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Big Thompson Flood Kills 145

By Leona Jean

On July 4th, 1976, the United States celebrated its bicentennial. Coloradoans were to celebrate their centennial on August 1st. Many celebrated that weekend by heading to the mountains to hike, camp, fish, and just hang out. Thousands were enjoying themselves in the Big Thompson Canyon area near Rocky Mountain National Park in the evening of July 31st when a most usual storm gathered overhead. The scale of the resulting flood caught everyone by surprise. The record flood waters rumbled down the narrow canyon (see picture below) taking out everything in is path. Officials would later report 145 dead and $41,000,000 in damage.

Fly to the Big Thompson Canyon!
If you have Google Earth installed, click here to be "flown" to the site of the tragedy. You will see the amazing mountains that make up this canyon and you will "fly" over Loveland to get there. (If you do not have Google Earth installed, get it from Google. It allows you to view virtually anywhere on Earth in 3D using satellite imagery.)

Here's a report from NOAA on the occasion of the 25 anniversary of the tragedy:

At the height of the Colorado tourist season, several thousand people escaped city heat by traveling to a popular camping area an hour northwest of Denver for hiking, fishing, camping and relaxing in the cooler mountain air. By late afternoon, an estimated 2,500-3,500 people were enjoying themselves in one of Colorado's most scenic river valleys. They had no way of knowing that unusual atmospheric conditions and the physical make up of the Big Thompson River valley were setting the stage for disaster.

The Big Thompson River basin is similar geologically to many river basins along the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Sheer rock forms the canyon walls, with little soil and vegetation to absorb runoff from storms. The river starts high in the Rocky Mountains near Estes Park in north-central Colorado and flows eastward through the rugged, steep-walled canyon. In some places, the canyon walls jut almost straight up. From top to bottom, the river drops vertically more than half a mile and exits the canyon into the rolling, forested plains west of Loveland. Dotted with homes, restaurants and other businesses, U.S. Highway 34 stretched the length of the canyon.

August 1, 1976

Mouth of Big Thompson Canyon looking upstream into Narrows. Highway 34 at left, truncated by river.

Photo by W. R. Hansen, USGS. Aug. 1, 1976.


As campers frolicked, a witch's brew began to develop in the atmosphere.

A weak but moist easterly flow began to develop on the east side of the Rockies. The moist air rose up the mountain slopes and combined with daytime heat to form thunderstorms. A thunderstorm lifted along the Front Range and began to dump heavy rain on the region about 6 p.m. Winds found at mountain crests of 10,000 feet are usually strong enough to push thunderstorms to the east and out of the area. On July 31, 1976, however, the upper winds were extremely weak and weren't strong enough to push the storm away from the Big Thompson Valley.

Instead, the storm remained virtually stationary for more than three hours and dumped a foot of rain into the canyon. Eight inches of rain fell in one hour-long stretch, and turned the normally placid two-foot-deep trickle into a raging torrent of water 19 feet high. Sweeping 10-foot boulders in front of it, the wall of water sped down the canyon slope. Cars, campers, and buildings in its path had no chance of survival.

The wall of water moved so fast that, even had Highway 34 not been washed out, the only avenue of escape was up the canyon walls. Vehicles and buildings became death traps for unsuspecting campers.

NOAA

Topographic image of Big Thompson Canyon.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

 

In two hours, the Big Thompson Canyon flood killed 145 people (including six who were never found), destroyed 418 houses and damaged another 138, destroyed 152 businesses and caused more than $40 million in damages.

An aftermath of the flood was adoption of numerous regulations that limit building along the Big Thompson River and other, similar rivers throughout the United States. The tragedy was also a major impetus nationwide for creating early warning systems for flash floods in mountainous cities and recreation areas.

Source: NOAA.

 

Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about Big Thompson Flood Kills 145? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"I grew up in the Big Thompson Canyon . As a child I spent weeks with my grandparents Ellis and Dorothy Hobbs. Drake was a magical place. We would eat dinner at the resturaunt at the fork every Sunday. I spent my days fishing in the river and climbing the canyon walls. That all changed on July 31st. My grandparents were killed and there is nothing left of there home. The state took away our land as flood control. As the canyon was rebuilt no one was able to rebuild my memories. Now the canyon is always a sad and foriegn place to me. The Canyon I remember is only in my memories."

--Flyfisher

"I was there along with three of my friends on the night of the flood. We are from Missouri and had went camping at the KOA campground by the dam just before the canyon starts. We lost our tent and some belongings in the first wave of rain and was later told to go into Estes Park for the night. We were unaware what was happening just a mile or 2 from us as all communication had been cut off. It was a event I will never forget."

