From The Pueblo Chieftain (Zach Hillstrom):
Over three days in June 1921, Pueblo experienced a natural disaster that forever changed the course of its history.
Even a century later, the effects of the Great Flood of 1921 can be seen throughout the Home of Heroes, particularly in the city’s infrastructure and economy, which were completely transformed by the devastating flood and Pueblo’s decades-long recovery.
Many Pueblo natives know most of the city’s seminal story by heart: a cloudburst brought heavy rains to the area on June 2, causing the Arkansas River – which was already prone to seasonal flooding – to swell. More intense rain on June 3 caused the Arkansas River to overflow Pueblo’s levee at just more than 18 feet and envelope downtown Pueblo in water.
By midnight on June 4, according to the Colorado Encyclopedia, the flooding peaked at more than 241 2 feet. The im- mense volume was enough to break levees in several spots and it took only two hours for Pueblo’s entire business district to become submerged.
Damage from the flood, most of which occurred on the second day when both the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek overran their banks, was unimaginable. The flood inundated 300 square miles. More than 500 homes were carried away in the floodwaters along with 98 businesses or industrial buildings, 61 stores, 46 locomotives and more than 1,200 railroad cars. A local lumberyard caught fire; burning lumber was sent floating down flooded city streets. Telephone lines were destroyed, and corpses of cows, horses and other livestock littered the valley. A 1921 report on the flood by the United States Geological Survey estimated the total property damage to be more than $19 million. Adjusted for inflation, that equates to more than $280 million today. Other estimates go as high as $25 million in damage, or nearly $373 million today. The death toll was also catastrophic, though there’s no universally accepted total. Estimates range from fewer than 100 deaths to more than 1,500. The USGS report said 78 bodies were recovered in the aftermath, which is likely a fraction of the actual lives lost. Many bodies washed downstream and were either recovered months later or never found. And many of the dead were poor immigrants, making their absence more difficult for authorities to detect. But even after the water receded, mud and debris had been removed from city streets and the recovered dead were buried, the impacts of the flood on Pueblo were just beginning.
A recovery with dire consequences
In the aftermath of the flood, it became apparent that Pueblo’s infrastructure was not sufficient to prevent another devas- tating flood event. The city needed a new, larger river channel to ensure that when the Arkansas swelled from spring rains and Rocky Mountain snowmelt, it could not cause such destruction again. Legislation was passed at the Colorado Capitol to create the Pueblo Conservancy District, which set about building a new channel to divert the river away from Downtown Pueblo. “When it was set up years ago, the conservancy district had to move the river to its current location,” said Corinne Koehler, the current president of the Pueblo Conservancy District.
“Back then, that’s where a lot of the train tracks were, so they had to tear up and move the train tracks, they had to rebuild bridges, it was a multi-faceted project. It wasn’t just putting up a levee, they had to redo roads, bridges, anything that was destroyed that would have been crossing over the Arkansas River.” The levee was completed ahead of schedule in March 1926. And although its completion was a breath of relief for Pueblo in terms of preventing future floods, the creation of the conservancy district came with dire conse- quences to the Pueblo economy.
Peggy Willcox, a researcher with the Pueblo County Historical Society who helped write a recently published book about the flood entitled, ‘Mad River,’ said the district’s creation was a necessity following the flood, but the legislation enacted had major drawbacks for Pueblo.
“In order to create the conservancy district to pay for the flood control, they had to get the legislature to approve it,” Willcox said.
“Well the northern counties, some of them had been wanting a tunnel west from Denver ever since (Gen. William Jackson Palmer) built the (Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad), because there was no viable way to ship goods from Denver west on the D& RG.” Prior to that time, every train going west had to come through Pueblo. So northern Colorado counties, particularly in the Denver area, sought to bypass Pueblo by building a tunnel that could ship freight or passenger trains directly west.
To get its conservancy district, Pueblo would have to approve the construction of the Moffat Tunnel – a railroad and water tunnel that cuts through the Continental Divide. It officially opened in 1928.
