# # A Flood of Memories - The Big Thompson Flood of 1976 - Part 1

Brother, I Can See Your Skull.

Brother, I Can See Your Skull. - The Coreyshead Blog

A Flood of Memories – Part 1 of 3
The Big Thompson Flood of 1976

Big Dam Falls at Chasteen's Grove

Big Dam Falls at Chasteen’s Grove

In the summer of 1976, when I was 7 years old, the river I lived near – The Big Thompson – suffered a flash flood of unheard of proportions. 143 people lost their lives in the rushing waters, five of whom were never found. My family, though living in the affected area, suffered little but inconvenience and shock as the human world around us reeled from one of nature’s little hiccups.

Despite having suffered no loss outside that of our faith in permanence, the incident permeated our lives and the lives of those around us – although not always, perhaps, in ways you might expect.

The Big Thompson Canyon is a narrow channel of jagged stone located on the eastern side of the Northern Colorado Rockies. Running an approximate 25 miles, its mouth near Lake Estes and its tumultuous end at the Big Dam falls in Chasteen’s Grove, the river loses about a half mile in elevation. The canyons, foothills, and valley of Chasteen’s are the ones I grew up on and rambled over. This river and its irrigating distributaries were my waterpark.

On the evening of July 31st, a thunderstorm parked itself above the upper, Estes side of the canyon and proceeded to dump 12 inches of rain in less than 4 hours. The steep sides of the almost vegetation-free walls and mouth funnel the bulk of this water directly into the canyon. Tiny mountain tributaries become swollen rivers, rushing downwards laden with rocks, trees, and dirt.

It is Colorado’s Bicentennial summer, 1976. The canyon is packed with tourists, campers, fishermen, and locals whose summer cabins dot the canyon and its tributaries. As the evening grows pale and the river swells, folks up and down the canyon are warned of probable flooding and some are evacuated once the situation becomes undeniable. Initially, few take the warnings seriously. Especially locals.

It is important you understand that the Big Thompson river – or “Big T,” as we are wont to call it – looks like a creek to most visitors. Often it is little but. The flow can become broader and stronger, particularly during the summer but this seasonal swelling is more obvious once the river flows out of the foothills and onto the flats. Even here, its average width is only 30 feet. In the canyon it is typically half that. Because of this and despite growing up thinking of it as a river, the idea of it ever flooding never occurred to me. It hadn’t occured in recorded history, either. The last, closest incident was time out of memory and only one quarter the magnitude.

We were always told that a small dam on the river broke and caused the most damaging aspect of the flood but it is now believed to simply have been the peak of the outflow. Whatever the cause, around 9pm something gave and a 20 foot wall of water, 30,100 cubic feet of water per second, rushed down the canyon. Trees and boulders roll in it, the largest of the latter measuring 12’×12’×23’ and weighing around 275 tons. Consequently, anything caught in this flood is not just roiled and soaked but mangled and crushed. In short order, this massive wall of water is adding cars, buildings, and people to its merciless grinder.

So young at the time, my memories of this night and the following couple of days are quite hazy. Mostly I remember the stories I am told, my own experiences being practically nil.

For years afterwards, I thought I’d had a nightmare the night of the flood. A dream of a massive fire that scared me to wakefulness with thunder and lightning in an otherwise empty house. My mother assures me I slept through until morning, that there was no lighting that night, no thunder. Instead, around 11pm, the night was pierced by shrill, whistling cries like firework rockets and a queer rushing, crunching roar.

I hear none of this, sleeping as little kids do, immune to only the loudest bangs but the rest of the house wakes up and is drawn in half-waking wonder towards the sound coming directly from the falls at Big Dam, some 275 feet away.

If you’ve ever been to the Big Thompson Canyon and seen the Dam Store at its foot, you will think you have seen this dam and falls I am speaking of but you would be wrong. The dam at the Dam Store is a similar dam known as the Small Dam. The Big Dam is another mile or so downstream: an 80+ foot wide wall of thick concrete and stone spanning the last of the Big Thompson Canyon’s steep, rock walls. After Big Dam was installed, the river bottom leveled up behind it, creating a spectacular 50’ contrast in elevation on the downriver side of the dam. When the river is flowing strong, the falls are an impressive sight.

