side of the bridge so she couldn’t get home and had to stay with a friend in Moscow for nearly a week. Then once we cleared our road, we had to get some gravel in. Whooppeee, my first ride in a semi, bringing in the gravel. Trouble was, the semi sunk into that sucking mud right up to its axles.”

School kids most likely remember the flood with a little more “joyful” memories as school was closed for about a week and children had a lot of water to skip rocks, float in their boats or make fun tiny boats to float bugs.

Fun does come to an end however as Stephanie Gilbert remembers – “We had to go to school an extra 20-30 minutes each day at Potlatch High School (for a while) because we had so many snow days, frigid cold days and flood days out of session.”

3 flood 96

This home was owned at the time of the 1996 flood by Alison Hoidal Steel (previously owned by Delbert Bain) on Hwy 95, north of the ‘Y’ at Potlatch. Andrea Rupe said, “That’s the year my mom and dad’s Dodge van was parked by the cinder building just on the right (in the photo). The water was up to the windshield! After the water went down I had to change the tires for driver’s ed class.”

Some adults found fun intermingled with the work. “I used my big blue ford to help the some people on Flannigan Creek move stuff out and darn near floated off the road!” Brian Woolverton remembers. “Then I thought it would be cool to go to Palouse and cruise Main Street with the boats! It was crazy for a few days!”

“I remember walking across the highway at Dan and Anita Walser’s place and the water on the highway not only being up to my chest, but my stepdad had to help me cross because of the current. I was 16!” Jeremy Nicholson recalls.

The Cochranes, living near Hwy. 9, found no roads at all on which they could drive. Kim Cochrane said, “We drove down towards Hwy. 6 and it looked like a big lake. Carl Mantz’ house looked like a lake house. The weirdest thing I can remember most is as fast as it flooded the water left about as fast.”


Haskells keep store/gas open through it all

Jim and Renee Haskell, owners of the Princeton store and gas station, heroically kept the store open 24/7 during that time. They hauled groceries across Hatter Creek to people needing supplies. “What a nightmare,” Jim says.

Cathy Nowack had a beauty shop in a part of the Princeton store and she remembers, “I had just opened my Beauty Shop a month before. The owners of the store said there was water coming into the shop. I went up and put everything up high like the hood dryer and other things on a milk crate and went home. Then I got a call the inspector has come and the water was up to the door. I had to go down again to the shop to let him know he could not get in. How he even made it to Princeton past the Y is still a mystery because they had closed it down. The next day the water receded and there was about a foot that had made its way into the shop and (thankfully) everything was in good shape. We used the shopvac to rid of the rest of water and wait for it to dry.


“(There were) numerous wash outs on railroad tracks between Palouse and Bovill,” Rick Swinney said. “Many hours (were spent) repairing tracks to get trains running again.”
Scott Winther added he and Swinney went “hyrailing” the next morning and “the devastation we found was very sobering.”
I was born during that flood – Feb 11, 1996,” Kenneth Owens Jr. said.
Cindy Chaney “We were living out on Deep Creek,” Cindy Chaney said. “I called my dad and told him we now had ‘lake front property.’ The barn and house were sitting out there with the county road blocked both ways with water. I fought with Latah County about our home designated in a flood zone (with the hopes of removing that mandated flood insurance). I took photos to prove our house was high and dry in one of the worst floods (in history. Of course), I lost that argument.”
flood deary cutoff IMAG0014

A view down the Deary cut-off a few days before the water reached its crest. The road was closed and impassable for more than a week.