1911 floods cause destruction in Southwest Colorado, Part 2

Friday, May 5, 2017 9:15 AM
Downtown Dolores during the flood of 1911. The first building on right may be the Akin Mercantile building located on Central Avenue. Notice the oxen on the street.
In this iconic photo looking south from Durango’s Main Avenue bridge at 4 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, townspeople are checking out the high water that is washing through what is now Rotary Park. By 9:30 p.m., the water was higher than the tops of the arches. The bridge, built in 1906 for $32,000, was one of only three bridges in Durango to survive.
A footbridge washes out at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, while people gathered to watch at the top of the stairs. The water level didn’t reach its peak of 8 feet above flood level until five hours later.
The flood of 1911 inundated 15th Street and Main Avenue in Durango.

By June Head

Montezuma County Historical Society

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series that looks back at the devastating floods of fall 1911. Rain in Southwest Colorado is usually welcome, but in 1911, it was a different story. From Oct. 4-6, rain fell across the region, from Pagosa Springs to Ouray, Dolores and Mancos. Train, telegraph, telephone and mail services were disrupted. Bridges were out. A town was swept away. In the end, the storm, which centered on Gladstone, cost an estimated $1.5 million, according to the Durango Herald.

Here are reports from newspapers of the day.

The Dolores ValleyIn Rico, 11 houses, one stable, the city feed yards and every bridge was destroyed when Silver Creek went on the rampage.

About Oct. 8, it was reported 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 dated Oct. 12 stated nearly every bridge in this whole region was gone from Dolores to Rico.

“The town’s greatest loss is the river bridge,” the Journal reported. “The big steel bridge structure still stands, and the valley was not damaged.”

The Dolores Star articles on Oct. 13, 1911, stated that the warehouses in Dolores were flooded;. Hay that was baled and ready for shipment was destroyed, and fences and pens demolished.

“Akin and Porter lost $200 worth of goods, causing considerable loss,” the Star reported. “It was impossible to estimate the loss at the lumber yards – both the Dolores Lumber and Supply and the Rust Mercantile Co. had their lumber flooded. All of the business buildings from Wallace & Burgwin’s saloon west to Fourth Street had water in them. A number of residences were flooded, wood, coal, chickens, coops, tubs and other floatable material washed away, fences broken down and sidewalks moved. The residences of James McEwen, Irving Brumley, Frank Roam, J. R. Hughes, H. J. Porter and C. A. Lowe suffered greatest.”

Dolores received mail from Durango by way of Cortez on Oct. 12 with the train carrying passengers and mail getting as far as the river bridge. The Star also reported damage in the Dolores Valley was not as great as along the San Juan River and the Animas Valley.

The Cortez areaA bad storm hit Cortez on July 10, 1911, when a storm came in and washed out the flumes, laterals and much of the irrigation system. A wall of water took off down McElmo Creek and cut a canyon within a canyon. Whole orchards and wheat fields were washed out into Utah, according to the History of Cortez website.

In 1911, it was reported that at least two homes were lost. The home of Elsworth Porter went down McElmo Creek. This house was located near the present Battlerock School. After J. D. Lamb lost a house on McElmo Creek that flooded out he hired Peter Baxstrom to build a nice new structure which is located at 12764 County Road G. Both the house on McElmo Creek and the house on Road G may have been stage stops.

The Mancos ValleyMore rain and high water came as a result of the storms in the Mancos area on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 1911. The Mancos River rose that night and continued to rise all day Thursday until beginning to subside that night, according to The Mancos Times-Tribune on Oct. 6, 1911. The raging torrent brought down quantities of drift wood, trees, logs and anything that was loose. This caused the river to change its channel in many places. In town, it cut in above the post office building threatening, its safety and taking away part of the warehouse belonging to the Mancos Mercantile Co., which had been cut loose from the other building in order to save balance of the structure. In the lower side, the water got the better of the fight made by Nate Bowen to save his premises when a large portion of the water broke through direct onto his house, the Times-Tribune reported. It was saved from complete destruction by trees that grew just above the building which collected a drift and saved his building.

“Mrs. Kate Rutherford’s residence was seriously threatened, and she had to move out as also was the case of Mr. Pearman, the Times-Tribune reported. “No one suffered great damage. The river is lower this morning and the danger has passed unless more rain comes.”

Pagosa SpringsThe Pagosa Springs Sun on Oct. 6, 1911 stated that Archuleta County was the victim of the devastating flood the day before. “All county bridges were out,” the newspaper said. “Following the flood, a cable was suspended across the river to provide a way for people to cross the river and a way for food to be passed to the other side. The Sun also reported that 10 to 15 residences were destroyed, and 40 to 50 others were damaged.

The electric plant and train tracks were washed out. Two lives were lost in the flooding when the men were attempting to clear drift wood that had lodged above their shop on Mill Creek. Farmers, ranchers and sheep men all suffered great loss as a result of the flood. Areas surrounding the town were also affected.

The Animas ValleyThe Salida Record newspaper reported that on Oct. 20, 1911, the it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to repair the damage to the Rio Grande Southern railway in Ouray.

The Aspen Democrat-Times reported on Oct. 9, 1911, that “Floods Sweep Country in Vicinity of Durango.” In Hesperus, miners saved the town by dynamiting a new channel for the river, thus diverting the current. The town of Arboles was obliterated, and not all of the 50 inhabitants had been accounted for.

The Geological Survey reported that 13.6 inches of rain fell Oct. 4-6, 1911, caused the highest flood on record on the Animas River. The Durango Evening Herald on Oct. 6, 1911, stated that conditions in the Animas River Valley were serious: Parts of the valley were flooded to a depth of 3 to 6 feet. Many families had to move to higher ground for safety. Animas Valley from Trimble Springs to Durango “resembled one big lake.” There was general destruction of crops, roads, ditches. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks were seriously damaged.

Damage in the Animas Valley was augmented by rockslides. In Durango, the entire flat between the railroad and the main Avenue Bridge was flooded, three bridges were destroyed, several houses were swept away, and a new channel was cut in several places. Flood waters reached the car barns and the electric light plant.

ElsewhereThe Shiprock agency of the Navajo was totally destroyed, and the government buildings were carried away by the flood, according to the Western Newspaper Union News Service on Oct. 13, 1911.

The town of Crestone in the San Luis Valley suffered a great loss of homes on Oct. 6-7 when the town was swept away, according to the Crestone Eagle News.

June Head, Historian for Montezuma County Historical Society may be reached for questions, corrections or comments at 970-565-3880.