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1964 Tsunami Part 3: Tearing Up Bridges, Homes on the N. Oregon Coast

Published 03/27/22 at 4:55 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

1964 Tsunami Part 3: Tearing Up Bridges, Homes on the N. Oregon Coast

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(Seaside, Oregon) – About 5:30 p.m. on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the largest quake ever measured in North America happened at a magnitude 9.2, causing a tsunami that left an unforgettable tract of damage and destruction on the Oregon coast a few hours later. (Photo of Seaside courtesy Tom Horning's collection)

The north Oregon coast got the brunt of it.

Today is the 58th anniversary of the event. This is part 3 in the special series on the 1964 quake and tsunami, covering the north Oregon coast. Part 1 covers the south coast (1964 Tsunami Part 1: Its Impact on S. Oregon Coast ), and part 2 covers the central Oregon coast , where five people died (1964 Tsunami Part 2: Tragedy, Destruction Hits Central Oregon Coast).

Back then, there was no warning system in place, though TV and radio reports were warning of something on its way. Whatever it was, it was gunning for Cannon Beach and Seaside with some serious angry resolve. The first surge hit Seaside and Cannon Beach around 11:30 p.m., which did the most damage. A second tidal wave (they did not use the word tsunami yet in those days) pummeled the region about 1 a.m. Like the rest of the Oregon coast, more surges followed for about 12 hours.

Damage occurred around Tillamook and likely to places like Garibaldi, Oceanside and Rockaway Beach, but nothing is in the papers of the time.

Bridge at Seaside, courtesy Horning

Tom Horning was a resident of Seaside back then, and these days he's a well-renowned geologist who still lives on the property he grew up on right there on the Necanicum estuary. Consequently, he's documented a lot of what happened then.

“The Seaside tsunami of 1964 was from 8.5 to 19 ft high and came in on a 7.8 ft tide,” Horning said.

In many parts of the coast, but especially Seaside, it was noted water receded outward suddenly just before the big surge. One eyewitness documented by Horning said the Necanicum River had shrunk to a width of 45 feet, whereas normally it filled an area 135 feet wide.

Biggest of the surges seemed to happen around the Cove at Seaside's southern end, where you could see a giant trough in the ocean some 1200 yards out, Horning said. That wave barreled up the cobblestones and through nearby neighborhoods, leaving debris between homes and basements flooded.

Surges came over the Promenade, leaving masses of debris. On the northern end of town, a policeman heard a sudden louder roar of the ocean and felt an anomalous surge of wind from the west. He wound up speeding east along 12th Ave., seeing the drawdown of the river and barely missing the surge that came up the waterway.

In Cannon Beach, the Cannon Beach History Museum notes that some were hearing about the tidal wave from regional media, and though they were warning other residents, few believed it. One woman in town saw the wave approaching in the moonlit night: “from a distance (it) moved in flat, curling to shore and rising in height about a foot a second, about ten feet in all.“

Museum archives show Margaret Sroufe spotting dancing blue and green orbs just as the power went out, likely coming from electrical systems shorting out in what she described as a 30-foot wall of water. She watched an entire home move, swirl around a telephone pole and the bridge getting shoved into a nearby pasture.

The tsunami took out two integral bridges in the area, leaving Cannon Beach cut off for days. Interestingly, it was in this situation the famed Cannon Beach Sandcastle Festival was born. Locals held such a contest to distract themselves. Later that year, to try and lure tourists back, they held the first official contest in June. It's been running ever since.

Surges took out bridges in Seaside and tossed cars around. The photos collected by Horning from this are hair-raising.

Yet it's his own story of the north Oregon coast disaster that is the most harrowing .

Horning was asleep upstairs in a cabin separate from the main house, actually sleeping through the first major surge. Water came rushing in the bottom floor and he didn't notice. He'd actually seen the warning on TV about 8:30 p.m., and told his mom. She simply told him and his brother to get to bed.

“At 11:30, in comes the first tsunami surge, then withdraws, leaving sand, logs, detritus, dense foam, fish, worms, and shrimp when a few minutes earlier was grass and lawn,” Horning said. “The dock, car, fencing, were swept away, but the cottage stayed put due to its piling foundations embedded into the sand soils. Apparently, no logs rammed the cottage, notwithstanding the 4 ft diameter driftwood all over the yard. My sister’s boyfriend kept my mother from wading through the surge to save us two boys.”

He woke Horning and his brother with “Get up, guys. There’s been a tidal wave.” If he'd been asleep downstairs, he wouldn't be around now.

“We were changed by it, that’s for sure,” Horning told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “Never spoke during a wailing fire siren until it went back down. There are still driftwood logs and stumps on the property from that day." MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Seaside, courtesy Horning

Cannon Beach, courtesy Cannon Beach History Museum

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