The Great Flood of 1864




THE most noted event in the history of Denver was the great flood in Cherry Creek, May 19, 1864.  In order to fully understand the devastation wrought by this rush of waters, one must first picture to himself the status of affairs at that time, which was essentially different from that of the present day.  There being but a little water in the creek at any time, it came to be looked upon as a dry stream, and little attention was paid to it as a water-course, while many buildings were planted on piles in the very bed of the creek itself.  The bridges of the period were low wooden structures, also raised on piles, a little above the sands, just high enough to obstruct the passage of the torrent which came down, and to spread it far and wide and high, in its devastating course. 

    Old residents affirm that the flood of 1864 was by far the heaviest ever seen in Cherry Creek, since the settlement of Denver.  It certainly was the most destructive, but the writer has always doubted whether it was greater in actual volume than some which have been recorded since, notably the flood of 1878.  In 1864, the obstructions in the chnnel no doubt caused an accumulation of water absolutely frightful, even if the wave was not, as some assert, "thirty feet high."  Even in 1878, the greatest damage resulted from obstructions in the channel, but these were a few bridges only, elevated on piles high above the sands of the creek.  If the channel had been clear, and if the waters had been permitted to flow "unvexed to the sea," as they did after the bridges went out, the flood of 1878 might possibly have passed off as a rather small and inexpensive affair.  Who knows, positively, that the great flood of 1864 would not have left Denver unharmed, if Denver had not obstructed its passage?  Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly a wild deluge of waters, and it came down with most appalling force and suddenness upon the slumbering city, about the hour of midnight of the day and date first written. 

    The author offers no apology for introducing here the only succinct and comprehensive account of the flood at his command, from the pen of Prof. O. J. Goldrick, an eye-witness of the awful scene.  It was published in the Commonwealth a few days after the affair, and its accuracy is unquestioned as far as the actual facts are concerned.

    "About the midnight hour of Thursday, the 19th inst., when almost all in town were knotted in the peace of sleep, deaf to all noise and blind to all danger, snowing in calm security, and seeing visions of remoteness radiant with the rainbow hues of past associations, or roseate with the gilded hopes of the fanciful future -- while the full-faced queen of night sheds showers of silver from the starry throne own o'er fields of freshness and fertility, garnishing and suffusing sleeping nature with her balmy brightness, fringing the feathery cottonwoods with luster, enameling the housetops with coats of pearl, bridging the erst placid Platte with beams of radiance, and bathing the arid sands of Cherry Creek with dewy beauty -- a frightful phenomenon sounded in the distance, and a shocking calamity presently charged upon us.  The few who had not retired to their beds broke from their buildings to see hat was coming.  Hark!  What and where is this?   torrent or a tornado?  And where can it be coming from, and whither going?  These were the questions, soliloquized and spoken, one to the other.  Has creation's God forsaken us, and has chaos come again?  Our eyes might bewilder and our ears deceive, but our hearts, all trembling, and our sacred souls soon whispered what it was -- the thunders of Omnipotence warning us 'there's danger on the wing," with death himself seeming to prompt our preparations for the terrible alternative of destruction or defense.  Presently, the great noise of might water,s like the roaring of Niagara, or the rumbling of an enraged Etna, burst upon us, distinctly and regularly in its sounding steps, as the approach of a tremendous train of locomotive.  There was seen a hurrying to and fro in terror, trying to wake up one's relatives and neighbors, while some favored few, who were already dressed, darted out of doors and clamorously called their friends to climb the adjacent bluffs and see, with certainty, for themselves.  Alas! and wonderful to behold -- it was the water engine of death, dragging its destroying train of maddened waves, that defied the eye to number them, which was rushing down upon us, now following its former channel, and now tunneling, direct through banks and bottoms, a new channel of its own.  Alarm flew around, and all alike were ignorant of what to think or say or do, much less of knowing where to go with safety, or to save others.  A thousand thoughts flitted o'er us, and a thousand terrors thrilled us through.  What does this mean?  Where has this tremendous flood or freshet -- this terrific torrent -- come from?  Has the Platte switched off from its time worn track and turned its reasurers down to deluge us?  Have the wild water spouts from all the clouds at once conspired to drain their upper cisterns, and thus drench us here in death?  Have the firm foundations of the Almight's earth given way, and the fountains of the great deep burst forth on fallen man, regardless of that rainbow covenant which spanned, in splendor, you are of sky last evening?  Is the world coming to an end, or a special wreck of matter impending?  These, and thoughts like these, troubled the most fearless souls.

