Historic floods in the high desert & the Crestone flood of 1911

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by Mary Lowers

As James McCalpin tells us in Crestone: Gateway to Higher Realms, “the San Luis Valley (SLV) is the driest part of Colorado despite its high elevation it averages only seven to eight inches of precipitation yearly.” The Valley is classified as a high desert arid climate where precipitation increases with elevation. As with many areas along the range, the Crestone/Baca area has five “gaining streams” which gain flow as they travel down into the lower valley from water flowing into the main stream via tributaries and from ground water seeping up into the channel walls. Snowmelt is a large source of water, and this happens mostly in May and June. This spring and early summer water feeds meadows and wetlands.

In wet years like this one people even here in the desert worry about flooding. Water rises as the snowmelt and swollen streams fill the wetlands. New lakes and ponds form overnight and many years the water covers county roads. Before modern irrigation, you could often row in a flat-bottom boat between Moffat and Center in the spring. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s weather and climate assessment program, the 22 most damaging floods recorded in Colorado (statistics go from 1860s to today) have cost the state $4,486,577 in damages and cost 352 known lives. The worst flood was up Big Thompson Canyon in Larimer County in 1976 where 144 lives were lost.

Records show that 1911 saw southwestern Colorado cut off from the rest of the state by flooding, and little Crestone was part of that flood year. At that time the 250 residents of the town, few of whom had wells, got their household water from North Crestone Creek and ditches that ran off the creek. Building close to the creek made sense. But as Gladys Sisemore says in Loadin’, Drillin’ and Firing, “The quiet little stream running through town, that had brought comfort to so many people down through the years, went on a rampage.”

It was late in the year for flooding, October 6 & 7, 1911, when the town was swept away on North Crestone Creek’s rising wake. Water ran through town primarily along Cedar St. It ran several feet deep from 2am Thursday until Friday evening. Gladys Sisemore describes the storm: “The rain grew louder through the night, the roar of high water, boulders crashing down the creek, wood splintering as houses were washed off their foundations and tumbled down the creek. Trees were uprooted and animals screamed in terror.” Hauled out of their beds, townsfolk worked frantically. They filled and toted sandbags, hoping to divert the wild torrent’s flow. It did not help. Water washed through some homes and sent others on a wild ride down the creek. Many lost everything—furnishings, clothing, livestock and food.

There was miraculously only one life lost in the 1911 Crestone flood. A boy, Dexter Baxter, was riding on a horse with his father trying to cross the rising creek. The horse stumbled, throwing both Dexter and his father into the high rushing water. The father was able to grab onto some tree roots and saved himself but was unable to save his son. Dexter’s body was found the next day above the train depot, wedged in a pile of driftwood. He was buried in the Crestone Cemetery.

Three local men, Gus Myers, Dr. Davis and Charles Walrath were injured during the storm when they were struck on the head by a falling tree limb at the George Reed home, one of the houses washed away in the flood.

When the waters began to recede Crestone was a mess, a disaster! Gladys Sisemore writes, “Broken homes, uprooted trees, piles of rocks and debris where the creek had run before, it had washed out and made a new channel during the night.” If you walk along North Crestone Creek and look carefully you can still identify evidence of the wild waters of 1911 and where the creek’s course changed.

After the flood, the Town of Crestone Board petitioned the US Forest Service for a land easement to allow for the construction of a dam and conduit at the mouth of North Crestone Creek as it leaves the canyon and flows toward town. It took until May of 1916 for the easement to be granted. This right of way allowed the spillway up North Crestone, so instrumental in managing high water this past month, to be constructed.

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