What Began on June 3, 1921

Between June 2 and June 5, 1921, heavy rains fell in the foothill region of the Arkansas valley and in and around the city of Pueblo. On the day of June 2, a total of 1.94 inches fell in the city, followed by the rains on June 3 that totaled 1.64 inches, but the rains in the city were not the direct cause of the flood. What did cause of the flood on June 3, around 7 o’clock in the evening was a cloudburst just 10 miles west of the city that formed on June 3, and dropped over a half an inch of rain in a matter of minutes. The rain caused devastating consequences for the downtown area where the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek meet. While the rain was pouring 30 minutes west of the city, another downpour was occurring 30 miles north over the Fountain Creek.

It is estimated that a total of 6 inches or more fell between June 3 and June 5. On June 3, the first flood warning came at 6:30 p.m. when an unknown caller reported that the Arkansas River was flooding upstream. At the time there was no official Weather Bureau in 1921, much of the rainfall was measured by the citizens of Pueblo, in tubs and buckets. The erosion that occurred in the area also helped to confirm that an enormous amount of rain fell.

As the rains continued to pound the city, the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek began to swell and overrun there banks, the water reached as high as 15 feet in some places before the waters began to recede. It took only two hours before the entire business district was under water, a local lumberyard caught fire that sent burning lumber down flooded city streets. The entire Arkansas Valley, from 30 miles west of Pueblo where the initial cloudburst started, to the Colorado Kansas state line, was severely impacted.

Once the waters receded the damage was more visible, the flood covered 300 square miles, over 600 homes were carried away, downtown buildings and businesses were carried away and caused around 25 million dollars’ worth of damage. Railroad cars as well as passenger trains were swept away with them heading in all directions or twisted in piles of steel.
The loss of life was originally estimated to be as high as 1,500 however, once the water began to recede the estimate was around 300. Many of the victims were never recovered, months after the flood bodies were still showing up downstream from Pueblo and many of the dead were never recovered.

The relief effort was remarkable, the entire town banded together to help one another. Before the Red Cross or any state and federal help arrived the Elks Club served as a relief center where three thousand refugees were helped until additional help arrived from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Knights of Columbus, and the military. Pueblo was temporarily under federal control to keep law and order.


Public writings after the flood
In the days, weeks, and months following the flood of June 3, 1921, many of the public writings about the flood represented a community optimistic about the damage sustained. These publications, including business advertisements and a few written sentiments from locals, implied that the city's economy might somehow benefit from the flood.
This seemingly counterintuitive line of thinking drew upon a diverse set of elements: war rhetoric, civic recovery plans, any scrap of economic life at all, and the examples of past cities' disasters and subsequent recoveries all helped solidify the position that the flood was not only a hiccup, but a genesis story.
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The Pueblo Flood permanently stunted the city's commercial growth and destroyed a major portion of its commercial sector. Surviving businesses, however, forged ahead as best they could. Having tenuously managed survival, they projected sunny optimism to reboot customer intake. The main channel for this desperate searchlight strategy appears to have been in the spate of sunny newspaper ads published immediately after the flood struck.
As the flood waters receded to reveal Pueblo as a shell of its former self, advertisements professed unblinking optimism. The Holmes Hardware ad assured customers that Pueblo would continue growing, and remain "the best business town in all Colorado." Equally jarring is the Pueblo Hardware Company's oath: ". . .this will be the greatest business year the people of Pueblo have ever had."
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In reality, dozens of businesses would never return to Pueblo, and the reduction of growth after 1921 is still difficult to calculate given the domino-like nature of factors that stunted it. The remaining businesses were simply left standing, and nothing suggest their status elevated whatsoever because of the flood. Of course, advertising persistently contradicted this concept.The businesses of Pueblo understandably put on a smile after the flood, even if it was forced. Business is business, after all, and some of their cheery faith in Pueblo could be attributed to a simple need for reinvigorated revenue. The truly remarkable aspect of optimism came from those observers, inside and outside, who simply refused to unglue the rose-colored goggles. Perhaps the most exuberant case of flood-celebration literature is the descriptive essay on the flood by Puebloan John Martin. At his essay's dramatic conclusion, he makes the case that Pueblo will not only recover from the flood, but triumph because of it:

