Poling along the South Platte River in a Flood
This photo was taken in the early 1900's by Charles Lillybridge, during a flood that very likely threatened his own studio. I haven't been able to pinpoint the year of this particular flood. Once upon a time, the river, meandering naturally through the plain, flooded quite frequently. The surrounding prairie wasn't disturbed; rather, the local wildlife flourished after such an event. The nomadic people who originally lived along these banks were able to adapt to the changing waters of what they called the Moonshell River. By the late 19th century, when Lillybridge moved in, humans were adapting the river to their use, rather than adapting to the river.
As people built cities along the banks and canals along the tributaries, the shape of the river was eventually transformed. To satisfy the consumer-happy demands of a growing nation, new industries moved into the area. The once meandering path of the Platte was lined with rigid concrete, utilized by the factories, smelters, and power plants. By the 1960's, the South Platte River was filled with debris, including discarded vehicles and industrial waste. They weren't really expecting it to flood.
So, naturally, it did. In June of 1965, a thunderstorm broke out just south of Denver, near Castle Rock, dumping rain water onto the floodplain. The water collected in the river, creating a surge which swept up the scattered debris. A wall of water, broken automobiles, refrigerators, and newly wrecked debris hit the city of Denver like a tsunami. Bridges were torn from their bases, power plants were shut down, and lives--28 total--were lost.
After the storm, the city decided to prevent future flash floods by building Chatfield Reservoir. The dam and 1,500 acre lake was complete in 1972, attracting everyone from recreational enthusiasts and water brokers to great blue herons. But it wouldn't quite be enough to prevent flooding on the South Platte River.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent flood in south Denver, in which a young boy was torn from his mother's grasp as she sought refuge from the storm in a concrete bike tunnel. The storm which flooded the river passed downstream from Chatfield Dam, creating a surge of water (thankfully free of industrial debris) which traveled quickly.
In most areas, the city was prepared for sudden flash floods. As bike trails have increased in popularity over the past few decades, Denver has worked to build an interconnected network of trails, running along the city's rivers, streams, and canals. These trails are typically well maintained and inspected for safety. The area where Elsha Juel and her son took shelter was known for being a problematic location. The trail is in need of improvement, eliminating the deadly "concrete canyon" where they were trapped. But, in order to do this, the city must relocate one of its maintenance facilities.
Area residents are kept well-informed about the dangers of flood, and are provided pamphlets in multiple languages. These pamphlets, explaining how to move to high ground during a sudden storm, are given to everyone who lives near the river--within a few blocks. Elsha Juel lived several blocks away, just beyond the prescribed boundary for flood awareness.
So, what is the city doing about it? They put up a few signs.
Supposedly, the city council met last Wednesday to decide if they should move the facility and improve the trail. I haven't been able to learn what their decision was. As soon as I find out, I'll update here.
In the meantime, perhaps we can raise some new awareness about an old problem.
Photographer Charles S. Lillybridge lived along the Platte River near the Archer Canal, by the Alameda 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.
image of a man poling a boat in a flood by Charles Lillybridge. Image of 1965 flood (scene from nearby Lillybridge's studio on Alameda avenue) by Terry Brennan. All photos via the Western History and Genealogy section of the Denver Public Library.