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  • Writer's picturehelentdoan

1864 Denver Flood

This peaceful stretch of water bears no resemblance to the destructive flood waters that devastated early Denver.

Despite there being lots of available higher ground, and against the warnings from the Arapahoe Indians, plainsmen and mountaineers about the possibility of flash floods — the people who came to Cherry Creek in 1858/59 hoping to find gold in the Pike’s Peak region opted to erect their buildings at the edge of the seemingly innocuous Cherry Creek. Perhaps the prime act of foolishness was the Rocky Mountain News building, which rose on pilings set into the creek bed. The newspaper’s owner, William Byers, had chosen the site because it was neutral ground between the settlement of Auraria on one side of the creek, and Denver on the other.

The morning after the Great Flood, Denver, Colorado Territory, May 1864.

The week before May 19, there had been an abnormal amount of rain at the heads of the Cherry and Plum Creeks. The downpour was such, that it instantly killed several thousand sheep and cattle at area ranches.

On May 19, Denver experienced a pleasant shower, followed by a rainbow at dusk, and a bright moon. The creek had risen slightly, but the townspeople paid it no heed and went to bed.

Asleep in the upper story of the Rocky Mountain News building were John Dailey and four employees, who were jarred awake after midnight by a roaring noise that drowned out all other noise. A six-foot-high wall of water was rushing down the creek bed, and soon the building was isolated by raging waters.

The flood washed out the foundations of the Methodist Church, built on the creek bank a bit further down from the newspaper site. The church toppled into the stream, its roof becoming lodged on the bank. A crowd took to the roof with ropes, which were thrown to the five news men, who escaped in the nick of time by going hand over hand along the ropes to shore. Soon after, the news building and its 3,000-pound stream press were swallowed by the muddy flood waters.

The force of the flood not only upheaved buildings and bridges, but resulted in twelve deaths. Meanwhile a Mrs. Smith and her five children were swept along for two miles before finding a landing place, where they waited for daybreak.

It is guaranteed the Denver flood will end up being an important plot turn in one of the sequels of my Passage of Time saga. Hmm…how best to use it?

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