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by Allen Best

Big Pivots

One-hundred years and one month ago the fastest, easiest way to get from Denver to Glenwood Springs was through Buena Vista. This was before Interstate 70, of course, and before there was more than a horse trail over Vail Pass—which had a different name then, if it was called anything at all. That road came in the late 1930s.

Automobiles were still relatively few a century ago, roads primitive, and most comings and goings were by train. For traveling the length of Colorado, that mostly meant going through Pueblo.

A railroad, the Moffat Road, went to Corona Station atop the snowy, wind-lashed Continental Divide at Rollins Pass and down into the Fraser Valley. The trains reached Steamboat Springs and then Craig, but the crossing was difficult and sometimes impossible, always expensive. The rails remained far short of Salt Lake City, the original goal of the Denver boosters.

To remedy this, they wanted to create a taxing district, to pay for a bore through the Continental Divide. Pueblo’s legislators would have none of it. Then the flood of June 3-4, 1921, occurred.

Much was made in Pueblo last week of the flood’s anniversary, and rightfully so. Gov. Jared Polis delivered remarks, as did the mayor, Nick Gradisar. Two museums have exhibits now. (But don’t try to go on a Sunday.) The Pueblo Chieftain had a couple of interesting stories, from which I will borrow in coming paragraphs. The Arkansas River flood of 1921 was a game-changer for Pueblo—and for Colorado.

Denver then was bigger, but nothing like today. Nor was Colorado Springs. Pueblo was the second largest city in the state, in some ways a rival to Denver. It had the steel mill and all manner of manufacturing concerns.

Too, it was a rail center. This was the launching point for most travel across the Rocky Mountains. The rails of the Denver & Rio Grande hugged the Arkansas River to Leadville and then coasted across Tennessee Pass and down to the diminutive town of Red Cliff and to Glenwood Canyon.

There was also the Midland Railroad, but it was, as a Wikipedia entry notes, “an extraordinarily difficult railroad to operate” on its route to Aspen.

This was published in Big Pivots 39 on June 8, 2021.

Pueblo didn’t want to give up its positional advantage—but the flood forced it to accept a new reality.

A levee 18 feet high had been erected along the river to protect the city’s downtown area. It wasn’t enough for an Arkansas River swollen by snowmelt and augmented by rains. The water flowed over the levee and then punctured it. The river’s flows reached a maximum 24 feet, 6 inches.

If 78 bodies were found, the death toll was never ascertained. Most estimates put the figure well above 100. Dozens of businesses were destroyed, and a lumber yard caught on fire. The hard-working industrial city, the place that was the launching point for travel across the Rocky Mountains, was brought to its knees.

The fulcrum for this shift was the Colorado Legislature. Denver got its taxing district for counties along the line from Union Station to Craig to pay for the Moffat Tunnel. The Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. In 1934, the railroad to Craig was linked to the Denver & Rio Grande tracks over Tennessee Pass with a 34-mile segment along the Colorado River between the hamlets of McCoy and Dotsero. This allowed trains that more-or-less direct all-weather route to Glenwood Springs—and to Salt Lake City.

Tellingly, when the consolidation of railroads occurred in the 1990s, the rails through the Eagle Valley and over Tennessee Pass were idled while trains continue to groan their way to the Moffat Tunnel (and glide past my house in suburban Denver).

Pueblo got the ability to create a district to deal with flood prevention. One element of that flood-proofing was a rerouting of the river and creation of a beefier levee.

But Pueblo lost momentum. The Chieftain’s reporter, Zach Hillstrom, did a good job of dissecting that in interviews with several people who have put some thought into how the flood changed Pueblo’s course.

One takeaway of Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University Pueblo, is that there was an opportunity cost. As Pueblo struggled, Colorado Springs was put into a position to prosper. Any program that arrived in Colorado Springs between 1921 and 1965 could have come to Pueblo under different circumstances, he said.

Rees told the Chieftain that if not for the flood, Pueblo might look more like Colorado Springs. It has a lower elevation, better access to water, and flatter terrain, all the ingredients for a large city.

Peggy Willcox, a researcher with the Pueblo County Historical Society, who helped write a book about the flood entitled “Mad River,” concurred about the halted momentum.

“Had Pueblo continued its momentum of growth and stayed the hub for the railroads that it was, I think it would have grown to twice this size,” she said.

“Colorado Springs was really not a factor for a long time. So really, the competition was between Pueblo and Denver. So I think the difference is that Pueblo still would have been competing with Denver and would have been able to continue a greater growth. At some point, would Denver have still won that competition? Of course.”

In his interview the Chieftain, Rees talked about opportunity costs.

“Different things could have happened to Pueblo but didn’t because we were too busy trying to prevent future disasters,” he said.

That’s the question to ponder as we try to balance the risk posed by greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide, as of June 6 at 420 parts per million, an increase of 3.18 ppm during the covid-slowed past year.

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