The night of the flood, neighbors in nightgowns and quickly donned slippers joined my parents and brother to make their way towards the noise at the falls. Soon the smell of propane fills their nostrils and the crashing grows in volume. Now they can see the river. Higher than anyone alive has ever seen it, its mad, boiling surface visible from much farther down the road than ever before. On it, bourn along on its current or tumbling now up, now down, now gone from sight forever are trees, cars, trailers, and chunks of houses. Down the last stretch of canyon the churning froth of seemingly endless debris rushes headlong for the now much more massive drop of the falls.

The neighbors approach the bend slowly and stop in awe and horror, frozen by the sight. Before them the original Dam Store, now an uninhabited residence, serves as sanity’s scale to the mass roar of destruction carrying on behind and below it.

The dirt road that continues around the corner at this point, up the canyon or across a bridge, stretched unmolested for only a few yards before becoming lost and uncertain under the lapping surface of the dark water. The high pitched shrieks reaving the air appear to issue from punctured propane tanks trapped in the pummel behind the arc of water at the bottom of the falls. Above everything, the mind-numbing roar of the debris in the water and its violent cascade into the valley below.

Truss bridge over the Big Thompson river above Big Dam

Truss bridge over the Big Thompson river, looking towards Big Dam

Just up the river from the falls a big, old, truss-style bridge’s white, wooden arches rise high above the normally calm surface below. Its open slat flooring is always good for a vertiginous thrill when crossing on foot. Wheeling bats can be found at dusk among the steel cables anchoring the span to huge iron eyelets sunk into the very bedrock of the canyon walls. It is a landmark, a part of history from when this tiny, county road was the only way up the canyon and a major thoroughfare for Lovelanders wanting to get up north to Fort Collins. Now, debris is caught and piling against the up-river side of the bridge and, as the pressure mounts, she breaks free from her moorings to crumple forward, groaning, steel cables parting to whip as the structure kneels to the flood. The eyes of the neighborhood, hypnotized, watch the old bridge break free and go over the falls into memory.

My mother always swore she saw someone clinging to a log that night. That she saw a car with people in it. Trailers. Moving people. And that she saw these things go over the falls. Just tumble away into the violent white and then … more and more; pieces of lives coming to tumble and churn over the drop. At first she watches, her sense of helpless horror growing, then she turns away, unable to continue as witness. Picturing her own family, she remembers me alone at home, with an irrigation ditch behind the house fed by this very same river. At that concern, spoken aloud, all so affected hurried back to their homes to see if evacuation or sandbagging is in order.

Ironically, the ditch behind our house, running full just the evening before, is dry but for the merest of trickles. Later we learn this is not because the gates have been closed intentionally but rather by debris. Consequently and much to my childish dismay, I sleep through the night and miss all the excitement.

Continued: A Flood of Memories – Part 2 – The Big Thompson Flood of 1976

 

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6 Responses to “A Flood of Memories – Part 1 of 3
The Big Thompson Flood of 1976”

  1. Izzy says:

    Love the reflection Corey. I remember the water marks on the inside of my grandpa’s garage as a kid which were there until they finally sold the place in 97. Their place escaped some damage because the huge siphon running across the highway just up from the Dam Store rolled over and came to rest on top of the neighbors house – the Kerns. Took a year for them to move back in. Forever changed the look of the river and like you, changed my childhood memories.

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  4. Todd says:

    I loved reading your recollections of the Big Thompson flood. I was 12 or 13 at the time and our family had friends that lived in the canyon. We happened to be in Colorado for our vacation jus a couple of weeks after the flood. I remember going to visit the Stevens’ and having to follow a road grader through a couple of feet of mud. (Dick Stevens had called ahead and let them know we were coming so they met us there and cleared the way for our old Ford station wagon.) What an incredible scene for my young brain to process .All of the destruction was overwhelming. We were only there for a day. I cannot imagine what it must have been like living there.
    Thanks for writing this story down. It brought back many somber memories..

    • Thanks, Todd. Happy it moved something positive in you.

      I am still reeling with the news that the river has flooded again, and right on the heels of me writing this. I keep hearing the terms “1,000 Year Flood,” “100 Year Flood,” and “Flood of a Lifetime” and am wondering when people will realize these terms are not only grossly inaccurate but set up dangerous, false expectations.

      Something tells me we’ll be seeing another flood of remarkable magnitude before 2076 rolls around, much less 3013 …

      • Todd says:

        Well, Corey..The problem is we are an arrogant lot and will never admit that we don’t know everything.. We will never out-smart mother earth!!

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