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Looking Back: March '64 Tsunami That Wrecked Oregon Coast, Photos

Published 03/27/2020 at 5:54 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Looking Back: March '64 Tsunami That Wrecked Oregon Coast, Photos

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(Oregon Coast) – On March 27, 1964, it was anything but a good Friday when the infamous Good Friday quake hit Alaska. What is called a megathrust quake violently shook Anchorage later in the evening, which then caused a massive tsunami to strike the Oregon coast and destroy property and take the lives of four children. It did much more damage farther south at Crescent City, California. (Photo above: surveying the damage in Cannon Beach, courtesy Cannon Beach History Museum).

Seaside geologist Tom Horning was just a teen then, asleep in an upstairs loft in a cabin separate from the main family house on their property on the Necanicum River. He awoke to the startling noise of water rushing through the structure. If he had been sleeping downstairs he would not have made it.

That incident helped steer him into the field of geology, which includes much documentation of that fateful night. He’s acquired loads of photos of the melee in Seaside, found here in this article.

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

It all hit about 11:30 in the evening, on an otherwise clear and pleasant moonlit night.

Cars and entire structures were moved around like toys. Bridges in Seaside were taken out, and in Cannon Beach the only bridge there was smashed to bits, leaving residents literally stranded if they had only automobiles to use.

The Cannon Beach History Museum has compiled many stories from the great tsunami. It writes:

“The news of the quake in Alaska and tales of an approaching tsunami was rebuffed by some, at least at first. The community of Cannon Beach was prepared for any number of Northern squalls, floods, and fires, but this was something different, something unexpected.

“Bridget Snow and her husband had a unique view from one of the bluffs in Cannon Beach. As they scanned the sea they noticed the wave approaching, ‘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 northern end of Cannon Beach got the worst of it, with homes torn from their foundations.

On the central Oregon coast, this photo from the Lincoln County Historical Society in Newport shows debris the next day at Ona Beach near Waldport.

At Newport’s Moolack Beach it was seriously tragic. A family of six from Washington had set up camp on the beach and was sleeping when a small, initial wave came in and nearly drowned them. The McKenzie couple tried frantically to grab their four children but couldn’t hang on to all of them.

The second surge threw mother Rita some 400 yards up the beach and took away the two kids. Father Monte was thrown up against a cliff with the water also snapping the kids out of his hands. All four kids and the dog were swept away.

As disastrous as this was to the Oregon coast, it did give future generations a guidepost for planning for the big quake / tsunami that will hit the region someday. In Cannon Beach, the lost bridge inspired locals to create the sand castle festival that June, which has grown into a nationally-recognized event. More at Oregon Coast Geology, and deeper details of this tsunami in the Ultimate Oregon Coast Travel books.

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