Incoming Tide Part 3: Historic floods have left their mark on area

Nearly every river bridge in Pueblo washed away during the enormous, tragic flood of 1921, which killed 262 people and decimated most of the Steel City.
Nearly every river bridge in Pueblo washed away during the enormous, tragic flood of 1921, which killed 262 people and decimated most of the Steel City.

Flash floods may cause intense property destruction and loss of life, but they are limited in scope and duration. Regional floods may affect much of the Front Range and are caused by massive weather events that typically last for days, leaving widespread damage that requires many years of recovery.

Such floods are rare. There have been three in the past century — the Colorado Springs flood of 1935, the Pueblo flood of 1921 and the vast regional flood of 1965, which concentrated its fury on Denver.

This is the last in a three-part series about floods in Colorado and in the Pikes Peak region. Part 1 told the story of the flood of 1935, still the most destructive natural event in Colorado Springs’ history. Part 2 examined flash floods, with particular attention to Manitou Springs and the ominous likelihood of such events in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire.

The intent of this series has been to raise public awareness about floods, with the realization that similar conditions could produce a much worse outcome now, because of the fire last summer.

Pueblo’s 1921 flood

The 1921 Pueblo flood was the worst disaster in the history of Colorado. In scale, ferocity and loss of life, it surpasses every wildfire, flood, train wreck or plane crash in the state’s history.

Besides 262 deaths, much of downtown Pueblo was destroyed, farmlands east and south of the Steel City were flooded, irrigation structures were wrecked, and Pueblo’s economy was dealt a long-lasting blow.

Beginning June 2 that year, torrential rains swelled creeks and streams throughout the Arkansas River drainage system. Fountain Creek overflowed its banks as it coursed south from Colorado Springs, while mountain tributaries of the Arkansas quickly reached flood stage. Mountain reservoirs failed and a cresting flood moved swiftly down the Arkansas on the afternoon of June 3.

Sweeping through Pueblo’s thriving business and commercial district that evening, the flood destroyed much of the city’s built infrastructure. Two thousand railcars were smashed or overturned, eight of the nine bridges across the Arkansas and/or Fountain Creek were damaged or washed away, and hundreds of buildings were lost. Fires raged in the upper floors of flooded structures as houses and boxcars floated down Pueblo’s South Union Avenue.

“Starting shortly after 5:00 o’clock yesterday afternoon,” the Associated Press Colorado correspondent wrote, “Pueblo’s fire whistle sounded the flood alarm. Hundreds of persons took warning and gathering a few belongings sought safety in the hills around the city. Others paid no attention to the warning. Many of these paid with their lives.

“The flood swept into the city proper about 7:00 o’clock. In half an hour water was pouring over the top railings of bridges and the main business section was inundated. Street cars stopped, electric lights went off.

“In the darkness could be heard the roar of the onrushing waters and the crash of falling buildings. Here and there with the flashes of lightning spectators could see small houses floating about. And out of the night came the cries of stricken women and children, all appealing for help.

“Pueblo’s business district tonight is a mass of wrecked buildings … the death list will probably mount into the hundreds when toll is taken of wrecked residences and living houses in the river bottom … a trip over the city by airplane revealed a scene of disaster. Residences had been tossed over railroad passenger coaches and freight cars had been swept in every direction or smashed into kindling. Blackened ruins showed the location of fire. It looks as if a third of the city was in the flood district.”

The unidentified reporter’s on-scene report was breathless, melodramatic and sadly accurate. Contemporary accounts and photographs suggest that, if anything, AP’s reporter understated the scale and reach of the disaster.

Subsequent estimates of property damages and losses ranged from $13 to $19 million, in a city whose assessed valuation in 1921 was just over $33 million.

A few weeks later, the official flood toll stood at 262 people dead, missing or unaccounted for. The actual toll was likely much higher. Then, as now, homeless people and transients erected makeshift shelters along Fountain Creek and other low-lying areas, and an unknown number perished. For several years, human remains were found many miles downstream.

