The great flood: How three days in 1921 forever changed the Pueblo community
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 24½ feet. The immense 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 devastating 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 consequences 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.
“That impacted Pueblo forever," Willcox said. "It took away its prominence in that western route.”
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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 local 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 transportation.
But the bigger impact, Willcox said, was how the flood seemed to dry up investments from out-of-state 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
With some of its most prominent economic drivers devastated by the flood, Willcox said Pueblo’s economy seemed to become more one-dimensional.
“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 followed.
“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 prosper.
“I would simply imagine that any program that came to Colorado Springs between 1921 and 1965, could have come to Pueblo under different circumstances,” 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.”
What might Pueblo look like without the 1921 flood?
If the great flood hadn’t happened in 1921, Pueblo would still inevitably have had to address flood mitigation at some point.
But had the flood not been as devastating as it was, Pueblo would likely look vastly different than it does today.
“Had Pueblo continued its momentum of growth and stayed the hub for the railroads that it was, I think it would have grown to twice this size,” Willcox said.
“Colorado Springs was really not a factor for a long time. So really, the competition was between Pueblo and Denver. So I think the difference is that Pueblo still would have been competing with Denver and would have been able to continue a greater growth. At some point, would Denver have still won that competition? Of course.
"But there wouldn’t be the difference that there ended up being.”
Rees said if it were not for the flood, Pueblo might look a lot more like Colorado Springs. He said Pueblo’s lower elevation, access to water and flatter terrain make it a “perfect place to grow a large city.”
“But we ended up with a competitor 35 miles to the north of us, which is sort of hitting its economic development stride at exactly the right time during World War II and immediately after,” Rees said.
“And a lot of that investment would have come here.”
Now, 100 years after the flood, the Arkansas River and the innovations that came about as a result of the 1921 flood’s devastation, are actually benefitting Pueblo in several ways.
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For one, the rechanneling of the river moved it away from Downtown Pueblo. Where the river once was is now home to one of Pueblo’s nicest and most visited attractions, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo.
The levee — which was upgraded by the conservancy district in recent years following changes in FEMA regulations after Hurricane Katrina — is undergoing a resurgence of its own that will make it an attraction for years to come.
“There’s so much potential to create a gathering place with a trail and shade structures and the interpretive signage and we’re looking at getting sculpture on the top of the levee, and then with all the murals being painted, it is going to be a wonderful attraction for people of Pueblo, plus for outsiders, for tourists,” Koehler said.
“Right now there are so many people that use the Arkansas … fly fisherman, kayakers, rafters, there’s all sorts of people that use the river. I believe the Arkansas River is the best amenity in Pueblo.”
The river as a tourist attraction and outdoor recreation outlet is just one of its many benefits.
“The west is drying up now and I’m not saying Pueblo is immune from the effects … but we move a lot more water than most other communities in Colorado, certainly, because we’re on the Arkansas,” Rees said.
“And I think that helps guarantee our long-term future. So the advantages go well beyond tourism. However, without the infrastructural changes that were made, starting in the '20s, that water carries lots of risk.”
Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ZachHillstrom