Jul 26 2011

A Flood Story

2011 has certainly been a year for the history books in terms of flooding.  The Mississippi, Missouri, several of the tributaries to these rivers, the Souris, the too many to name rivers and creeks in the western U.S. that have seen record levels due to record snow pack as well as some flash flooding produced by strong thunderstorms across the country. That’s only in the U.S.  Australia, Brazil, and China have also experienced large flood events this year.

South Platte River - 1965 Flood

Flooding impacts everyone, directly or indirectly.  There are millions of new stories being made this year because of the epic flooding going on around the world, and that’s just from this year.  I would guess that most of us have connections and stories that involve flooding from some point in our lives.  Here is mine, mixed in with a bit of Colorado’s major flood events.


The week of June 14-20, 1965, was a wet one for Colorado, with June 16th seeing some unprecedented rainfalls.  For some perspective the Front Range of Colorado typically sees an average of 15” of precipitation each year, and some of that from snow.  On June 16th some areas along the Front Range received 10”, 14”, and even 15.5” of rain in about a four hour time period.  The Flood of 1965 has been ranked among the ten costliest floods in American history.  The flooding along the South Platter River wiped out 26 bridges throughout the Denver area, and was 25 feet higher than normal.

A Town Wiped Out

Deer Trail, Colorado is located about 50 miles east of Denver along I-70, and sits about 1/2 mile from East Bijou Creek.  Deer Trail was a classic small eastern plains town that was an important shipping point for eastern Colorado livestock, grain, and other products.  Deer Trail’s claim to fame is being the home of the world’s first rodeo on July 4, 1869.  June 17, 1965 would change this town forever.

East Bijou Creek is a small, dry, sandy creek bed that only flows after significant thunderstorms.  In 1965 a few wet days followed by record rainfall in a short period,  combined with the failure of a few small farmers dams unleashed a wall of debris and water that wiped out the businesses and homes along 1st Ave.  The I-70 bridge west of town was wiped out, as was the railroad bridge, Hwy 36, and County Road 36 near town.  A recent study by the USGS calculated the peak flow at 274,300 cfs. To my knowledge there was no aid provided for rebuilding, and the town never recovered from this event.

I was born in Deer Trail in 1975 and lived there until I headed off to Colorado State University in 1993.  I grew up in a town crippled by flooding.  I remember seeing pictures, hearing stories, and seeing the fence post that had been deposited by the flood now enveloped by a tree along 1st Ave.  My great grandfather, then 100 years old, had to climb off the second floor of the hotel onto a truck to escape the flood.  My grandmother was a local historian, so I probably had more access to some of this history than most.  Those stories aside, the flood was never discussed in school, and I never new why there was no help to rebuild.  I didn’t experience this flood first hand, but I do know the lasting effects a flood can have on a community.

A year and a half after I was born, Colorado would see another flood, historic both in its power and for the lives lost.

to be continued…

(part 2)

1 comment

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  1. Les Mathis


    I just happened to find your website when I was browsing the internet about the 1965 flood in Deer Trail. You must be George and Julie’s son. My folks, Joe and Myrtie Mathis, lived up on the hill above the school and your grandfather, and several others, spent the night up at our house, after they were rescued from down in the town. The devastation was truly amazing. My Dad, Richard Jolly and I had been working in Commerce City and had to come home that afternoon by going way south and coming across some bridges which already had water running across their decks. After we got home, I was down at Jolly’s watching the news. The newsman said that a dam had broken at Agate and a wall of water was coming down the East Bijou. I had gone to school at Agate and “knew” that the tiny dam there wouldn’t have made much of a wall so we decided to drive down to the bridge east of town and watch the wall come under the bridge. When we got down to the road that went west to the creek, Buster Norris came running across and told us to warn the townspeople to get to higher ground because the water was already across the railroad track. I took Richard home and drove up to our house. By the time Richard and his Mom were leaving their house, the water was coming across their lawn. Walt Kamback (who owned the Ford garage) and another older gentleman (I don’t remember his name) had the same idea but they actually got caught by the floodwaters and had to be rescued off of the top of their pickup truck which had been washed up against an REA pole, or they would have probably drowned. It was a night I will never forget.

    Les Mathis

  1. » A Flood Story continued Hydraulically Inclined

    […] Learning from Colorado flash floods (CSU) (Part 1 of this story) […]

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