When the hard rains fell
Most of the time, rain in Colorado is a good thing. With an annual average precipitation of only 14 – 17 inches, most of it falling in the mountains, this is a semiarid state. But when heavy rains come, particularly during dry years, they can be deadly. Between 20 and 30 significant floods occur annually in the state. While most are merely inconvenient and don’t receive much publicity, others have been devastating.
During the past century and a half, the most severe floods in terms of loss of life and property damage have been the multiple Cherry Creek floods, the Pueblo Flood of 1921 and the Big Thompson Flood of 1976. More recently, the catastrophic floods of 2013 caused considerable damage in Boulder County.
Nearly 140 years ago, the Great Flood of 1864 nearly destroyed newborn Denver when innocent-looking Cherry Creek shocked settlers by morphing into a raging torrent. With frightening force, a wall of water swept away trees, buildings and at least 19 people who stood in its way. The Arapaho, who camped along Cherry Creek for generations, had warned settlers of potential danger, but ignoring both the Native Americans and experienced mountain men, gold-seekers built rickety frame structures along the creek bed. Denver’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, actually stood on stilts in the middle of the creek to show impartiality between the Auraria and Denver City settlements.
After a week of heavy rains cascaded over the plains and inundated the dry streambed, the citizenry was abruptly awakened at midnight on May 19 by a terrifying roar. In typical flowery Victorian prose, journalist O.J. Goldrick described a sound “like the roaring of Niagara or the rumbling of an enraged Etna…the water engine of death dragging its watery train of maddening waves.”
Rocky Mountain News staff escaped by grabbing a rope thrown from shore, just as the office was swept away by the water and buried in the sand. The flood destroyed the newspaper’s 3,000 lb. cylinder press, scattering pieces of type along the creekbed. After the cataclysm, the newspaper wisely relocated to 236 Larimer. Other casualties included Trinity Methodist Church and City Hall, while low-lying Auraria (which later became west Denver) was the hardest hit. Total losses approximated $350,000.
More than a century passed before the Cherry Creek problem would be resolved, with floodwaters inundating the city again in 1878, 1912, 1933 and 1965. The last Cherry Creek flood began on June 16, 1965 with a 14” downpour near Larkspur that sent a wall of water up Plum Creek and into the South Platte. Downtown was nearly paralyzed, while bridges, homes and businesses washed away at a cost of $530 million. Six people died. After the 1965 calamity, public outcry led to development of major flood control projects including Cherry Creek Dam and Chatfield Reservoir.
One of the state’s most horrific floods and biggest news stories occurred in southern Colorado. The 1921 Pueblo Flood is the yardstick by which all other floods in the state have been measured. At least 260 people died as two rampaging rivers, the Arkansas and the Fountain, converged on the city. The Pueblo Flood actually consisted of three consecutive floods, the first caused by heavy rain in the Dry Creek area on June 2. The storm clouds gathered again on Friday afternoon, June 3, and by late afternoon torrential rains had forced evacuation of low-lying neighborhoods. As the Arkansas rose, sightseers gathered along the banks to watch the rising waters, impervious to the flood-warning sirens.
At approximately 8 p.m., the torrent ripped into the levee west of the city and a 10 ft. wall of water cascaded over the Union Avenue Bridge and down Main Street. People, houses, cars and even trains were swept away by the floodwaters as spectators scrambled for higher ground. Many escaped by climbing to the second stories of the buildings, while others watched the devastation from the relative safety of Goat Hill, the city’s high ground. The flood peaked on Friday night, June 3, when water stood nearly 15’ at the intersection of 1st and Santa Fe, the lowest point in the business district. On Sunday morning, Schaeffer Dam on Beaver Creek broke, flooding the city again and impeding rescue and cleanup efforts.
The black river swooped down upon two passenger trains, the Missouri Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande, flipping the railroad cars on their sides. Corpses, carcasses and millions of dollars in goods would be found in the quicksand of inundated farmlands for 35 miles on both sides of the Arkansas. More than 100 people lost their lives.
Since the 1921 Flood, the Arkansas has been moved, straightened and dammed so that it no longer presents a threat to the city. The Riverwalk has become a popular tourist destination, featuring boat rides, sculpture, shops and restaurants. Some buildings in downtown Pueblo’s historic district, however, still retain watermarks between their second and third floors, grim reminders of Mother Nature’s temper tantrum.
Colorado’s next major water disaster occurred July 31, 1976 in the Big Thompson Canyon, which runs 25 miles west from Loveland. Tourists and residents partied and picnicked in the Canyon on the weekend commemorating Colorado’s Centennial, the last holiday weekend before school would start. That night, a hard driving rain fell between 6:30 and 11 p.m., between 12 and 14 inches on slopes at the western end of the canyon. At 9 p.m. authorities began alerting campers to evacuate the area. Amazingly, some ignored the warning. When the flash flood hit the Canyon, 144 people died and 88 were seriously injured in what became Colorado’s deadliest natural disaster. Most had been camping by the riverbank. More than 1,200 survived by clinging to canyon walls or climbing out of the path of the 19 ft. wall of water.
More recently, the 2013 “1,000 year rain, 100 year flood” took its heaviest toll in Boulder County, where a total 17.15 inches fell between Sept. 9 and Sept. 16, approximately the same precipitation that all of Colorado usually experiences in an entire year. Several areas were hit hard, including the mountain towns of Estes Park and Lyons, which were isolated by floodwaters and inaccessible for days. In Longmont, the St. Vrain River, cut the city in half, while Boulder Creek swelled to raging torrent and the itself town became isolated by road closures The highest rainfall ever recorded in Boulder in a single day (9.08 inches) fell on Sept. 12. By the time it was over, nearly 900 homes were damaged or destroyed, 10,000 people would be evacuated and over $2 billion in damages reported. At the height of the flood, 1,000 people were unaccounted for, but miraculously, only eight people died.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce National Weather Service, flooding is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States, with more than half of all fatalities auto-related. Many lives have been lost because people failed to follow simple precautions:
1) Know your area’s flood risk.
2) Seek high ground immediately in the event of a flash flood. Leave your car.
3) Don’t try to walk or swim through a flooded area. Only six inches of floodwater can knock you off your feet, and two feet can carry away your automobile.
4) Avoid a flooded roadway – turn around and go back. Watch out for high water under heavy bridges and low areas.
5) Never camp next to a river.