A cloudburst the afternoon of June 22, 1938, south of Pilot Rock brought a raging torrent of water through the business section of town, demolishing most of the businesses on the south side of Main Street and damaging many homes. No lives were lost and no injuries were suffered, thanks to the efforts of a pair of telephone operators who risked their lives to warn as many of the town’s residents and area ranchers as possible.
An extremely heavy downpour began about 2 p.m., and an hour later there was two feet of water on Main Street. The first hint of danger came from a farmer who warned the Pilot Rock telephone office of heavy rains on Bear Creek, a tributary of West Birch Creek. Operator Erline Gilliland immediately called all their subscribers on those creeks with the news. At 3:15 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Hans Nielsen, who lived five miles up East Birch Creek, called in a warning of a wall of water headed for town. Chief operator Maud Gilbert immediately called as many residents as they had numbers for to warn them of the coming flood. Most of the area residents were able to race to higher ground, and those remaining did their best to save valuable property and aid the escape of others. Gilliland was sent home to retrieve her belongings while Gilbert continued to man the phones.
The second rush of water hit Pilot Rock between 3:30 and 4 p.m., raising the level of East Birch Creek about 12 feet above normal. Gilbert stayed at her post until the water was a foot high outside the office, then waded to safety with her husband. The Gilberts returned to the telephone office when the water had receded to below their knees, and she continued to route calls and request aid from Pendleton for hours. The flash flood was over in about 20 minutes, but an hour after the crest of the flood had passed there was still a lot of water in the streets and East Birch Creek was running wild over wide swaths of farmland south of town.
Damage estimates to downtown businesses was about $32,000, but ruined cropland south of town also added to the devastation.
Operators Gilbert and Gilliland in May of 1939 were awarded the Theodore N. Vail bronze medals for outstanding public service by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. In the citation, district manager J.A. Murray recognized their “initiative, courage and devotion to duty in continuing an essential public service under hazardous conditions caused by flood.”