The Devastating River Douro Flood of Christmas 1909

Sr. Arlindo, the farm manager at Quinta dos Malvedos points to the 1909 flood mark on the stone terraces.
Sr. Arlindo, the farm manager at Quinta dos Malvedos points to the 1909 flood mark on the stone terraces.

104 years ago, almost to the day, one of the most notorious floods in the recorded history of the Douro Valley wreaked havoc along the River Douro’s course, unleashing its relentless destructive force on countless riverside vineyards, villages and towns. The twin cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, straddling the Douro close to where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean suffered badly, particularly in the days leading up to Christmas. The previous post carried a photograph showing the Malvedos farm manager, Sr. Arlindo pointing to the 1909 flood mark, which is painted on a large slab of schist embedded into one of the stone terrace’s supporting walls currently undergoing restoration at Quinta dos Malvedos. This raised everybody’s curiosity at the Quinta and was quickly followed by some delving into the past to better understand the flood’s scale and how it impacted on Malvedos and the rest of the region.

Quinta dos Malvedos, photographed in early January 1910, a couple of weeks after the epic flood of Decemmber 1909.
Quinta dos Malvedos, photographed in early January 1910, a couple of weeks after the epic flood of December 1909.

First hand evidence of what happened exists in our own archives. In an entry in one of our preserved vineyard records books, dated January 11th 1910 and written at Quinta do Zimbro, just two miles (3.5 km) upstream from Malvedos, the account reads: “December 22/23 will always be remembered in the Douro Valley as being the date of the height of the most destructive flood; it carried away lodges, olive trees and vineyards. The water reached this house [Zimbro] and flowed through the lodge. After continuous rains through the whole month of December, the river Douro rose with extraordinary rapidity until the 23rd when it reached the lodge here, the iron work of the Pinhão bridge and even up to the top of the chapel door of the Quinta do Vesuvio. The destruction of all the lodeiros on the banks of the river being complete.”

The Quinta do Zimbro lodge (building on the right of the photograph, which was reached by the Douro floodwaters in 1909.
The Quinta do Zimbro lodge (building on the right of the photograph), which was reached by the Douro floodwaters in 1909.

Quinta do Zimbro, which was owned by the Symington family until the mid 20th-century, suffered much damage because its cluster of buildings were (are) built relatively close to the Douro’s banks (between 50 and 100 metres above sea level) — hence more vulnerable to the river’s unpredictable moods. In contrast, the house at Malvedos is sited on a commanding ridge at 150 metres altitude and was thus spared the worst effects of the raging torrent. The vineyards planted on the stone terraces built below the house and which descend towards the Síbio stream did sustain some damage, although the sturdy dry stone walls remained largely intact. The archive photo below (taken in the new year of 1910) shows the loamy deposit left behind on the ‘Port Arthur’ vineyard terraces at Malvedos as the floodwaters receded.

The 'Port Arthur' Stone Terraces vineyard at Malvedos in the aftermath of the 1909 flood.
The ‘Port Arthur’ Stone Terraces vineyard at Malvedos in the aftermath of the 1909 flood.

The cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, which face each other close to the Douro’s estuary sustained widespread damage and some loss of life. The force of the torrent took everything in its path including 50 vessels, from fishing boats to steamers, which were washed out to sea and sank. Hundreds more broke their moorings and the force of the current smashed them against the banks and buildings on both the Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia sides. The Port lodges in Gaia built closer to the river’s banks sustained considerable damage. Period accounts tell of hundreds of pipes of Port being washed out to sea.

Buildings alongside the banks of the Douro in Porto suffer from the effects of the flooding during December 1909.
Buildings alongside the banks of the Douro in Porto suffer from the effects of the flooding during December 1909.

Abundant rain had been falling incessantly in the Douro region and in Porto since the beginning of the month of December. Adding to the volume of the Douro’s own waters were the discharges from scores of tributaries, many of them large rivers in their own right. By December 23rd, the rain finally stopped but the level of the river continued to rise remorselessly. It reached a point where its surface was just 50cm below the lower span of the Dom Luis ‘double-decker’ iron bridge (see photo below). It was feared this lower span could be washed away, possibly destroying the whole bridge. Emergency plans were hastily prepared to place explosive charges along the lower span, sacrificing it in order to save the main structure (including the upper span which linked the higher parts of the city of Porto and Gaia). Fortunately, this drastic measure proved unnecessary and one of Porto’s principal landmarks was saved. Inaugurated in 1886, it is still in use today, serving both the lower and higher levels of the twin cities.

The Dom Luis Bridge which narrowly missed being washed away by the destructive force of the 1909 flood.
The Dom Luis Bridge which narrowly missed being washed away by the destructive force of the 1909 flood.

From the early 1960s, hydroelectric dams began to be built along the course of the Douro and they have largely tamed this erstwhile wild and unpredictable river — almost. As recently as March 2001 the force of the Douro’s waters led to the collapse of a bridge at Entre-os-Rios, resulting in the loss of 59 lives.

The Douro floodwaters invade the lower sections of Vila Nova de Gaia, where many Port lodges were seriously damaged.
The Douro floodwaters invade the lower sections of Vila Nova de Gaia, where many Port lodges were seriously damaged.

6 thoughts on “The Devastating River Douro Flood of Christmas 1909”

  1. Was there any recorded change in growth of vines effected by the flood considering the alluvial mud left on the terraces? Although frightening, it could have done some good – or maybe not.

    1. It’s a very interesting point you raise. We don’t have any specific records suggesting the vines developed differently as a result of the alluvial deposit. Certainly no adverse effects appear to have been incurred; very fine wines continued to be made from these vineyards after the flood. Grapes from these vines contributed to the magnificent 1912 Graham’s Vintage Port, one of the classic Vintage Ports of the early 20th-century. What we can say though is that the best wines in the Douro grow in the rocky schist soils. As in any great wine region, the vine has to ‘suffer’ to produce great wines; overly fertile soils are not the ideal medium for growing great wines.

  2. Reblogged this on The Etna Wine School   and commented:
    The gentility and power of Nature are both beautiful and earthscaping. This intriguing story takes us back in time to 1909 as we learn about the effects of high quantities of water being administered over short periods of time into the Duoro Valley. Enjoy!

    1. We’re happy that our post on the 1909 flood which affected the Douro Valley was of interest to you and we’re very happy that you shared it with your followers.

    2. Thank you so much for your response. I am very aware of the value of schist in the Douro following your advertising  for Cockburns in the British press!

      My regards to your team, and I will continue to read blogs with great interest.

      Best wishes Ben Emrys-Roberts

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