Mark what I say, the day will come when Pueblo will be thankful for the flood. . . . Pueblo should not cry because it today must pay the price of the greater and better Pueblo of the future. June 3rd will be the most historic day in all the annals of Pueblo. . .
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On June 7, four days after the flood, a short and anonymous piece in the Pueblo Chieftain pronounced much the same narrative, even referring to other large American cities of the time as models for devastated Pueblo. Indeed, the writing here is so similar to John Martin's published essay that it could very easily be his own work. Again, though, the crux of this argument is dramatic and borders on absurd: the flood would make Pueblo better than would have been possible if it had never struck.The Pueblo Chieftain and Pueblo Star-Journal became major proponents of this line of thinking, taking every opportunity to point out how well the city was progressing in the recovery effort. When a local business reopened its doors, or when a new business opened, there was a new story laced with hints of defiant optimism about how Pueblo was bouncing right back from the flood. As late as 1946, this rebound narrative can be found in the Pueblo Star-Journal.
Survivors and Victims

The cloud burst the nearly drowned all of the city of Pueblo in 1921 killed and estimated 1500 people. However this information was not easily counted. Over the years and even after the flood itself numbers for the dead and missing were very sporadic and not very organized. At the time after the flood there was so much chaos and destruction that it was nearly impossible for every person to be accounted for. Lists of confirmed dead and missing people flooded the newspapers, specifically the Pueblo Chieftain. morgue june 14 1921.jpg

Many people did not have family because they were immigrants either working for Pueblo’s CF&I Company and had no one looking for them. Another reason for the inconsistent records of dead was the fact that come missing persons were never found. Their bodies either drifted away with the rest of the wreckage that was once Pueblo or were able to escape the devastation, reunited with their families but they were never listed as found or dead. Inconsistencies like this cause a great deal of debate as to how many actually were killed in the flood.Property figures and Morgue List.JPG

What we do know is that nearly 150 people were confirmed dead with their bodies in one of the several local morgues while many were easily identified, there were dozens of bodies that could not be named. The Papers gave vague descriptions of the deceased in hope of their bodies being claimed by family. The list of people who were missing was nearly double that of the dead ranging from 50 in the days after the flood to nearly 300 in the weeks following.

Speculation as to how many people died during this disaster will continue to be debated, while there were excellent records and estimations at the time there was no way to know if a person was missing when there was no one looking and their home was destroyed.
The destruction of the flood demolished nearly 600 buildings, and a part of the railroad that ran near the heart of the city.

Telephone lines were destroyed so there was little to no communication between Pueblo and the rest of the state let alone the country. The flood waters had reached a depth of at least 15 feet in some places, completely submerging homes and offices of the Pueblo natives. These flood waters were confined to mostly the town’s center near today's Main street. Cleaning up the town was one of the first priorities; however it took nearly two days for the waters to recede enough to being searching for bodies and rebuilding.

The search for bodies was a difficult process because those who were unfortunate enough to be swept away by the rushing waters were found some 50 to 100 miles down the Arkansas River or the Fountain Creek which was also flooded.

This is another reason as why the death count is so different. Looking at population changes there was a difference of nearly 4000 from the count in 1920 to 1922 in the Pueblo Directory. pop 1.JPG
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This can be attributed to people dying the flood, and of natural causes, as well as people leaving the city. Ultimately there can be no definitive number to the number of people who perished in the flood and to this day remain missing.

Devastation: The Landscape Transformed


A Life Line that runs through pueblo's business district is Union Ave. A very influential part of town where the Flood of 1921 had created chaos. In this picture above it shows the destruction that has left the once thriving, talk of the town, in complete disarray. As you can see in the photo after the flood waters had retreated the people of the business district had flooded the streets, ironically, to assess the damage that had plague the area. Along with the citizens assessing the damage there was several search parties that were looking for the both missing individuals and in the worst case scenario the deceased.


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First & Main


The business district! As you can see in this picture is the unforgiving flood waters that had completely demolished the Business District in Pueblo. Debris from all over the city had been swept downstream and would create a hug mess in most thriving part of town.



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Livestock: Helpless Animals

Local livestock did not have a chance as the relentless Arkansas River overpowers man made barriers to claim their lives. This picture shows the decomposing bodies livestock pushed of to the roadside. Flood waters had devastated the streets, buildings, and all personal property in its path and that is inclusive of the animals. Flood water reached as high as 12 feet, so for those animals who could not find higher ground or could swim, they had perished.