Southwest Colorado is wracked by drought, and the Animas River, along with being sullied by ash and mud from debris flows from the 416 Fire scar, is running at near all-time low flows. So it seems like a good time to look back on the biggest flood on record to hit the region. This is an adapted and condensed excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.
At around four a.m. on October 6, 1911, Navajo Methodist Mission Superintendent J.N. Simmons woke up to find himself and the mission near Farmington, New Mexico, surrounded by water. It wasn’t a total surprise. He and two other staffers — Frank B. Tice and Walter Weston — had received the flood alarm the previous day, but had chosen to stay, certain that the San Juan River’s waters would never reach them, and if they did, the brand new, three-story cement-block mission building, watched over by God, would provide an unsinkable refuge. They were wrong.
The rain began in the San Juan Mountains late on the morning of October 4, 1911. It came down gently at first, slowly gaining intensity over the course of the day. By evening the tropical storm was a torrent, dropping two inches of precipitation on Durango in just 12 hours, nearly twice what the town normally gets during all of October. Weather watchers in Gladstone, above Silverton, recorded eight inches of rain on October 5—a virtual high country hurricane.
Once-gurgling streams jumped from their banks and pummeled everything in their path: railroad tracks and roads and bridges and barns. Junction Creek tore out the Main Avenue and railroad bridges before adding its load to the Animas, which carried an estimated 25,000 cubic feet per second of water as it ran through town. It’s an almost incomprehensible volume. A good spring runoff might lift the waters to 6,000 cfs, high enough for the river to leave its banks and spread across the floor of the Animas Valley, and to turn Smelter Rapid into a churning hellhole for rafters.
The water unmoored the railroad bridge near Durango’s fish hatchery and carried it downstream, despite the fact that two full coal cars had been parked on the bridge to provide ballast; further downstream the waters washed away 100 tons of toxic slag from the Durango smelter, and carried away several homes from Santa Rita, on the opposite shore.
In Farmington the raging monsters of the upper San Juan and the Animas joined forces, spilling over the banks and onto the flats south of the river, where the Navajo mission sat. Simmons and his fellow staffers sent the children to higher ground at about midnight as a precaution, then went to bed, not realizing their own mistake until they awoke four hours later.
Somehow, Weston was able to quickly escape on horseback (he may have snuck out earlier). Tice chose to stick around, heading for the top floor of the structure. Simmons ran out and climbed atop an outhouse, apparently in order to launch himself onto a horse. Tragically, Simmons missed the horse and ended up in the water, instead, carried rapidly downstream alongside dead animals, haystacks, and pieces of people’s homes.
Tice, it seemed, was the only survivor, and as the sun came up, onlookers gathered on the opposite shore. They watched Tice climb from the second story to the third, finally climbing onto the roof with his dog. It seemed safe enough; the water stopped rising after it inundated the third story. Little did he know, the waters were slowly dissolving the building underneath him, and it, the roof, the dog, and finally Tice were all swallowed up by the current. They found his body 20 miles downstream.
The Shiprock Indian School campus was covered with water five feet deep. Every bridge in San Juan County, Utah, where a miniature oil boom was on, was lost; 150,000 cubic feet of water shot past the little town of Mexican Hat every second, according to a 2001 USGS paleo-flood hydrology investigation. That’s about one hundred times the volume of water in the river during a typical March or April, a popular time to raft that section. It tore through the Goosenecks, backed up in Grand Gulch, deposited trees on sandstone benches high above where the river normally flows, and finally combined with the raging Colorado River, creating a 300,000 cfs liquid leviathan, to wreak more havoc through the Grand Canyon and beyond.
The storm dissipated, leaving a bright sun to illuminate the river valleys, newly scoured of the roads, houses, bridges, railroad tracks and other detritus that humans had littered the valleys with over the previous decades. And there was something else, too. On an island in the San Juan River, somewhere between Farmington and Shiprock, a man huddled next to a small fire, cooking apples that he had snagged as they bobbed past. After falling in the water he had grabbed ahold of some debris, and it had carried him for miles until he finally reached the island, cold, wet and hungry but, maybe miraculously, alive. It was J.N. Simmons, of the Navajo mission.
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