    "Now the torrent, swelled and thickened, showed itself in sight, sweeping tremendous trees and dwelling houses before it -- a might volume of impetuous water, wall-like in its advancing front, as was the old Red Sea when the Israelites walked through it, and volcano-like in its floods of foaming, living lava, as it rolled, with maddened momentum, directly toward the Larimer street bridge and gorge, afterward rebounding with impetuous rage, and, striking the large Methodist Church and the adjoining buildings, all of which it wrested from their foundations and engulfed in the jaws of bellowing billows as they broke over the McGaa street bridge.  Like death, leveling all things in its march, the now overshadowing flood upheaved the bridge and the two buildings by it.  Messrs. Charles and Hunt's law offices, in the latter of which C. Bruce Hayne was sleeping, whom, with the velocity of a cataract, it launched asleep and naked on the watery ocean of eternity, to find his final, fatal refuge, only in the flood-gate port of death.  Poor Haynes!  Your summons came, but 'twas short and sudden, after and not before you had "wrapped the drapery" of your humble couch about you and had laid down to "pleasant dreams."  Precipitately and in paroxysms, the tempestuous torrent swept along, now twenty feet in the channel's bed and bridging bank to bank with billows, high as hills piled upon hills -- with broken buildings, tables, bedsteads, baggage, bowlders [sic], mammoth trees, leviathan logs, and human beings buffeting with the billow crests and beckoning us to save them.  But there we stood, and then the new-made banks and distant bluffs were dotted with men and families, but poorly and partly dressed, deploring with dumb amazement the catastrophe in sight.  The waters, like a pall, were spreading over all the inhabited lower parts of town and town site.  nature shook bout us.  The azure meads of heaven were darkened as in death, and the fair Diana with her starry train, though defended by the majority of darkness all around her, and by batteries of thick clouds in front, looked down on shuddering silence dimly, as if lost in the labyrinth of wonder and amazement at the volume of the vast abyss into which we all expected to be overwhelmed.  Next reeled the dear old office of the Rocky Mountain News, that pioneer of hardship and of honor which here nobly braved the battle and the breeze for five full years and a month, regularly and without intermission or intimidation, and down it sank, with its Union flag-staff, into the maelstrom of the surging waters, soon to appear and disappear between the waves, as, wildy by starts, in mountains high they rolled and rolled, as if endeavoring to form a dread alliance with the clouds and thus consummate our general wreck.

    "Before this a few moments, one of the proprietors, Mr. J. L. Dailey, and four of the young gentlemen employes, who had been asleep in the building, awoke to realize the peril of their critical situation, and without time to save anything at all in the whole establishment, not even their trunks at their bedside, or watches on the table stands, they fortunately escaped, by jumping out of a side window, down into the eddy-water caused by a drift which had formed against the building, and thence, by the aid of ropes and swimming, struck the shore on the instant of time to see the sorrowful sight of their building, stock, material, money, all, even to the lot on which it stood (for which all $12,000 would have been refused a few hours previously), uptorn and yet scattered to the four winds of heave, or sunk, shattered in sand banks between here and the States.

    "Higher, broader, deeper and swifter boiled the waves of water, as the mass of flood, freighted with treasure, trees and live stock leaped toward the Blake street bridge, prancing with the violence of a fiery steed stark mad:

            "'Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell.'