Few traces of the flood remain today. A bronze high-water mark 10 feet above the sidewalk can be seen at the former Union Station in downtown Pueblo, today protected from flooding on the Arkansas by Pueblo Reservoir and rebuilt levees along the river banks.

In 1921, Pueblo was the unrivaled commercial and financial center of southern Colorado. The city had east-west and north-south rail, a strong manufacturing and industrial base, a skilled workforce, and infrastructure to rival any small city in the country. In a few hours it was all swept away. Hundreds of businesses lost everything — their buildings, their inventory, their records, and even their workforce. Some never recovered, and many struggled to rebuild for years afterward.

The flood not only destroyed the past, but crippled the future. The Census counted 57,638 residents in Pueblo County in 1920, compared with 44,027 in El Paso County. Both counties grew slowly during the next 40 years, but then Pueblo’s growth virtually halted, thanks to the city’s long reliance on a single, stagnant industry — steel.

Pueblo’s population in 2010 reached 106,595, up from 50,000 in 1920. In the same period, Colorado Springs grew from 30,105 to 416,427.

Whether Pueblo’s more diversified pre-flood economy would have better weathered the storms of the next 90 years is a moot question, but the Census figures tell a simple story — the baton of regional leadership long ago passed to Colorado Springs.

The 1965 flood

On June 16, 1965, it was Denver’s turn.

Denver residents had little reason to anticipate a flood on that Monday afternoon. The area had experienced afternoon showers for several days, and the forecast called for scattered thundershowers. Farther south, in largely then-undeveloped areas around Castle Rock, violent rain from stalled thunderstorms turned the normally dry east and west branches of Plum Creek into flood conduits that quickly merged with the swollen South Platte River. The rains continued, not just in the mountains south and west of Denver, but all along the Front Range.

That evening, a flood crest as high as 15 feet came down the South Platte, tore through Littleton and rolled into Denver, cresting at 25 feet above its normal level.

Flood damage in Denver was exacerbated by the region’s longstanding laissez-faire policy toward dumping and pollution along the river. A vivid account of the flood on the city of Littleton’s website describes the sad state of the disrespected watercourse.

“What the South Platte had become was a waste dump. All along its length through the Denver area it was an eyesore littered by abandoned cars, refrigerators, construction debris and everything else that people looked to discard. In 1965, there was an accounting for that lack of respect for the South Platte River…”

Since 67 percent of Denver’s industrial area was located on the flood plain, the city suffered extensive damage. The crest passed quickly, but floodwaters picked up not only junked cars, but also old appliances and lumber as well as mobile homes, propane storage tanks, and anything movable within hundreds of yards of either riverbank.

Massive debris flows destroyed or severely damaged 26 bridges and closed down two riverside power plants. The floodwaters left behind several feet of mud and debris, which cost more than $1 million to clean up.

In Colorado Springs, flood waters nearly overtopped the Uintah Street bridge over Monument Creek, and flooding along Fountain Creek severely damaged roads and bridges. Nearly 1 million acres of eastern Colorado farmland was underwater, and floods forced the evacuation of Holly and Granada. In Teller County west of Pikes Peak, three reservoirs that had been in use since 1892 gave way, cutting a gorge 300 feet deep in the mountains just above the Gillett town site.

Statewide, estimated damage came to $540 million, with 28 deaths attributed to the flood.

Denver reacted quickly. Construction began within months on the Chatfield Dam, which was completed in 1972. And once the South Platte had been cleaned up, metro-area municipalities began transforming the river from an open-air sewer and garbage dump into a sparkling urban amenity.

Did they succeed? Anyone who has walked, biked, kayaked or just hung out along the South Platte River Greenway knows the answer.

The river got its respect.

(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on the history of major floods in this region over the past century, with public concern at new heights in the wake of the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012.)

Incoming tide – Part 1: Flood waters waylaid Springs in 1935

Incoming tide – Part 2: Flash floods might make region forget 1999