It may be hard for many residents of the Trinidad area today to imagine, and certainly for those younger than 60 years old, but there was a time when the sudden, heavy rains that sometimes fall in the spring and summer would stir the Purgatoire River from its normal placid flow into a muddy torrent that wreaked havoc on everything in its path as it surged downstream.
Beginning as early as the 1920s there were serious discussions underway about the need to build a dam to control the flow of the Purgatoire River. It wasn’t only touted for flood control measures, but for the many people living in Trinidad who had suffered through some of the bad floods of the early 20th Century, that was the prime advantage.
Trinidad’s major floods of 1904, 1942, and 1955 caused upwards of $30 million in damages to local businesses and homes.
Railroad tracks and beds were washed away, the bridges at Linden, Commercial St. and Animas destroyed, and water ran chest high along Pine Street and down Commercial St. toward Marty’s Feed store.
Downriver, the farms in the Sunflower Valley (the El Moro, Hoehne, and Model areas) were flooded as well, with fields washed out and crops ruined.
“This river is a monster at times when it is loosed full tilt,” wrote Chronicle-News Editor Fred Winsor in 1942, two days after the worst flood in 38 years had swept through Trinidad in late April. “Ordinarily it may be little more than a dry creek, a gulch with a thin trickle of water. But when once fed by the high altitude creeks and canyons and arroyos during or after storms, this river takes on proportions of a miniature Mississippi and its power to destroy knows no limit.”
There had been two days of heavy rain in Trinidad, then snow showers, then a day of clear weather which lulled everyone into thinking the bad weather was past. But, on Wednesday, April 22, the rain started again, and the run-off poured into an already overflowing river.
In the early morning hours on Thursday, the swollen Purgatoire River hit Trinidad. The next day’s page 1 headline in The Chronicle-News told the story:
TORRENTS RAGE THRU CHANNEL TO SUBMERGE CITY UNDER LAYER OF MUD
The accompanying article reported flood waters had rampaged through the area with a high water mark of 40 inches recorded near the Santa Fe train depot. There was a catalog of damages to buildings and other structures. “The Linden avenue bridge was converted into a twisted wreck by the raging flood and the Chestnut street bridge was also taken out, with a section of the Colorado and Southern (C&S) railroad tracks...While the Animas street bridge stands, a nearby wall collapsed.”
Even though the North Commercial Street bridge had withstood the floodwaters, the overflow on both north and south approaches to the bridge made it inaccessible.
Streets and sidewalks were either submerged or covered by mud. Water had flooded many basements, including City Hall (where the jail and police headquarters that were located on the lower levels had to be evacuated).
Railroad traffic in all directions had been halted because the flood waters overran the roadbeds and washed out miles of track. Two northbound trains carrying U.S. troops from Texas were stranded in Trinidad and the regular westbound Santa Fe trains were stopped in La Junta.
In the days following the flood, when the high water receded from the Santa Fe depot the clean-up and repair efforts would be hampered by the knee-deep mud and other debris deposited by the flood.
Even so, within 24 hours of the flood passing through the area the first group of more than 500 workers who eventually were assigned to the Trinidad area from the state WPA (Works P r o j e c t Administration) arrived and were rolling up their sleeves to get to work. Other emergency aid came from the Red Cross and from other national relief agencies.
Tragically, there were two deaths reported. One was Cicero C. Reeves, a 64- year-old rancher who was on horseback near Segundo when he was caught by the rising river current and swept downstream. His body was later recovered by an employee of the Colorado Supply Company store at Valdez.
The other fatality was an 11-year-old child who drowned in a flooded irrigation ditch near Hoehne.
Most of the farms in the area were devastated by the flood. The Model Ditch, The Johns Flood Ditch, the Pulaski Ditch, and all the smaller ditches and dams in the Sunflower Valley were taken out, and the early crops destroyed.
As residents and businessmen banded together and began organizing clean-up operations, city officials were already in contact with state and federal legislators to revive talks on the proposed dam they hoped to see built upriver.
That project proved to be decades away from gaining the needed federal funding, however, and in the intervening years the city would experience at least one more catastrophic flood (in 1955) and many smaller ones.