--Bob Carter

"I was 15 years old at the time. We where camping in Rocky Mountain State park on vacation from Illinois. All it did was rain all week long finally my parents said we are leaving. We drove down the canyon early Saturday morning July 31, 1976, only stopping once so my Dad could take some photos. My Mom said she felt like we needed to leave now because she felt like water was rising behind us. We camped in North Platte that night and you could see the lighting to the west. My Dad said “My God, they look like they are getting a lot of rain to the west!” The next morning the news talked about the flood I will never forget about that day I am now 42 years old and I still think about the flood. If we would have left later that day who knows I may have not been here today"

--Don Selke

"I was a child of 12 at the time of the big Thompson Flood we were camping at the St. Vrain campgrounds. I recall my mother out cooking over a campfire making popcorn of all things that rainy night before. The next morning when we woke the bankks of the river were overflowing and our supplies in the river to keep cold had floated some ways down stream. Next thing I remember we were heading down the mountain as fast as we could."

--Lisa

"As a twelve year old boy from Louisiana, I visited Big Thompson Canyon in 1974, with my brother, cousin and grandparents. I remember how awesom the canyon was, although at that time I was not much impressed. We stayed at a cabin which had a deck in back, hanging over the edge of the river. There was a trampoline in front of this cabin resort, and the folks who ran it were very nice when my grandfather backed his motor home into an electrical wire, knocking it down. ( He later crashed the motor home into a snow bank on Trail Ridge Road, which had 15 feet of snow on each side.) I have often wondered if these nice folks were killed in the flood. I do not remember the name of the place, and the grandparents are dead, so I have no way of finding out. If anyone recognizes the resort from this description, please post a response. Thanks!

I moved to Manitou Springs last October, with my two teen-aged sons. I arrived to find that we are in the middle of a severe water shortage, when just four years ago there was severe flooding her. My sons are not impressed with their surroundings here, but in a few weeks I will take them to the canyon, (my first time back since 1974) to try to explain to them what happened there. I love the ruggedness of Colorado, but regret the loss of live that occurs here."

--Sheadogg

"I was a junior in college. Three buddies and I worked at a popular restaurant that rested nearly on the edge of the dammed up lake. That summer we had decided to live in Estes Park rather than in the canyon as we had the summer earlier. That Saturday afternoon I had off and had driven Highway 34 to Fort Collins. Driving back west to Estes, I had noticed how crowded the canyon was- knowing it was a huge weekend in Estes Park because of the centennial and bicentennial celebrations. After working at "The Yum Yum Hut" for about an hour, my boss, Mr. Pabst, looked out and said one heck of a storm was coming. It rained so hard that we could not see the motel some 60 feet away. Then there was a deadly pause for about a half an hour and we stepped out as no one was at the restaurant. My boss commented that this was strange as the clouds were quickly reversing tracks and moving to the west. Once again- tremendous rain. At about 8:30 we closed but listened to a short wave radio broadcast in the canyon in which people were screaming for ropes. We really had no idea what was going on. At about 9:30 I was driving home up on Olympia Lane just on the east edge of Estes Park and I came to a sudden stop. There was a 20 foot deep, 30 foot wide hole in the middle of the road. I knew then that this was a strange incident. The next morning, Sunday, I got called into work in the morning shift- many of the morning workers were unable to get to work. I distinctly remember an Estes Park policeman coming in and I asked what kind of damage there was in the canyon. He sort of rolled his eyes and said, "bad!" I asked him what he meant and he said "Lots of death." He went on to say a temporary morgue was set up in Loveland. We all felt shock at that point. As the morning rolled on, more reports came in- this was huge- national news!! I suddenly came to the shocking realization I had to get a hold of my parents. Many tourists had said that national news reported that all this tragedy had occurred in Estes Park. They would be worried sick. Even more so, since I had lost tragically a brother to a car accident just two months earlier. My minor miracle was that I drove 25 miles to find a phone line. I was able to get through and had discovered they had just (30 seconds earlier) turned on the television and heard the news. They suffered only 30 seconds of fear. I will always remember that day. Estes Park which was a mecca in a sense to me, had suffered greatly as tourists had abandoned the small town in droves. It was a ghost town when it should have been at the absolute height of activity."

--Anonymous

"We lived in Loveland when the flood hit. The day before I took my kids tubing on the very river, where the next day dozens of bodies would be found. My friend's grandad was the sheriff, and he took me to places that most people were not allowed to go. I will not go into the details of what I saw or of what I smelled but the memories still haunt me twenty years later."