“They held Pueblo hostage,” Koehler said, “And said, ‘If you want a conservancy district and a levee, you have to vote for the Moffat Tunnel.” The creation of the Moffat Tunnel was the beginning of the end of Pueblo’s prominence as a railroad hub…
Economic impacts in the aftermath of Pueblo’s great flood
Pueblo’s eventual fall from grace as Colorado’s primary railroad hub was far from the only way the flood devastated the city’s economy. In the days immediately following June 5, many businesses were severely damaged and closed their doors, some forever. “After the flood there were industries that never reopened,” Willcox said. “Pueblo was then the smelter capital of the world, that’s what they called it, and there were only two smelters left and both of them were severely damaged by the flood and never really reopened. ‘So that was a large number of jobs.” Not long after the flood, Willcox said, the CF& I steel mill shut down for several months due to a shortage of raw supplies as well as a lack of railroad access, as the flood heavily damaged lo- cal rails. Several smaller manufactories in flooded areas closed. Many of those that eventually reopened did so in cities outside of Pueblo where there were more workers and easier access to rail transporta- tion. But the bigger impact, Willcox said, was how the flood seemed to dry up investments from out-ofstate capitalists, which were common prior to 1921. “That money kind of dried up after the flood,” Willcox said. “The investment from outside of Pueblo diminished greatly.”
There was a decades-long recovery effort in Pueblo after the flood
With some of its most prominent economic drivers devastated by the flood, Willcox said Pueblo’s economy seemed to become more one-di- mensional. “It’s not so much that Pueblo never recovered, it’s that it never recovered the growth rate that it had prior to the flood,” Willcox said. “When you look at the city’s population and the number of industries that were here prior to the flood Pueblo was a manufacturing center it was really a diverse group of manufactories. “And then after the flood some of them never came back but some of them were no longer as prevalent in the market as they had been and eventually died out. So I think, anecdotally, we became more dependent on the steel mill because of that.” Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University Pueblo who has researched the flood extensively, said one of the biggest impacts of the flood was the opportunity cost Pueblo paid in the years that fol- lowed. “There’s the cost of rebuilding the town, there is the economic damage caused by the lost business but there’s also a cost as to what doesn’t happen because Pueblo has to spend so much time rebuilding from the flood,” Rees said. “Different things could have happened to Pueblo but didn’t because we were too busy trying to prevent future disasters.” In the 1920s, the United States economy was seeing one of its strongest periods of prosperity. But while other communities were able to leverage those desirable economic factors for improvement, Pueblo was stuck rebuilding. “You’re investing in the future in the sense that you’re trying to prevent future floods, but you’re not growing businesses, you’re not helping businesses that might not have been able to reopen, you’re not doing the kinds of things that cities that aren’t effected by the flood are doing at the same time,” Rees said.
“So when America is roaring, Pueblo isn’t.” After the Great Depression came the New Deal, and Rees said although Pueblo did benefit some from the New Deal, it likely would have had a greater effect on Pueblo and its growth if flood recovery efforts were not still taking place. As Pueblo struggled, its neighbor to the north, Colorado Springs, was put in a position to pros- per. “I would simply imagine that any program that came to Colorado Springs between 1921 and 1965, could have come to Pueblo under different circum- stances,” Rees said. “It’s safe to say that before World War II we were a much bigger place. We have certain advantages over Colorado Springs like our steady supply of water. However, we are engaged in rebuilding the entire downtown for a very long time.” Rees said that rebuilding Pueblo and redesigning its infrastructure was a necessary endeavor, but one that set Pueblo’s development back years, if not decades.
“While we’re doing that to guarantee our future existence, other places are taking advantage of good economic times or government programs in bad economic times to help become bigger and more economically active than they had before,” Rees said.
“And Pueblo was essentially holding in place for most of the 20th century.”
