Mill Creek claims lives during 1911 flood

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The 1911 flood washed out every bridge in Archuleta County, including the San Juan Street bridge, as viewed in this photograph. Townspeople rigged a cable-pulley arrangement enabling the movement of people and goods across the river until the bridge could be replaced.

The flood of Oct. 11, 1911, was the worst natural disaster to hit the Four Corners since the beginning of recorded history. Two local men died in that flood and that is the subject of today’s column.

A beautiful ranch spreads out a few miles up Mill Creek Road, just before the terrain turns into higher and more rugged country. Mill Creek Road branches just before entering the ranch. One branch turns to the right, ascends a small hill and then follows the Rito Blanco River on a winding, ever-climbing journey until it eventually dead-ends at a spot overlooking the magnificent meadow lands of the upper Blanco Basin drained by the parent Blanco River.

After entering what once was known as Mill Creek Ranch, the road terminates at a two-story frame ranch house built in the 1890s by the same carpenter who built the E.T. Walker house once located at the eastern entry to Pagosa Springs where highways 160 and 84 come together. The E.T. Walker house has been moved to Holiday Acres, where it is being restored.

Surrounding the ranch house complex at Mill Creek Ranch are a barn and other buildings including a smaller house for a ranch manager where Pres Valdez once lived during my time in this part of the world.

Mill Creek runs through the building complex; normally a benign, welcome part of the peaceful home site smiling across acres and acres of rolling grassland used for hay and grazing. Historically, Mill Creek was called El Frio Creek on the earliest Pagosa Country maps. Speaking again historically, Mill Creek Ranch was homesteaded by John Dowel, a leader among the pioneers of Pagosa Country and the first mayor of Pagosa Springs. There can be little doubt that the Dowells cleared the land and planted the verdure surrounding the ranch house.

And so, in this idyllic mountain setting, rain began to fall on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 1911. It began as a gentle rain. No doubt, the area ranchers were thankful for such a rain nurturing their fields.

“She’s a soaker, just what we need,” was in the minds of those depending on grass to support their herds.

Thankfulness turned to concern as the rain continued without letup and, by Thursday, soaking turned to flooding. Mild mannered Mill Creek metamorphosed into a malicious, mauling, muddy water monster, slashing and tearing at its restraining banks as if determined to escape. Above the house, driftwood piled up bank to bank, creating a growing lake which threatened to destroy the house and its neighboring buildings.

The Dowell brothers, with helpers, climbed onto the huge pile of driftwood, precariously attempting to dismantle the makeshift dam before it claimed the buildings. A portion of the debris supporting Jake Dowell and B.F. Turner broke loose, plunging the men into the roiling waters never again to see the light of day. John Dowell managed to ride the debris to safety. More next week on the 1911 flood.