1911 floods brought havoc to Southwest Colorado, Part 1

Friday, May 5, 2017 9:15 AM

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series. Part 2, which reports on damage to other areas of the Four Corners areas, will be published on May 5.Rico sounds the alarmResidents of Dolores recall hearing stories about the flood in 1911. It had rained for 36 hours and the “Historic Crest” in Dolores on Oct. 5 was 10.20 cft. The Telluride Telegrapher had sent a message to Dolores that “God Has Told Him That the Flood Was Coming.” The message was ignored!

In Rico, the fire alarm bell was rung early in the morning, warning of impending danger. A number of people had been awakened by the loud, roaring sound of the water and boulders that had rushed down Silver Creek canon. Soon the entire population was out, and heroic efforts were made to confine the stream to its channel.

“In Rico, 11 houses, 1 stable, the city feed yards, and every bridge were destroyed. In the meantime, the Dolores River, spurred on by its numerous tributaries, was running a mad race and creating havoc in its course,” the Telluride Journal reported on Oct. 19, 1911.

About Oct. 8, it was reported that the course of the river east of Dolores changed to the other side of town, turning toward the bottom of Dunlap Hill. The Montezuma Journal on Oct. 12 stated that nearly every bridge in this whole region was gone. The railroad track from Dolores to Rico was washed out, taking out the bridge at Ophir loop again, and there were no present indications of getting freight over the railroad for at least two weeks.

Cortez has been without mail for a week, but it was hoped that a pack train may be put in action from Ouray to Durango until the railroads could be repaired.

Dolores was wholly under water for a time, and the damage there is great. The Mancos Times Tribune on Oct. 13 reported, “The floods that had been raging were widespread and one of the most disastrous that had been visited upon this section since its occupation by the white man.” The newspaper also reported the town of Dolores was flooded by from 1 to 5 feet of water, the town was strewn with wreckage, and train service from Durango to Silverton and between Dolores and Rico would not be restored for “many weeks at best.”

No mail reached Mancos for almost a week from any point except Durango. The area of the flood district covered the San Juan County in Colorado and New Mexico, the San Luis Valley and parts of the Western Slope. “The rivers on the rampage dealing destruction to public and private property are the San Miguel, Dolores, Mancos, La Plata, Animas, Pine, Piedra, San Juan, Navajo and Chama and the Rio Grande tributaries in San Luis valley and a number of streams in the southeastern part of the state,” the newspaper reported.

(From The Mancos Times Tribune on Oct. 13, 1911.)

Boardwalks float through DoloresFred Tibbits of Dolores recalled the flood of 1911, which was caused by heavy rains, causing Groundhog to run over the spillways because the work had not been completed at Groundhog at the time. It happened that Tibbits was at Groundhog at the time of the flood in Dolores as was Bill Exon, who owned a general merchandise store in Dolores, which stocked the best in clothing and groceries.

When they received word of the flood, they hastened to Dolores as quickly as they could, loading their horses with four deer that Fred had killed. At this point, Lena (Fred’s wife) said she’d been told that the women gathered up the babies and children and made for the hill, while some of the men grabbed their horses, loaded all the whiskey they could in a gunny sack and spent the night on the hill singing and drinking booze.

Women later told Lena that it was a beautiful sight when the moon came out that night and they could see the wooden sidewalks floating down into town.

The next day, when Tibbits went into Dolores, they were trying to relocate the wood sidewalks back to their proper places. The basement of the Exon store, which was filled with canned goods, had been flooded. Bill Exon hired Tibbits ($1.50 per day and room and board) to help clean up the mess.

Tibbits recalled how the labels had come off the cans but Exon saved the crates so he would know what was in the different cans and wrote to the companies for new labels, which he put on the cans.

(From Volume IV, Great Sage Plain to Timberline, Our Pioneer History. Montezuma County Historical Society)

Heading up the hillCallie Wilbur Lofquist lived in Dolores and experienced the flood of 1911. She remembered the water was so deep that she and others were being taken up on the hill by a man on horseback. He picked them up one by one and took them through the water to the hillside so they could climb the hill. She said they went up the hill to where the water tank is now, built a fire, and people sat around the fire. The flood had not come into their house as it was on high ground, but it was all over town.

“Boardwalks were floating around in sections all over town,” Lofquist said. “It was about 11 o’clock at night when we went up on the hill. There was a lady lived over towards the (south) hillside, and they said the flood was coming. She moved all her furniture. There was a water tank that stood at Ninth Street, and she moved her furniture over under this water tank hoping to save it, but the house got flooded. Later that house was moved to another location.”

(From The Portals to the Future, Dolores Public Library).

Joyce Lawrence provided valuable information by research of historic newspapers. June Head, Historian for Montezuma County Historical Society may be reached for questions, corrections or comments at 970-565-3880.