Editor’s note: The following is the first of a three-part series about floods and flood dangers in the Pikes Peak Region. This story focuses on the Memorial Day flood of 1935, the most destructive in the region’s history.
In Colorado Springs, as in much of the arid Southwest, rains come quickly and unexpectedly.
Spring rain clouds are a welcome sight to local residents, unlike the plumes of smoke above the city that might signal a growing wildfire. Afternoon thunderstorms relieve the heat of early summer and nourish landscapes. Other than a little hail, there’s nothing to fear — or is there?
By May 1935, Colorado Springs was a modestly prosperous community of 33,237. The Great Depression nearly had run its course, and sales were brisk for downtown merchants. Cady L. Daniels, a car dealership at the corner of Kiowa and Bijou streets, offered a new 1935 Chevy for $618.50. If that was too much, you could get a “real steal” at Bill Stewart Auto, which advertised a ’31 Auburn “small 8” coupe for $235. If you hurried, you could pick up either of ’em before Memorial Day, which, since it was to fall on a Thursday, would kick off a four-day weekend for many Springs residents.
The weather, it appeared, would cooperate. The forecast in the Gazette’s May 29 issue was reassuring. “Generally fair, except occasional showers in mountain districts — temperature normal.”
Thursday morning was rainy, but not alarmingly so. It had been a wet month along the Front Range, with some rain almost every day. But as the day wore on, the rain intensified. To the north, the sky was coal black. Storm cells had coalesced and stalled a few miles north of the city. Monument Creek began to rise.
The water kept rising. It was gradual at first, but then the flood swept into the city. Within a few hours, a good portion of Colorado Springs lay in ruins.
Even though its press room was without power, the Gazette managed to produce a two-page extra by late afternoon.
“The destructive floodwaters from half a dozen cloudbursts swept through Colorado Springs in all its fury shortly after noon. ’Tho ample warning was given to most persons in the path of the oncoming waters, many failed to realize the danger and remained in their homes,” the newspaper reported. “Others did not receive warning before the onrushing water struck.”
The next day, when the floodwaters had receded, the Gazette’s reporters detailed the damage.
“Dozens of homes in the low-lying areas were lifted from their foundation and moved. A few were carried as far as 400 feet.
“Monument Valley Park, one of the city’s most beautiful recreation areas, was completely ravaged. All bridges across Monument and Fountain Creek, except the Bijou Street Viaduct were destroyed. What the damage was to the Municipal steam power plant could not be determined, but City Manager E.M. Moseley stated that the water stood 7 feet deep in its basement.”
As many as 18 people died in the flood. In a particularly harrowing incident, hundreds of people gathered on the bluff above Monument Creek, as rescuers attempted for hours to save a couple stranded on relatively high ground midstream, standing on the roof of a car.
“The people on the car could see the crowd about them. They could see cameras trained on them, by people who could not have done anything to help them. They must have known that the crowd was waiting, knowing that they would be gone. The car moved. In an instant it was swept out from under the pair, and they fell into the inky water The crowd was stunned. Many of the men who had tried to rescue them ran down to the shores of this veritable sea. There was nothing to do. It was over.”
In a matter of hours, Monument Creek had been transformed from a quiet, meandering stream to a vast river. At the Midland Terminal railroad bridge over the creek (since replaced by the pedestrian bridge that now leads to America the Beautiful Park), water depth was estimated at 32 feet. By then, the creek was half a mile wide, and most of the south and near west sides of the city were submerged.
One man, taking refuge in a filling station on South Nevada Avenue, was swept away by the flood. He grabbed a log and rode it all the way to Fountain.
The Army Corps of Engineers subsequently estimated the peak flow on Fountain Creek above the confluence of Jimmy Camp Creek at 55,000 cubic feet per second, which is nearly one-half of the volume of the Mississippi River at Belle Chasse, La.
The 1935 flood was the “flood of record” from Colorado Springs to Fountain. Seventy-eight years later, it has all but passed from local memory.
The explosive growth of the Pikes Peak region, where population has increased more than twelve and a half times since 1935, has created conditions that would magnify the destructive power of a major flood. Roads, driveways, roofs, and parking lots have replaced open fields, while concrete drainage structures capture this increased runoff and increase the speed and magnitude of any flood.
The Waldo Canyon fire has also increased the probability of a catastrophic flood. Wildfires create hydrophobic soils that prevent rainfall from being absorbed into the ground, increasing runoff, erosion, and downstream sedimentation of channels. Multiple storm cells stalled over the burn area could send water flows equivalent to or greater than those of 1935 through Pleasant Valley to Fountain Creek, with similarly disastrous results.
Two floods rank as the worst natural disasters in Colorado’s history: As many as 350 people died in the 1921 Pueblo flood, and Loveland’s Big Thompson flood of 1976 accounted for 145 deaths.
Such events commonly are described in terms of their probable recurrence: a 10-year flood, a 100-year flood, a 500-year flood. In any given year, there’s a 10 percent chance of a 10-year flood, a 1 percent chance of a 100-year flood, and so forth. The 1935 flood is classified as a 500-year flood. Sounds scientific — but it isn’t, since reliable weather data only goes back a few decades. Nineteenth century floods may have been frequent and vast, but records are scanty.
Buried in city archives are maps and photographs, which overlay 1935’s high-water mark on modern Colorado Springs. A purple dotted line shows how a flood of the same magnitude would overtop Interstate 25 at Cimarron, submerge much of the Martin Drake Power Plant and even overwhelm the massive water treatment facility on Las Vegas Street.
In the case of a 1935 repeat, the area would have a lot more warning. But it remains questionable whether those at risk from floodwaters could be easily evacuated.
In such an event, we might see the city cut in half. I-25 could be impassable and unusable, bridges down or overtopped, and there would be thousands of 911 calls for assistance. As city residents discovered during the Waldo Canyon fire, it’s a numbers game. There are only so many police officers, so many sheriffs, so many firefighters, so many vehicles and fire apparatus. Many of those vehicles might be unusable or unavailable.
The city’s 2010 Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan update estimates that damage to structures from such a flood might approach $1 billion, affect thousands of residences, and send 11,000 people to shelters. The total cost might be much higher, particularly if highways and bridges are significantly damaged or undermined.
Yet the plan deemed such a recurrence unlikely. In the plan’s risk assessment measuring probability and magnitude of possible hazards, none were identified as “highly likely” and “catastrophic [in impact].” A “significant” flood event was ranked as “occasional”; less likely than a tornado, but more likely than a significant earthquake.
And a catastrophic wildfire? Like a catastrophic flood, it wasn’t on the radar screen.