    "Great God! and are we all 'gone up,' and is there no power to stem the tide, was asked all around.  But no; as if that Nature demanded it, or there was need of the severe lesson it teacheth to the citizens of the town, the waves dashed higher still, and the volume of wter kept on eroding bluffs and bank and undermining all the stone and foundtions in its rapid course.

    "The inundation of the Nile, the Noachian deluge, and that of Prometheus' son, Deucalion, the Noah of the Greeks, were now in danger of being outdeluged by this great phenomenon of 1864.

    "Oh! it was indescribably and inconceivably awful to behold that spectacle of terrible grandeur, as the moon would occasionally shed her rays on the surges of the muddy waves, whose angry thundering drowned all other noise, and to hear the swooping of the death angel as he flew o'er the troubled surface, suggesting the idea of deth and destruction in the wild tumults of the torrent.

    "Previous to this had gone toward the ocean-like delta of the creek and the Platte, the Blake street bridge.  Gen. Bowen's law office, Metz's saddlery shop, F. A. Clark's and Mr. McKee's stores, the City Hall buildings and jail, together with Cass & Co.'s old bank, Stickney's brick and Felton & Co.'s adjoining brick emporium, all with a crash and speedy disappearance in the current Statesward bound, and with not a few people as passengers aboard.  Now we see a youth, white with wan despair, and a child stiff in the cramps of death, popping his head up stories high on the river's surface only to be struck senseless by an overtaking tree or solid shet of water, thereafter thence, when the roaring of the raging elements, exemplifications of the Almighty's voice and power, will toll their only funeral knell as calamity's sad corpse on sorrow's hearse is carried to its watery grave, with a watery winding-sheet and melancholy moonlight for its shroud!  Verily, 'the Lord giveth and taketh away,' yet 'shall mortal man be more just than his Maker?'

    "For four or five hours, up to daylight, the floods, in Cherry Creek and in the Platte, were growing gradually, spreading over West Denver and the Platte bottoms in the eastern and western wards of town, divided by Cherry Creek, and bounded westerly by the then booming Platte.  For squares up Cherry Creek, on either side of its old channel and along to its entrance into the Platte, the adjoining flats were inundated and the buildings thereon made uncomfortable, if not unsafe, by the amount of water carpeting their floors to a depth of from one to five feet deep.  Blake street was covered to a foot in depth with mire, and the basements of many of its stores were solid cisterns of muddy water.  From the Buffalo House to the site of F street bridge, on the East Denver flats, was one shining sea of water.  Most of the settlers had to leave their homes and household goods, and mae up-town to escape the inundation.  The same was the case with the majority of the citizens on the West Side also.  There it was still deeper and more dangerous, and there, too, it proved more destructive to the residents and residences.

    "Scores and scores of the families from Camp Weld, along down the foot of Ferry street, and thence southwesterly to the old site of Chubbuck's bridge, were surprised in their sleep and surrounded by an oceanic expanse of water from the overflowing Platte.  Man found their floors flooded from three to six feet deep with water before they knew it or had waking warning to escape for their lives, and gladly leave the frame structures, and their furniture and fixtures, to float down with the flood.  'Twas here that the most sever and serious losses and privations were encountered.  'Twas here, West Denver, along Front street, Fifth street, Cherry street and Ferry, as well as al over the streets of the southwestern bottoms, that the gallant officers and men of the Colorado First, together with several of the citizens, showed their timely presence and their truly great assistance, rescuing families from their flooded homes and returning them, on horseback and otherwise, to distant dwellings, high and dry.

    "During this time, which lasted a few hours, commencing about daylight's dawn, the scenes of sorrow and of suffering should have been seen to be appreciated, to draw forth due gratitude to the rescuers for the self-sacrifice they showed.  Many of the families, women and children, had to flee in their sleeping habiliments, having neither time nor inclination to squander in search for their 'good clothes.'  Thanks and remembrances eternal to all those active, noble souls on the several sides of town, who worked from the noon of night to the next noonday, ssisting the sufferers and aiding the citizens in all good efforts and good works.