--Ross

"I lived in the lower canyon just before the Narrows on a plot of land that was built in 1897 and was the original site of the stage station in the canyon before the Narrows Canyon was compleated with HY 34. It went back to the 1890's that night and took out all the road and was helpless to see people cars and houses swept into the canyon narrows and certain death, I was working with Loveland Amb company then and was truck driver My wife then and kid had taken a trip to the Glenwood and thought that my wife being afraid of Big storms may have turned around and went home it was 2 weeks before we had comminicaton and whre sure all where alright. In the mean time I kept busy with rescue efforts and retiving the dead. The official count was around 135 or so but there where more that just were not ID'd or were transit in the area as hundreds of turists were in the area at that time. Other than my wartime duty it was the most tragic duty I served for the time. It tooks months to recover and some of us did not. But glad to be alive.

Best regards to all. From Gary Jr., Sabrina, and Ex wife Dot. to all the Amb Crew we new and worked with."

--Capt Gary Evans

"I was there on that day of 1976 during the Big Thompson Canyon Flood. I was traveling with three other friends of mine on route to California. We had stopped in Estes Park to see a friends and later that night we had decided to go to the Canyon to see the beautiful sights. Not long after it had started to rain and very shortly thereafter it was raining very hard - to this day I have never seen rain come down that hard.

I remember my boyfriend had started to drive as it was getting so hard to see from the windshield he had hit a boulder in the road and it had flattened our back tire on the drivers side and we had stayed there for a few minutes trying to decide what to do as it was raining so hard. A little later a forest ranger came around on the road and was telling people to evacuate the premises, as there was flash flood warnings out. We of course could not drive cause the tire was flat. I believe that saved our life or we would have drove a mile up the road to a washed out bridge.

I remember sitting in the front seat passenger’s side and opening the door the water was probably about three to four inches at this time I stuck my right foot out and it almost carried me away and the rest of my body was in the car I quickly shut the door and about that time I looked to my right and a house had just fallen down like it was made of cardboard half of it fell down swept down stream and a few minutes later the rest fell down and caught up with the other half of the house we then decided we better get out of the car. We then all climbed out of the car from the driver’s side as the car was quite close to the mountain.

We climbed on top of the mountain and we had our legs wrapped around each other all night long. With the lightening we could see houses, boulders, propane tanks, mobile homes, cars trucks, cars, people, animals being swept away. We could hear propane tanks exploding and the smell of the gasses was awful the roar of the river and the pounding rain and the winds were very loud but the worst sound was the sound of people screaming and crying out for help we could hear that so well over the other noises. It was a very long wet night but at least we were alive the next day we climbed down the mountain and the place did not look the same there was no longer a road.

There was mud everywhere – debris, trees, homes, boulders, cars, etc. everywhere and the most mud I have ever seen (some places over a foot deep). There was fish laying on the road or use to be road but believe it or not my car was still there the same place!

The people in the canyon were so nice and helpful they provided food and homemade wine for people as the water was contaminated. There was talk of the victims within hours after the flood. We were flown eventually to higher grounds as the wild animals were coming out for food and they were tending to the hurt and elderly trying to get them out of there.

Later more Army helicopters flew us to Loveland (I believe) where they had a Red Cross set up at a school and provided hot coffee, hot cocoa, and sandwiches plus blankets, clothes and ham radios. They set up phone lines so they victims could contact there family. The volunteers were wonderful.

I have often wondered about the victims of the flood and the beautiful place that had so much damage and I feel so bad for the people who did not survive it was such a sad deal. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time but it is something I will never forget. It helped change me to become a nurse to help others in time of need. I have not been back to Colorado since then other then when I picked up my car a few months later. I would love to see it again and the statue they erected for the people who died. I still believe that Colorado is one of the most beautiful places - I have ever been and the most wonderful caring people. I live in Iowa my home state but I often think of that sad day that took so many lives."

--roxinal

"The Big Thompson Flood is still a very tragic memory for me as our family cabin was destroyed, our next-door neighbors were killed as were friends and an employee of my father's company.

On July 31, 1976 a friend and I spent the day at my family's cabin in Glen Haven, enjoying the nice weather and celebrating Colorado's 100th anniversary. Late that afternoon we decided to go to Estes Park and get a pizza. After we ate, we noticed the intense cloudy skies to the North (over Glen Haven) and decided to drive back home to Greeley instead of going back to the cabin.

That decision saved our lives, but it should be noted that our decision to leave for Greeley was not based on fear of the clouds, instead we were 17 years old at the time and the thought of going to a movie in Greeley sounded better than staying at my cabin in the rain. The flood hit our cabin and destroyed it merely hours after we left.

I returned to the Big Thompson Canyon two days later and helped with the search for victims, retrieved what little was left of our belongings, but mainly removed silt from many homes and lent a hand to neighbors in their cleanup.

