The worst flood in the history of Pueblo, and one of the worst in Colorado history, struck on June 3–5, 1921. Between 150 and 250 people died in the deluge along the Arkansas River. The flood caused more than $25 million in damage, leading the entire town to be reshaped in its aftermath. In the wake of the disaster, engineers changed the path of the Arkansas River through town to prevent further flooding. Later improvements came as a result of the city, state, and federal government’s decision to reevaluate its flood-control infrastructure and general disaster preparedness.
A Devastating Cloudburst
Like all rivers on Colorado’s Front Range, the Arkansas River was prone to severe seasonal flooding as melting snow from the mountains combined with spring rains to produce high waters. The flood risk was especially pronounced in places such as Pueblo, located just east of where the river swiftly exits the mountains and joins with Fountain Creek, one of its major tributaries. There had been serious floods in 1864, 1881, 1893, and 1894. However, none of those involved the huge volume of water or caused as much economic damage as the flood in 1921.
The heavy rains began in Dry Creek, west of Pueblo, on June 2, 1921. The river in Pueblo swelled to more than thirteen feet on the gauge at the Main Street Bridge. Intense rains in Pueblo, which began the afternoon of June 3, caused the river to overtop the levees at just over eighteen feet. By midnight on June 4, the flooding peaked at more than twenty-four and a half feet. While the water quickly receded afterward, this immense volume was enough to break levees in several spots, inundating the city’s downtown. It took only two hours before the entire business district was underwater.
Most of the damage occurred on the second day, when both the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek overran their banks. A local lumberyard caught fire, sending burning lumber down flooded city streets. The high-water mark on the Union Depot, at Victoria and “B” Streets, was nearly ten feet. The Western National Bank at Main and Second Streets was more than thirteen feet underwater. The entire Arkansas Valley, from thirty miles west of Pueblo to the Colorado-Kansas state line, was severely affected.
The flood’s catastrophic damage became visible shortly after the flooding ended on June 5. Buildings had collapsed; train cars that were swept up in the flood had crashed into many of those structures. There were no power and no electric light in the center of town because the generating station had been inundated with water. Debris littered all the streets. The spark from a downed power line had ignited the boards of a local lumber company, creating a fire that damaged many of the remaining structures. After the water receded and the fire went out, Puebloans had to deal with all the mud left behind.
All told, the flood had inundated 300 square miles. More than 500 houses were carried away, along with 98 businesses or industrial buildings, 61 stores, 46 locomotives, and 1,274 railroad cars. Telephone lines were destroyed, so there was little to no communication between Pueblo and the rest of the state. Decomposing bodies of livestock littered the valley. The flood’s total damage of around $25 million, is the equivalent of about $358 million in 2019.
To this date there is no universally accepted death toll for the 1921 flood. Many Puebloans did not have family looking for them, because they were single immigrants who came to work for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. In addition, bodies were still showing up downstream from Pueblo months after the flood. Others were never found or went unrecognized when they did come in. The list of missing people was nearly twice as long as the list of the deceased, ranging from 50 in the days after the flood to nearly 300 in the following weeks. In addition, some of those who were reported missing but escaped the deluge were never acknowledged as found. These complications made it difficult to determine how many lives were lost.
The rebuilding and restructuring of Pueblo to prevent future disasters began almost immediately after the waters receded. The city council appointed a committee of three leading citizens to allocate state recovery funds and money from a city bond issue approved by voters immediately after the flood. Within months of the disaster, the committee contracted to have a new flood wall built west of Pueblo. This action, which reduced the river channel near the point where it met Fountain Creek, lessened the likelihood of the flooding of local businesses. Major improvements were in place as early as 1923. By 1961, various entities—including the city, the state, and the new Pueblo Conservancy District—had spent approximately $50 million rebuilding industry and infrastructure within the flooded areas. In addition to creating new flood-prevention infrastructure, the city also rearranged existing infrastructure. It built seven new bridges and moved many miles of utility lines and railroad tracks to make city infrastructure safer in the event of future flooding.
The 1921 flood was the worst of many floods on the Arkansas River, which averaged one every ten years until the building of the Pueblo Dam in 1970–75. That effort, part of the larger Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, created Lake Pueblo to allow for the storage and controlled release of water coming down the Arkansas River. While flooding on the Arkansas remains possible, the kind of flood that devastated Pueblo in 1921 would require enough water to overwhelm flood-protection infrastructure that can withstand five times as much water as in 1921. Water arriving along the river can also be held behind the 250-foot dam that created the lake.
Many businesses were rebuilt. Parkview Hospital, for example, did return. But it moved to a location north of downtown so it would remain operational in case downtown ever flooded again. Other businesses never returned to downtown Pueblo because they suffered irreparable damage. Many of Pueblo’s earliest buildings could not be saved, which permanently affected the city’s architectural heritage. It is impossible to tell how many businesses the city lost. The city’s population decreased in the wake of the flood, and growth remained slow until after World War II. While other factors contributed to the population decline, the long recovery from the flood likely played a role in that trend.