In the evening of June 16, 1965, a wall of water described by some as fifteen feet high came roaring down the South Platte River, the result of extremely severe thunderstorms many miles south of Littleton. By midnight, the torrent crested at twenty-five feet above normal and was carrying forty times the normal flow. In its wake, the course of the South Platte River from Littleton to the Colorado-Nebraska border was a mud-encased, wreckage-strewn landscape of desolation. The great South Platte River flood of 1965 was not Littleton's first flood, nor only disaster -- it was simply the biggest and costliest, by far.
|Mobile home park near Bowles and Sante Fe, during the 1965 flood. Photo by Duane Howell, Denver Post.
In 1864, just two years after the homesteading of Richard Little and his neighbors, two weeks of constant, heavy rainfall sent the river out of its banks around Littleton and nearly destroyed Denver downstream. Another flood in 1914 lasted for six weeks, following record snowfalls the previous winter which at one time measured four feet deep on Main Street and even prevented trains from moving. Yet another flood occurred in 1900 when the Goose Creek Dam up Platte Canyon broke. In 1946, the snow again fell -- for seventy-one straight hours; in 1932 there was a severe drought; and in 1865, pioneer Mollie Sanford wrote of yet another plague: "In three days time an army of grasshoppers had destroyed the work of weeks." Life hasn't always been easy in Littleton.
There had been talk for some time about construction of a dam on the South Platte River above Littleton, but it inspired little interest. In the valley, Cherry Creek seemed to be the real nemesis, and that had been dammed in the 1930s. The wide, shallow, slow moving South Platte, even with the few examples above, didn't seem to warrant the same precaution. What the South Platte had become, instead, was a waste dump. All along its length through the Denver area it was an eyesore littered by abandoned cars, refrigerators, construction debris and everything else that people looked to discard. In 1965, there was an accounting for that lack of respect for the South Platte River.
Residents of Littleton and metropolitan Denver had little reason to anticipate a flood on Monday afternoon, June 16. Although a rare tornado and severe thunderstorms had hit Loveland a couple of days before, the forecast was for scattered thundershowers typical for a summer afternoon. In fact, it was not even local precipitation which fueled the flood, but a violent cloudburst many miles south near Castle Rock. The ground was saturated from previous days' rains, so the normally dry east and west branches of Plum Creek became raging torrents heading north to meet the South Platte, which was swollen itself by rains to the southwest.
|Centennial Race Track after the 1965 flood.
Police were able to give people in Littleton several hours warning, so they could be evacuated. The first local casualty was the Columbine Country Club southwest of town, whose golf course and luxury homes were devastated. Overland Park golf course north of town suffered a similar fate. In between, Centennial Race Track, which was within days of opening its racing season, had most of its track and stable areas inundated. A massive rescue operation by owners, trainers and jockeys saved some 140 horses. The City's water supply, which consisted mainly of a series of wells along the river, was nearly destroyed. A network of fire hoses run from the nearest Denver outlets provided emergency water for months.
As the flood continued north, it was more than just water bashing the countryside -- it now included all the old cars and refrigerators and both old and new debris. This battering ram carried away or destroyed 26 bridges, including every one from Littleton north to the Colfax viaduct. Both Public Service Company power plants along the river were shut down, and emergency circuits became waterlogged and shorted out. As the flood continued north, other tributaries added their weight, Sand Creek and Clear Creek, and further north the Bijou and Little Beaver and the Poudre River. The communities of Sterling, Fort Morgan and Brush became isolated as the waters spread out over a quarter-million acres of farmland.
All told, it was estimated that the damage came to some $540 million, plus 28 persons lost their lives. The state could count itself fortunate that so few citizens were killed in one of Colorado's worst natural disasters because it began in broad daylight and few people were caught without some notice. On the positive side, much of the eastern plains received relief from a three-year drought and farmers made the most of the situation. Plans were quickly finalized and construction began on the Chatfield Dam, being completed in 1972. And with a massive cleanup required all along the South Platte, municipalities began to turn the valley into a beautiful greenbelt which today belies its garbage dump past. The river finally got its respect.
Armstrong, Robert E. Flood, Mud and Misery. Denver: Mountain Bell, 1965.
Littleton Historical Museum. Photographic Archives.
Littleton Independent. Littleton Independent Publishers, 1888- .
McQuarie, Robert J. and C.W. Buchholtz. Littleton, Colorado: Settlement to Centennial. Littleton: Littleton Historical Museum and Friends of the Library and Museum, 1990.
Rocky Mountain News. Denver: Rocky Mountain News Publishers, 1861- .
Photographs courtesy of the Littleton Museum unless otherwise noted. To order copies, contact the museum at 303-795-3950.
Compiled by Pat Massengill
Updated January 2004