On July 27, 1914, Telluride experienced several days of severe flooding following a cloudburst in the mountains above town. Remarkably, the destructive deluge killed only one person, and Telluride made a swift recovery, demonstrating the resilience of one of Colorado’s busiest mountain mining towns. Today, memories of the Telluride flood of 1914 remain in firsthand accounts and photographs of those who lived through it.
Telluride, fifty miles north of Durango in southwest Colorado, is situated in San Miguel Park, one of the most picturesque alpine valleys in the West. Nearly six miles long and a half-mile wide, the park is traversed by the San Miguel River. In spring the river’s muddy brown water churns through an emerging abundance of brightly colored wildflowers, and by summer the water splashes over smooth boulders among the conifers and salt cedars that intermittently crowd its banks. The changing San Miguel Park seasons were well-observed in the town of Telluride, situated at the east end of the park.
In the early 1890s, the Telluride town council made the fateful decision to reroute Cornet Creek from its natural course by constructing a small dam. Diverting the creek opened land needed for the construction of more homes and buildings along the creek’s former course through the west side of town. Unfortunately, diverting the creek’s natural run also altered its drainage patterns in ways that would not become fully evident until tested by a severe weather event. In 1914 Cornet Creek and the Liberty Bell Mine’s enormous waste dump—thousands of tons of pulverized rock—combined to create a catastrophe that nearly decimated downtown Telluride.
Just after noon on July 27, several cloudbursts occurred directly over the Cornet Basin behind the Liberty Bell Mine complex. At 12:50 p.m. a torrent of water swept away the enormous Liberty Bell waste dump down Cornet Creek, hurtling beyond Cornet Creek Falls to smash the small dam at the foot of the canyon. Gaining momentum, the huge mass of sludge, with its tumbling trees and boulders, surged down Oak Street to Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s main thoroughfare. Terrified residents barely had time to get out of the way.
Historian David Lavender later wrote, “Totally bewildered by the appalling noise, mothers rushed out into the deluge, screaming for their children.” The mother of year-and-a-half-old Irene Visintin and three-week-old Elvira Visintin was at home with her two girls when the flood struck. Elvira later recalled,
Mother was washing clothes when she heard this horrible sound of rushing water and debris hitting the house. She ran to the window and was very frightened, about that time Dad and some friends came—so she tossed [out the window] first one and then the other of us girls and jumped—so we were saved.
Vera Blakeley was not so lucky. Her tormented husband told the Telluride Daily Journal that “when he looked up the river of mud and debris, swirling past . . . with incredible swiftness[,] had swallowed his wife and their pet dog, which Mrs. Blakeley had by the collar.” The force of the surging mass of debris and mud knocked homes from their foundations, twisting and turning them like dollhouses. Horrified families watched as their homes buckled under the advancing wall of mud. Contorted houses littered the hardest-hit residential areas.
Lavender later wrote that the flood “filled the lower floors of both the Miners Union Hospital and the Sheridan Hotel with goo, and left five-foot mats of tangled debris in the central parts of Columbia and Colorado Avenues.” Deep, pasty mud inundated Colorado Avenue for two blocks from the San Miguel County Courthouse to the First National Bank. Instead of customers, sludge bellied up to the New Sheridan’s elaborate hardwood bar. Shocked residents began to search for personal belongings and pets through the waist-deep, gummy mud.
In a blaring headline after the flood, the Telluride Daily Journal asserted that “Telluride Will Triumph Over Her Crushing Blow,” noting that “Carpenters and workmen will work three shifts of 8 hours each until the damage done to the town has been repaired.” On July 29, less than forty-eight hours after the flood, the paper declared that conditions were improving, reporting that workers were “busily engaged in the work of staving off the thousands of tons of pressure being exerted against many sections of the city by the sea of mud and debris.”
A force of “half a hundred carpenters and nearly a hundred assistants” worked continuously on a “giant sluiceway constructed from the San Miguel River” to a point near the center of town. These workmen, mostly miners by trade, used powerful fire hoses in combination with the hastily constructed sluice to quickly wash away the deep debris. Given the destruction wrought by the flood, it is remarkable that only one person died and that the town recovered so quickly and efficiently. Most local mines resumed normal production and shipping by the end of the following month, and most of the damaged structures had been fully repaired by July of the following year.
Adapted from Christian J. Buys, “‘Mothers Rushed Into the Deluge’: Telluride’s Great Flood of 1914,” Colorado Heritage 20, no. 3 (2000).