Return to Lillybridge

Life is cyclical, perhaps necessarily. Just ask a biochemist about metabolic pathways, or an astronomer about the motion of the planets. I keep running into cycles as I try understand the ecological history of the Denver metropolitan area. From the never-ending passage of precious water to the arguments over it, history is constantly repeating. Even more inevitable than the issues concerning water management (or anything else, for that matter) is one of the harshest cycles of all: Life and death.

As I've mentioned a few times, I've been trying to start up a few new features. For the mid-week, I decided to bring back a popular series from last summer, Lillybridge: An Early 20th Century Photo Essay. These historical photos fit the theme I mentioned above, especially how a metropolitan area develops over time, and the management of water. The pictures were all taken by Charles Lillybridge in the early twentieth century, showing the development of the area near his home along the South Platte River. Compared to today, things have changed, but yet, they've stayed the same.

I was looking forward to starting the feature with little fanfare. Hey, they're just photos, right? I try to think they are more, having seen so many familiar smiles and pleasant scenes in Lillybridge's pictures. I guess it is easy to forget that they aren't all so pleasant. The pictures not only include bicycles and children playing along the canal, but also funerals and floods, as Monday's news reminded me. That afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm ripped through the same location where Lillybridge's studio once stood. As the river rapidly rose, tragedy struck.


A few miles downstream, a young woman named Elsha Juel was pushing her two-year-old son in a stroller on a path following the river (like so many of Lillybridge's subjects.) When the storm came up, spitting hail and blowing wind, she took shelter at the only covered spot she could find... an antiquated concrete tunnel running under a street. When the surge of water came, it flowed into the tunnel, and swept them away, wrenching the stroller from the mother's grasp.

She managed to hang onto a concrete pylon until rescuers could come to her aid. She begged them to find her son. Realizing he was lost, she let go. Two of the rescuers who were tethered to her were dragged along. Luckily, they were able to pull the distraught woman to the shore and get her to the hospital. The stroller was found later that day, many miles downstream, empty. The baby's body was found underneath a railroad bridge Wednesday morning, seven miles from the tunnel.

I didn't know Elsha, but for some reason, her son's death hit me really hard. Perhaps it had something to do with Lillybridge, and the funeral pictures I previously mentioned. It always struck me--the funeral procession was for his own baby son, Charles Jr.


A funeral procession for Charles Lillybridge's son.

I've always wondered if Charles Lillybridge took so many photos of daily life, just to get through his own day, without despairing over his lost child. Maybe someone will give Elsha Juel a digital camera, and someone will be writing about her, 100 years from now.

Next week, I'll discuss more about flooding along the South Platte River, and explain how the city knew about the potential dangers for pedestrians at the site, but delayed renovations to save a public building. And, of course, I'll bring another picture from the Lillybridge collection.

Photographer Charles S. Lillybridge lived along the Platte River near the Archer Canal, by the Alemeda Avenue bridge, in Denver, Colorado. In the early 20th century, he took thousands of pictures of his working-class neighborhood. Today, the Archer Canal has been replaced by Interstate 25. Supermarkets have replaced small shops. Something about the people, however, remains the same. It is still a working class neighborhood, and the same trees grow along the banks of the Platte.

Photo of pedestrian tunnel via the Rocky Mountain News. Historical photo by Charles S. Lillybridge, via the Western History and Geneoloy section of the Denver Public Library.

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You refer to life and death as a harsh cycle and with the death of a child, that appellation is very true. There is something about birth and death, however, that is very similar, thus removing the harsh connotation. I have witnessed natural birth at home as well as natural death at home and the two have many physical and spiritual similarities which, I suppose, has changed my viewpoint of death as being a harsh end to a more supernatural transition. Both experiences for me exposed me to a similar aura. In both situations I saw that there was a process -- a journey -- a plan that was not entirely in our control but still felt safe and, in a sense, beautiful.

I found you on Flylady but I think we're neighbors (near Lake Arbor?)

My 13 year old granddaughter and I walked this canal last August and talked about how we would try to escape a possible flash flood...and just that day I was on a bus passing over part of that trail on Federal and pointed out to my grandson that his sister and I had walked that's spooky how close to her I felt the following morning reading about it in the paper...touching someone through newsprint and shared experiences...I don't think it was possible to get a stroller out of there...

Thanks for your Flylady post from another butterfly

Susan, thanks for your insights. I agree... birth and death can be quite similar, especially considering the emotions associated with such events. While it can be reassuring to see these similarities, it is still difficult to witness such events so close together, when the life lost is that of a child.

BarbS, I suppose we are neighbors. Welcome! I live a bit west of Wadsworth and Lake Arbor, rather close to Moore Jr. High.

I'll have more on this flood control story soon; city officials are keeping some of this quiet, for some reason, and it's taking a little more digging than I had expected.