I would like to mention that there is a bronze sculpture and memorial area in the Canyon, it is located about a mile east of the Town of Drake. I highly recommend visiting this memorial, it helps with the healing process."

--Anonymous

"I was 11 years old that summer. We spent a lovely day in Rocky Mountain National Park with two visitors from England, who were most impressed by the beauty of the park and the rugged nature of the canyon. I remember, as we were driving back down to the mouth in the late afternoon/early evening, we all remarked at how brown and roiling the waters seemed. Yes, my family tends to use words like "roiling" in normal conversation. It was only hours later that those waters turned deadly.

At age 11, I was not yet plugged into news. But just around the corner from us lived a well-known anthropologist with the local University. I knew of his work with fossils, but I remember having a moment of realization when I heard that he was called down to identify the victims using dental records. Mortality had not visited me directly, but I'll never forget that summer day when I learned much more vividly about the fragility of life and the reality of death."

--Steve

"I was 12, and my family lived in Loveland in July 1976. My parents had picked me up from Meadow Mountain Girl Scout Camp that morning. We went south a bit from there to pick up my favorite cousin, Julie, who was going to spend the rest of the summer break with us.

After we picked up Julie, we travelled down Highway 34, planning to stop for a picnic at Viestenz-Smith park (which was much more rustic then). It had started to sprinkle, I think, and Mom and Dad decided to head on to Loveland and treat us kids to dinner out instead.

Julie and I were going to sleep out in the camper in our driveway for fun, but she got upset and didn't want to stay there because as we had left the house she had heard on the TV that Loveland was being flooded. We were not near the river anymore, but we were kids and didn't make that connection. My parents calmed us down, but we still slept inside.

The next day our phone began ringing off the hook. The first lists of missing and dead had been published. I was listed as "missing", so family members were freaked! My aunt and uncle were, of course, wondering if Julie had been with me. It took three days to get my name off that list. I always assumed that it had something to do with the girl scout camp, but I don't know how my name got there. It was and is sobering, though, to think how different things could have been had we stayed in the canyon too long.

My mother, a registered nurse, was called in to help with the victims. Some people killed and injured were emergency response people whom she knew well. McKee Medical Center had just opened, but she and others were sent back to Loveland Memorial Hospital, which became a temporary morgue. (I've heard the building is now a school administration building. ) Some of the reports over the following days were, to say the least, horrifying. One that stands out in my mind was a report of a "torso" in the river. Body parts were apparently a common find as the river level dropped. Many were found on the floodplains near the fairground, as I recall.

At first officials called it a 100-year flood, but later they said it was a 10, 000-year flood. I don't know which it really is, but once every 10, 000 years is too often as far as I'm concerned."

--D

"My family was taking a trip to California the night the Big Thompson flooded. It was so black and lightning all a round us, we had driven into the worst storm I have ever seen to this day. Soon the water started getting deeper and deeper, we were in the poudre cannon going to hit I 80 in Laramie. We were following a Mayflower truck right on his bumper because the truck would push the water a way from the car if we stayed close. All of a sudden there was a girl standing in a torrent of waist deep water after exiting her vehicle. She was holding her hands over her face screaming as we drove by helplessly watching as her car floated down the bar ditch, along with giant cotton wood trees and the road which was all the same like a river in flood stage. I can still see her face right now, 30 years later as though it was yesterday. I've always wondered if she made it, there was no way we could stop, bless her soul. If you read this, I'm sorry"

--James Keator

"My family arrived on Saturday and checked into Sleepy Hollow cabins. I was 9 years old. We had driven all night from Iowa and decided to get ready for bed early. At about 7:15pm, my father told my mother he was uncomfortable going to bed with all this heavy rain. Mom opened the back door of our cabin and couldn't see anything. She got out the flashlight, and found the river at our door. It should've been 30 feet away. We opened the front door to seek out the manager. She was at the cabin next door and said, "I don't know what is happening, but we have to get out. " I took off. Our car was already 3-4 feet under water.

I ran 200 feet and up a 6 foot ditch to the road. My father followed moments later. My mother, brother, and brother's friend came a minute later. I ran in ankle deep water. It was knee high on my father. And, it was waste to chest high on my mom and brother. It was pitch black. I headed up the road to the right. Had I gone left, the road was already under water. I truly believe God got us out of the cabin that night. All of our decisions were the right ones at the very last moment."

--Lisa Wycoff


 

DISASTER DETAILS

A cabin lodged on a private bridge just below Drake, Colorado. Studies conducted after the flood  by the USGS concluded it was a 10,000 year flood.

Photo by Ralph R. Shroba, USGS (8/13/76)

Date(s): July 31, 1976

Location: Big Thompson River, Colorado

Deaths: 145

Injuries: 88

Damage: $41M


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