by D.J. DeJong
Mail Staff Writer
The summer of 1957 saw the worst flooding on record in the Upper Arkansas River.
High water, caused by a combination of fast runoff due to high temperatures and daily showers and thunderstorms, damaged multiple bridges and flooded roads and low-lying areas near the river.
Several creeks in the drainage, including Poncha Creek, Chalk Creek and Cottonwood Creek, overran their banks.
At the peak of the high water, West Main Street in Buena Vista was flooded with about 6 inches of water.
Railroad tracks were underwater in sections of Browns Canyon and Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and trains were unable to travel to Salida for several days until repairs could be made after the water receded.
While no lives were lost as a result of the flooding, the damage to county property was estimated to be between $50,000 and $100,000 (about $450,000 to $900,000 in 2019 dollars).
High snowpack and warm weather create the conditions
The winter of 1956-1957 was a snowy one in Colorado.
In Colorado Springs the season’s snow total of 89.4 inches still stands as a record.
Denver received 78.3 inches that season.
In the high country snow collected in the mountains triggered avalanches that were not duplicated until the 2018-2019 season.
By May 1957 the snowpack stood at 175 percent of median in the Arkansas Basin.
The abundance of snow did not bode well for the Arkansas River Basin as the weather began to heat up steadily in June.
As the spring runoff began, warm days in early June raised the cubic feet per second in the Arkansas to higher than normal but was not a cause of concern for running the Arkansas Boat Race for FIBArk, which took place as usual on June 9, albeit with faster than usual conditions for racers.
The June 6 Mountain Mail reported, “High waters continue to tumble down Poncha Creek, Chalk Creek and other mountain streams in Chaffee County – with the worst expected in the next two weeks.”
County workmen were stationed at the Poncha Creek bridge, and County Commissioner James Sheehan expressed concern that a bridge across the “Little Arkansas” was in danger of washing out.
On the other side of the Continental Divide, the Gunnison River was reported to have risen a foot in three hours that morning, inundating the lowlands west of Gunnison.
After a reprieve of lower temperatures, warm days continued to feed snowmelt into already swollen waterways with afternoon showers and thunderstorms contributing more precipitation.
By June 10 Poncha Creek had flooded where it enters the South Arkansas.
More snow was added to the mix June 14 when 8-10 inches fell on Monarch Pass. Rainfall in Salida was measured at 0.14 inch.
The same day the Salida water supply was threatened by water undermining the main pipes carrying water to the city. City and county crews worked to avert the danger.
Waters continue to rise
Wednesday, June 26, marked the beginning of the peak stage of the melt with a measurement of water depth of 6.14 feet at the F Street bridge, the highest measurement since June 8, 1952.
In comparison, the highest the river rose the previous year was 4.98 feet between June 5 and 6.
Low-lying areas were beginning to flood.
Just upstream from Wellsville the old quarry bridge was washed out by the rising waters.
In Buena Vista west Main Street was flooded by the reformatory ditch when it overflowed its banks.
By Thursday the river depth had risen to 6.82 feet at Salida and was still rising.
Dirty water pushed debris, including trees, downriver and further flooded low-lying areas.
CR 105 in Cleora was reported to be underwater, and the depth at the F Street bridge was about 2 feet higher than during the boat races two weeks earlier.
Water was over the railroad tracks at Swan, about 12 miles northwest of Salida in Browns Canyon, and although trains were still running, a repair crew was standing by at the site in case of trouble.
The city ditch spilled into the fields along Rainbow Boulevard (U.S. 50), the newspaper reported.
In Buena Vista Cottonwood Creek was out of its banks west of town, and at the reformatory (the present-day Buena Vista Correctional Complex) workers were sandbagging the water plant.
Bridges across the Arkansas were reported to be all right.
Friday’s Mountain Mail headline read, “We’ve Been Hollering For Water, And Now We’ve Sure Got It!”
By noon river depth at the F Street bridge had risen from 7.85 feet, measured at 8 a.m., to 8.1 feet.
