by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA — Somehow, as I listened to my street rush down the hill during a storm lately, I thought of some destructive floods that La Veta has suffered over the years.
Mother Nature has been demonstrating her moods recently by slinging sudden and serious deluges of rain down on the Cucharas Valley. This has caught many people by surprise after the lengthy drought because, if they are recently arrived (or have short memories), they have never experienced this phenomenon before. Luckily, it is not the norm, but it is not really uncommon.
La Veta has been, er, weathering this sort of thing for more than a century that we know of, since that’s when the first newspapers reported such happenings.
In July 1889, or nearly 125 years ago, a 36-hour long rainstorm sent the Cucharas River out of its banks, destroying crops along its length. In town, many people along the waterway evacuated, returning to flooded homes, yards, uprooted trees and downed fences. This was caused by the overflowing of the mill lake on the southwest edge of town. The resulting surge overwhelmed the flour mill and ice houses, then tore down the river channel and Oak Street, ending up in the railroad yards which sustained thousands of dollars in damages. As a result, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad later cooperated with the town to deepen and straighten the channel to avoid future floods in the rail yards, not to mention poor Oak Street.
In 1915 steady rains fell until the earth, according to another newspaper, “was like a sponge”. Fearing the worst, men and teams went out to try to keep the river within its banks and to fortify the dam on mill lake. Then came a sudden spate of heavy rain that took out the bridge over the Cucharas north of town. Oak Street, despite staying mostly dry after the deepening of the river channel, once again flooded.
The summer of 1923 was another wet one. The winter was mild though windy, and flowers were blooming by the first week of March. Then the snow began to fall on the first day of spring, and kept coming. Travelers were trapped on La Veta Pass by drifts, and “mill hill”, the name for the steep hill on west Virginia Street near the flour mill, became completely impassable due to deep mud. Frankly, this hill was known to be treacherous even during fair weather. It was very steep.
May and June were comparatively dry, but just after the Fourth of July, the rains came. The Baptists had to cancel their annual picnic, and the hay crop was ruined. The kids liked the moisture, as can be determined by the complaints about the boys skinny dipping (these same kids were treated to a visit from Jack Dempsey when he passed through town after visiting family in the San Luis Valley just a few days later).
In August, electrical storms killed some livestock, and one bolt found its way straight through a home. Then the Cucharas washed away five tons of hay stored on the Falk ranch south of town in a “record breaking storm”. The papers said “All the roads in this vicinity are shot to pieces”. Naturally, this brought on more rain, with some five hours of torrential rain in mid-month. This last storm left noticeable waterfalls coursing down the West Spanish Peak, and the various creeks were running bank high.
Then came the devastating storm. Folks upriver called town authorities and reported a wall of water full of logs and other debris heading toward La Veta. Men with teams again rushed to mill dam to strengthen it against breaking, and were successful. Meanwhile, many residents evacuated their homes and filled the old brick schoolhouse, which stood on a little hill three blocks from the river.
A flood 150 feet wide inundated the town, effectively destroying the bridges on Virginia, Francisco and Ryus. The railroad bridge held but collected so much debris the areas to the south were badly flooded as the water backed up.
Results of this were mixed, but all bad. Some stores had to replace roofs that had collapsed. Sand covered many croplands so the community harvest fair was cancelled. Farms below town were devastated even worse than those above town. The area roads were so bad the school buses could not navigate them, so the first day of school was delayed.
Nearly 20 years passed before the next big deluge. In 1942 a heavy snowpack melted early, and combined with heavy rains, took out the Middle Creek, Valley Road and the Cucharas highway bridges in April. The latter waterway took an old barn on its north bank and left an 80- foot gap where the bridge north of town had stood. Once again crops were destroyed, and many head of livestock were killed. A rockslide on La Veta closed down railroad service. By the first of May it was still raining, and basements were not only full of water but also snakes. Because the bridge over Bear Creek also was destroyed, temporary bridges were built on Valley Road and Highway 111 (now Highway 12) so travelers could go north or east out of town. In 1947 the valley flooded again, though this time it was the Wahatoya that caused the most damage.
Wahatoya Creek only looks like a calm little mountain stream. A big storm south of town just days before the Fourth of July, 1981, raised its waters along its entire length. Cabins in Little Kansas suffered to different degrees, but the footbridges, many decks and yards were carried away. Downstream, one resident’s car was carried for more than a mile until it was deposited near town.
In La Veta, an estimated five to seven inches of rain was received in a short time. The highway bridges held, but Valley Road was again isolated. The heavy rains caused ditches to overflow and the flood along Main Street brought down branches as large as a foot in diameter and 15 feet long. Yards were destroyed, basements filled and many businesses had inches of water and mud on their floors. So many branches were down in Town Park the annual Arts and Crafts Fair was in jeopardy, but massive effort cleared the damage and the fair went on, albeit on very soft ground. At least Town Board lifted the existing water restrictions afterward.
In fact, this was a general deluge for Huerfano County. Bridges, roads, fences, ditches, dams and all manner of man-made structures all over the county were damaged or destroyed. Pipelines were broken and some utility poles damaged. After assessing the amount of rainfall and its damage, this was deemed a 200-year storm.
Good! That means we have another 168 years until the next one. Personally, I can wait.