‘From a pleasant, smiling stream to an angry, raging, terrific river’

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The 1911 flood spread water throughout what was known as The Park, the main residential neighborhood in Pagosa Springs at that time.

The following headline topped the Oct. 5, 1911, Pagosa Springs SUN: “San Juan Breaks Record … Gets on Rampage and Leaves Death, Devastation and Ruin in its Path.”

According to the Sun report: “Tuesday morning the sun rose in all its glory and the day was an ideal one. Wednesday morning a drizzling rain set in and kept up until the torrents caused the San Juan to change from a pleasant, smiling stream to an angry, raging, terrific river. Early yesterday morning the citizens became aware that dire calamity was about to prevail on Hermosa Street and in The Park vicinity. Business, for the time being, was suspended and all rushed to the aid of those in the doomed district. All teams available were brought into action, and all goods that could be were hauled.”

Every bridge in Archuleta County was washed out. The town jail was washed away and did not stop floating downstream until it reached Trujillo, where it came to rest in Jake Latta’s orchard. Not one to waste an opportunity, Latta used it as a granary.

Between 10 and 15 residences in Town Park were totally destroyed and from 40 to 50 others were greatly damaged.

The river changed its course to such an extent that several lots were annihilated. Water reached the edge of main street — the Pagosa Street running through downtown and the parking lot along the river. In truth, before the flood, the parking lot did not exist. The town water works and electrical plant were destroyed. Telephone and telegraph lines were down and railroad tracks and bridges washed away.

Pagosa Springs was isolated from the outside world. The main road into the community from the east over Elwood Pass and down the West Fork of the San Juan River, especially through the narrow canyon just upstream from the juncture of the East and West forks of that river, was closed. That road was a state road, but as a result of the flood, the state moved the pass to Wolf Creek and abandoned the Elwood Pass Road. For almost five years while Wolf Creek was building, people coming to Pagosa Springs by the old Elwood route turned north just before reaching the Joe Mann Cabin, followed a rocky trail to Windy Pass and struggled down the steepness of that pass to the West Fork of the San Juan and from there into town.

The Edith mill flooded and Pagosa Junction was severely damaged. Every stream in the county flooded: more than that, every stream in the San Juan Mountains and Four Corners country flooded.

Two men drowned in the surging waters of Mill Creek. I’ll have that story in next week’s column.