June 3, 1921
On this day a 15-foot wall of swept down Pike’s Peak, leveling downtown Pueblo, Colorado, and killing as many as 1,500 people.
It was one of the nation’s most devastating floods. A perfect storm, the cause was nearly simultaneous cloud bursts that began at the confluence of the Arkansas River and its smaller tributary, Fountain Creek. Epic rainfall brought a torrent plummeting down 4,600 feet onto the community of 40,000.
The first hint of trouble came at 6:30 that Friday evening when an unidentified caller alerted the city to flooding ten miles upstream. The water’s path over unforgiving granite, through narrow mountain valleys and down a precipitous drop created a virtual flume. It made tinder out of rail cars, carried buildings away whole and caused $25 million in damages, estimated at more than $300 million today.
With an average annual rainfall of just 12 inches, Pueblo was already water-logged. There was no weather station in the city at the time but statistics from the Denver bureau indicated that as much as six inches had fallen there two-day before. Within two hours, the city’s wholesale and retail districts were under 10 feet of water.
Over a long and horrible night, there were hundreds of acts of heroism. Not the smallest was the decision by the city’s telephone operators, mostly women, to remain at their posts to warn citizens downstream as the telephone building took on nine and a half feet of water. Luckily, all of the operators were eventually rescued.
When the flood receded, the storm’s impact had spread over more than 300 square miles, swept away 600 homes and carried off countless victims whose remains were never recovered.
Coloradans from across the state as well as national organizations responded, including the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. military but it took several days to reach the stricken area. In the bleak interim, Pueblo’s Elks Club sheltered some 3,000 homeless survivors.
To make sure another “perfect storm” could never wreak havoc on Pueblo again, the Arkansas River channel was diverted south of the city. Eventually the original channel was turned into the historic Riverwalk. As well as commemorating the Great Flood, it transformed a blighted area into an idyllic two-mile loop through the heart of downtown.
Historically known as the “Steel City” for it’s thriving industries, today Pueblo has become a tourist mecca and a center for alternative energy development. With one of the warmest climates in Colorado, the city has committed its more than 100,000 residents to a hundred percent renewable energy future by the year 2035.
In 1993 Congress officially designated it the City of Heroes. Pueblo holds the record for the largest number of Congressional Medal of Honor winners per capita of any community in America. Its heroes are celebrated annually on Pueblo’s National Medal of Honor Day.
El Pueblo History Museum, 301 North Union, just two blocks from Pueblo’s East River Walk, furnishes background on cultural and ethnic groups in the community and the region. An 1840s adobe structure used as a trading post is located on the site and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The museum store features regional foods, crafts and a variety of regional and western history materials.
Administered by History Colorado, admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, military, students with ID and children 6-12. Children under 6 are free and all children 6 to 12 are free on Saturdays. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 to 4. Open Sundays, noon to 4 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Independence Day and all Colorado State holidays. For more information go to historycolorado.org or call 719-583-0453.
© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.