The paper reported that indications were the river would continue to rise as long as the warm weather continued.
Mountain Mail weather statistics for that period showed highs in Salida were in the 80s and lows in the 40s with afternoon and evening showers and thunderstorms.
Local rancher George Everett and Sheriff E.L. Shewalter, both of whom had long histories in the area, told the paper the water was “the highest in their recollection.”
The corrals at the Everett place about 5 miles west of Salida had water rushing through them, and at the Grace Terry farm, about a mile below Everett’s, the family had to flee the house, which was surrounded by water. A photo taken at the time shows goats at the Terry place taking refuge on top of a shed.
At Swan railroad officials feared the maim line had been washed out, although they were still able to use the siding.
The water was also reported above the lower tracks at Coaldale, and Train No. 2 had to be held at Buena Vista and rerouted back through Denver and the Moffat Tunnel.
At the George Everett ranch, while the bridge was stable, the northern approach to a bridge was washed out. An automobile was going over the approach when it washed out, but the vehicle was able to make the bridge in time.
At the M.J. King ranch above Everett’s, the middle section of the bridge washed out at about 2 p.m. Friday.
The water was just beneath the Smelter bridge and there was some concern that it too would be washed out. One witness reported a big tree amid the river debris that hit the smelter bridge and caused it to shake.
In some spots along U.S. 50, the water was washing right along the roadway and was over the road in a few spots, although traffic was still getting through.
Ray Drain, the county road supervisor, told The Mail they were having “all kinds of trouble” as they worked to keep bridges from washing away.
In the central part of the county Chalk Creek was reported to be “on a rampage” and had taken out a bridge in Alpine and was flooding lower-lying areas downstream.
Flooding in Buena Vista was still cause for concern as Cottonwood Creek continued to overrun its banks.
Clear Creek reservoir at the northern end of the county was running over its spillway, and “plenty of water” was coming from Twin Lakes.
“Worst flood in history”
Art Post, 95, a Salida native, remembers the water being over the F Street bridge during peak flow that year.
“Boy, there was a lot of water in the river,” he said, “People were definitely worried.”
The Arkansas’ flood waters crested in Salida on Saturday, June 29, with water depth reaching more than 8.5 feet at the F Street bridge and a measured flow of 9,090 cfs.
The headline of the Monday, July 1, Mountain Mail read, “Chaffee County Bailing Out From Worst Flood in History.”
The Mail reported “people who have lived in the county 70 years cannot remember when swollen rivers and streams of the area have ever been so destructive.”
Buena Vista appeared to have had the most damage in the area with the flooding of Cottonwood Creek, which resulted in 6 inches of water flooding McPhelemy Park and extending to the area west of U.S. 24 in West Main Street where culverts and driveways were washed out.
Several bridges spanning the creek were damaged and could not be used.
Countywide, crews had been on a 24-hour watch at various bridges over several days during the height of the crisis.
County Commissioners Sheehan and Gene O’Connor and County Road Supervisor Drain said every single bridge owned by the county had sustained damage with some destroyed and some to the point where they could not be repaired.
With the destruction of the Baldwin Gulch and Cascades bridges on CR 162, The Mail reported 30-40 people were isolated at Alpine and St. Elmo.
Drain reported work was underway to make a temporary passage through a rockslide on the shelf road above CR 162 to enable travel out of the isolated area.
Railroad workers unofficially predicted it would be several days before trains were able to operate through Salida.
Rail cars with merchandise bound for Salida were halted at Grand Junction, Cañon City and Pueblo, and arrangements were made to transfer the product to trucks.
Damage along the Arkansas route included bridges and tracks from Granite to the Royal Gorge.
The D&RGW line reported its greatest flood damage was at the Hanging Bridge in the Royal Gorge, where 40-50 feet of the west retaining wall and hanging bridge had been washed away.
Water had also undermined at least 100 feet of track at Cottonwood Rapids between Coaldale and Cotopaxi, which had to wait until the river receded for repairs.
In the aftermath, local officials expressed their gratefulness that no lives were lost in the high water.