Silver Fork still recovering from floods
Bob and Julie Ussery had just finished remodeling the Silver Fork Store, including new gas pumps and underground storage tanks. The grand opening was at 2 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1996. About 20 hours later, all hell broke loose.
“It was our 30th wedding anniversary,” said Julie, who has run the store and gas station next to U.S. Highway 50 with her husband for 14 years. “We had always done well here, and this was the next step. We were looking forward to the future.”
But fate, and nature, intervened. A series of storms that forced more than 125,000 California residents from their homes due to floods and mud slides also made their mark on the tiny communities of Kyburz and Silver Fork.
First, flooding on the American River damaged homes and caused a 100-foot section of U.S. Highway 50 to collapse. Then, on Jan. 24, a huge mud slide above the river at Whitehall – a few miles west of Silver Fork – sent an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of mud and debris onto the roadway, effectively closing the artery for what many thought would be at least six months.
Three homes were buried in the slide, and two cars were enveloped on the roadway.
Amazingly, no one was killed.
But homeowners and businesses were devastated, particularly the Usserys. They had just poured a large amount of money into improvements on their store, and less than a day later their source of income had literally washed away.
“We were open less than 24 hours,” said Julie Ussery. “Then it was devastation. The road was closed, which meant no money. At first they told us it would be six months to a year before the road would be open again. And looking at what happened, I could believe it.”
When the rain finally stopped and the flood waters receded, the Usserys decided to drive east a bit to see what things looked like toward Kyburz. But as they were driving slowly up Highway 50, a woman they knew began waving them over to the side of the road. They got out of the car and discovered that the road at that point was just asphalt, with nothing underneath.
“It had all washed away,” she said. “If we had gone any farther we probably would have been killed.”
Financially, it was a terrible blow.
“We had borrowed about $100,000 for the remodel,” she said. “But after the storm and the slide, it went up to $250,000. We had tapped out our credit cards, our savings, everything. They told us the road would be closed a long time. We said ‘Well, we’re broke. What now?’ “
The Usserys, who also were and are part owners of the Strawberry Market, decided to stick it out and get through the disaster, somehow. Other businesses didn’t make it. The owners of the Kyburz Lodge sold out. A store in Twin Bridges folded. And the owner of the Silver Fork Cafe, which is just a few yards from the Usserys’ store, left and never returned.
The Usserys were determined to survive. They rented out rooms in their home to highway road crews, and prepared meals for the hundreds of workers who labored to clear the road of tons of debris. It is estimated that 25,000 dump-truck loads of dirt had to be removed from the roadway due to the Mill Creek Slide.
“I would get up at 5:30 every morning to cook breakfast for the construction workers,” she said. “Those people were very nice to us. If it hadn’t of been for the generosity of Caltrans and Pac Bell and the county and all the others, I don’t know how we would have made it.”
The community also banded together in the initial days of the storm, when things looked darkest.
“When you live up here, you have to be able to take care of yourself,” Ussery said. “When the flood first hit, we were totally cut off. There was no police, no Caltrans or Highway Patrol. No one but us for days.
“It was a holiday weekend, so there were a lot of vacationers up here in cabins. They didn’t know what to do. It was a mess. People were stranded on the other side of the river. I remember (Silver Fork resident) Jim Slaight up to his waist in water, throwing a rescue line to get people to safety.”
The community came together to get people fed and housed until help could arrive.
“We had potluck dinners,” Ussery said. “The power was out everywhere, so we had to cook up all the meat and use up the perishables. Those first couple of potlucks were great, let me tell you. We had barbecued ribs and steak and chicken …
“But by the fifth potluck, it was getting pretty slim pickin’s. Beans and macaroni.”
One of the first agencies on the scene was Pacific Bell, who worked to repair phone lines.
“Pac Bell had a guy up here who went around and helped people fix their generators,” Ussery said. “They worked around the clock to keep communications open in town. That was important, because we had sick people here who were cut off from the outside world. We had a cancer patient who was taking chemotherapy drugs, we had a sick baby, a liver transplant patient … it was important to be able to check on those people.”
During the flood, 43 residents had to be airlifted out by helicopter.
“The Pac Bell guy walked all the way here from St. Pauli’s Inn (about 9 miles west) to help us with our phone line.”
FEMA also chipped in, supplying emergency funds, loans and mental health personnel to help residents through the disaster.
Today, the Usserys are doing well, although still not to the level that they were before the storms.
“It took about a year for people to get the idea that the road was open,” Ussery said. “To this day, you still have tourists who think the road is closed every winter.”
U.S. Highway 50 opened for good on Feb. 20, 1997. Soon thereafter, the Usserys were asked by the county to remove a dead tree that was standing on their property.
“Instead of cutting it down, I got the idea of making it into something,”
Ussery said. “Two artists from Pollock Pines donated their services to carve it into a totem pole. We had just been through a devastating time, and I began thinking what we could do to commemorate our survival.”
Slowly, the totem pole took shape. A face of bleak despair at the base. A face of hope above that. A little higher, a hawk to guard against disaster. As the monument grew, it told the story of the entire community – how it endured and bonded and ultimately prospered.
“Every morning while the guys were carving it, an eagle would fly down from the trees just up the highway, and he’d land in a tree right across the highway and watch them work,” Ussery said. “It was the strangest thing. So when they got to the top of the totem pole, they made an eagle.”
And the eagle still sits atop the pole and watches over Silver Fork. If you’re ever on your way to or from Tahoe, pull over and take a look. Take a minute to savor life just outside the fast lane. These days, it’s particularly sweet.
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