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Some floods did good things

The rebuilding of Pueblo, Black Hawk, and maybe Boulder

By Forrest Whitman

The devastation from the big floods of 2013 is still in the top of most of our minds. Pictures of people rescued by helicopter filled the media last week. Estimates are that over 1,000 had to be rescued by helicopter in Pinewood Springs, probably half that number in the Jamestown area, and 100 in Big Elk Meadows. All sorts of land rescues will be going on for some time for those trapped in remote cabins. Lyons and Estes Park are almost islands. Given all of that, the loss of life is amazingly low. Only five have been confirmed dead, though that number could rise. Those death numbers are very low compared to some historic Colorado floods.  The Great Flood of 1921 nearly wiped out the city of Pueblo and an estimated 1,500 people died. Black Hawk had regular floods damaging the down town as flood waters raged out of the flume coming down from Central City. A photo of the 1887 flood sits in the Black Hawk council chambers as a reminder of what did happen. Boulder Creek flooded regularly too and there was sometimes loss of life in Boulder. This time there were only two deaths, but more could be confirmed. It’s not a popular time to talk about the good that came from those historic floods, but it did.

A visit to Pueblo

  This summer I took a trip I’ve meant to take for some time, a jaunt to Pueblo. Pueblo learned a great lesson from its big floods. The first lesson concerned the D. & R.G.W. Railroad. Pueblo had long opposed the building of the Moffat Tunnel. Their efforts in the state legislature to stop any tunnel authority had been successful. That was based on simple economics. So long as all rail traffic to the west slope had to move through Pueblo (and on over Tennessee Pass to Minturn) Pueblo revenues were enhanced. The building of the Moffat Tunnel dried up some of that revenue. On the other hand, when a big flood, like the one in 1921, came there was no revenue for anyone.

A second lesson concerned flood control and how to do that. The Pueblo Reservoir was constructed to end some of the danger. That has worked well as high water was diverted from the Arkansas River. But, big earthen dam reservoirs have a tendency to blow out. Of the 167 dams in Colorado rated as in poor condition most are typical earthen construction. In a far-seeing manner, Pueblo came to rely on some water dispersal into low-lying fields and wetlands upstream to take the pressure off the big dam. This was all supplemented by a levee system in downtown Pueblo protecting the rail yards and downtown businesses. All of these measures have kept any big floods from happening. The lower Arkansas River is hardly “tamed,” but it is dispersed during flood stage.

Union Station Pueblo

  Once the flood danger was over, growth happened apace. My trip to Pueblo was highlighted by a visit to the Union Depot, the first big construction. All three railroads converging on Pueblo used that massive three-story structure. Even today it is imposing. Not only is it three stories high, the towers add even more height. Dubbed “the Ellis Island of the west,” this is the station where thousands of immigrants first saw America. Many were given tickets in New York City to go directly to Pueblo and work in the mines and mills of Colorado. Pueblo’s rich ethnic diversity today came from those immigrants.

Some of that ethnic diversity was on display the day I visited. The theme was “German Day,” and the whole town turned out. All of the platforms had tents and beer gardens. There were bratwurst vendors and all sorts of German foods, and with Polka bands playing. It was a sort of touristy version of what Germany may have been like during festivals, especially in the south of Germany. Pueblo can certainly claim that diverse heritage, and keeping Union Station intact symbolizes that vigor.

A working railroad museum

Walking out the side door of the station, one sees long lines of passenger rail cars, cabooses and other rail historic displays. This is truly a working museum as all cars can be, and are run on the rails. The first Saturday of the month a caboose is run down to the municipal power plant and back just for museum riders. The day I was there an intact crew dining car served up hamburgers. This car has been untouched since it was donated by the Burlington Railroad thirty years ago. It’s attached to the original cook car and all serves just as it did. Even the air cooling system still works just as it did. This was a car often dispatched to wrecks or mudslides so the public didn’t get a chance to see the somewhat tacky interior full of odd decorations, but it’s a gem.

The advantage this Pueblo museum has over most railroad museums is the fact of lots of available tracks. Cars can be switched out and used for all sorts of historic excursions. Local school kids can catch a ride on one of the old dome cars or sleepers. Perhaps this will even help to pitch the idea that our rail infrastructure should not be lost.

Presidential history in Pueblo Union Station

As one walks in the lobby, the photos of Presidents catch the eye. There are large portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. All gave significant speeches from the back platforms of trains in Union Station. In fact, Wilson gave his very last speech there. Speaking from the back platform of his train he spoke passionately about the need for a League of Nations to end all wars. His train was only about thirty miles out of town when the word came back that the train would have to be turned. Wilson had suffered a stroke. He served out his term, but never gave public speeches after that.

The gaming connection

  I walked across the street to the Southeast Colorado Heritage Museum. This is housed in the old D. & R.G.W. Freight terminal that has been beautifully restored. As I chatted with a local volunteer, she opined that “None of this would have happened without gaming taxes.” She lamented the fact that so much of the state historical money now goes to restoring the golden dome of the capitol in Denver. However much of the restoration work in Pueblo took place early on. She hopes more funds will come soon. She urges us all to visit casinos more often so the historic gaming monies will continue to flow briskly. I promised her I would.

Would it have happened without the big flood?

  The big flood of 1921 changed the way Pueblo thought of itself. Flood control became of top importance and it was done in some very creative ways. The historic structures being saved today were all built on land that had been flooded often. We can only hope that the big flood of 2013 will lead to some of that same creative thinking. The biggest lesson from Pueblo’s experience is that no one thing can work for all that water every time. Dams, wetlands, levees, all have their place and all work together.

My visit to Pueblo made me optimistic

My visit to Pueblo left me thinking about how good tourist infrastructure can really work. The City of Boulder could be looking at that as they rebuild the areas washed out by all that water rushing down off Flagstaff Mountain. The floods of 2013 are horrible, but perhaps they will clear the way for some new visions. At the very least they should get us to rebuild in better ways. My visit to Pueblo left me optimistic, and the hamburger in the old crew car was good too.

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