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):
When it came to covering the flood of June 3, 1921, The Colorado Daily Chieftain, also known as The Pueblo Chieftain, went to extraordinary measures to keep the citizens of Pueblo informed as news of the devastation unfolded. It all started with a Saturday, June 4, 1921, special edition emblazoned with the all-caps headline, “FLOOD EXTRA.” The two-page special edition had no photographs and no advertisements. It even had empty space at the bottom of the second page, a testament to how hastily it was put together. A June 9 edition of the Chieftain reported, “it was utterly impossible” to print regular editions of the paper, “because of the failure of electric power and gas,” and the editor promised to republish the extra editions “when regular conditions are restored.” That first extra edition was chock full of stories about “The largest flood visiting Pueblo since Decoration Day 1894,” which “gutted the business and wholesale business districts of the city.” Initially, the paper announced, “More than a score of lives were reported lost when both the Missouri Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande passenger trains were swept into the river near Nuckolls Packing company. Many others were reported dead.”
Puebloans faced rebuilding one-seventh of the city
By June 12, the newspaper reported the city faced “the necessity of rebuilding about one-seventh of its present area. It is inconceivable that this great industrial city, so favorably located for commerce, should drop out of existence or shrink to the proportions of a village.” That same issue shared stories of large objects moved by the flood waters like a freight car forced sideways through a brick apartment house, another freight car carried a block and a half and a 3,000-pound safe that traveled across Union Avenue.
There also was an instance of a body in a steel casket that traveled a distance of more than a mile. Tales of Puebloan’s generosity were shared as both known and unidentified bodies were laid to rest with flowers paid for by “warm sympathetic hearts. Pueblo’s undertakers and florists have bestowed the humane tribute in every case, whether high or low, rich or poor, black or white, known or unknown.” Official water depths were reported including the McCarthy block, at North Main and Union, where the water reached a depth of 12-feet-6 inches. The width of the flood was reported as one mile “through the center of the city’s business section, with losses totaling more than $3 million.” The city’s drinking water was finally declared safe to drink on June 12. One story reported that P.A. Payne of Pueblo, who had been arrested by Colorado Springs police on a bootlegging charge, was saved from certain death as “the flood sweat away every vestige of the house.” Another story reported the body of Missouri Pacific passenger train Engineer S.G. Evans was recovered 10 miles downriver and shortly afterwards, “the body of a two-day old baby was recovered in the same district.” By June 15, the newspaper looked to the future and urged, “The matter of making the Arkansas flood proof is the big subject now in hand. ‘Pueblo’s flood was not one of something breaking, accidental or unforeseen, but has been a real live danger of the past and is a remaining danger of the future unless checked,” one prominent businessman, who was unnamed, was quoted. The June 15 issue also had a story under the headline, “How the flood left the heart of Pueblo,” indicated that once the water subsided, the mud was “over 2 feet deep” and “workers prodded through the mud in search of victims buried in the slime.” The June 16 issue of the newspaper had a story about the brave dog “Casabianca” who stayed on a shed roof for three days even though the distance to the dry land was short. Other dogs even waded out to visit her, but she stayed put until her owner arrived and carried her to safety along with a bundle of clothes which she had apparently been guarding. By June 16, the newspaper also was reporting on damage downstream of Pueblo in La Junta.
From KOAA (Caitlin Sullivan):
A high-risk zone, could this happen again?
Meteorologically speaking, an event like this can and will happen again. The largest floods in state history generally happen along the front range, specifically along main rivers (Arkansas, Cache La Poudre, Big Thompson, South Platte, etc.).
The north-south oriented Rockies create a barrier for wind flow, forcing air to rise and condense along the front range, creating rain and thunderstorms.
During the June 1921 flood, a persistent easterly flow of warm and humid was funneled along the Arkansas River from wide-open Pueblo county into the sharper canyon in Fremont county. This led to 5 days of heavy rain totaling over 6 inches in Florence and Pueblo. This rain was most intense the night of June 3rd and the morning of June 4, where a cloudburst (extremely heavy burst of rain) led to the Arkansas river cresting at a whopping 24.66 feet.
At its peak, the Arkansas river flow was at 103,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), where the levees were built for 40,000 cfs at the time.
The main concern about future floods is whether infrastructure can withstand them. Pueblo was able to rebuilt just a few years after the flood and increased the city’s ability to withstand another flood of 1921.