    "'Twas not till daylight that the choked-up Cherry Creek completely spread itself and formed independent confederations, one stream running down Front street deep and impetuous enough to launch a good-sized building from its foundation; another down Cherry street, conclusively gutting the street and blockading the dwellings' doors with 'wood and wter,' up almost to their very lintels.  On Ferry, a lively river flowed, five or more feet deep, with a current strong enough to make a Hudson River steamer hop along its waves.  The Ferry street and F street bridges fell early in the flood, and the erosions in the estuary at the latter entirely changed the river's bed, forming a new cycloidal channel nearly an eighth of a mile to the westward.  The same freaks were exhibited by Cherry Creek during its twelve-hour lunacy, leaving the old-time bed and breaking another farther north, by undermining the bluffs and excavating and upheaving old alluvial mounds without ceremony.  Now this celebrated creek resembles a respectable river, with a prospect of a perpetual flowing stream throughout the year in-stead of selfisly sinking in the sans some miles above, as heretofore.  Its having defined its position and established its base for future operations will prove a good thing to the town eventually, notwithstanding it falls heavily on hunreds for the present.

    "For a few days previous, there was an abnormal fall of rain at the heads of Cherry Creek and Plum Creek, along the water-shed range of the divide, so much so that it terrified tillers of the soil and threatened their cultivated fields with failure.  On Thursday afternoon, it rained there incessantly, so that the natives knew not whether the cistern-clouds had lost their bottoms or had burst asunder altogether.  It would shower hailstones as large as hen's eggs one hour, and during the next hour it would literally pour down waterspout sheet of rain from reservoirs not over two hundred feet above, while a few minutes more would wash the hail away and leave four feet of water on the level fields.  And this ponderous downpouring was so terrible that it instantly inundated and killed several thousand sheep and some cattle that were corraled at ranches in that region.  This phenomenon will plausibly prepare us to believe that the 'Dry Cimarron' beyond Bent's Fort, the Ocate, the Pecos, and large but partially dry aroyas of New Mexico were formerly what the 'exaggerating' mountains hve heretofore assured our infidel minds were but stubborn matters of fact.  Even at this present writing, and in our own immediate neighborhood, it will not be believed what startling changes have been made by the alluvial deposits of last Friday, unless you have your auditors accompany you to the theater of the tempestuous flood, on Cherry Creek and elsewhere, so that seeing becomes believing. 

    "The spirit of departed day had joined communion with the myriad ghosts of centuries, and four full hours fled into eternity before the citizens of many parts of town found out there was a freshet here at all!  Whether it was caused by 'deep sleep falling upon men,' or by the concentrated essence of constitutional laziness, there were many made aware of the awful risk they ran by sleeping, sluggard-like, after frequent rousings, not only later than the hour of dying twilight after the advent of the goddess of the morning, but even after Sol's bright beams had dispelled the dark and shown the awful escapes that all had run from the delugic danger.  Some sons of men and women will not be made to move unless folks, Gabriel-like, will blow a trumpet through and through  their ears, bedress them in their beds and bewilder them into the belief that an ocean of old rectified poison will encircle them if they don't start. 

    "To show how prolific they are of prophets, it is only necessary to cite the hundredth part of the number of those people who volunteered to inform the public, the day fter the flood, that they had prognosticated, a few days previously, every particle of the things that happened, full well knowing, as they generously informed us, that there was a freshet coming just about the time it did.  Prophetic souls, how envious you do make us, and how fortunate you were in not building your new houses 'on the sand.'  Were it not that, knowing this foretime, you probably have pre-empted them ahead of us, we would immediately take up a mill site and go ground-sluicing on the creek, considering you are ll 'in with us' in the 'dividends.'

    Of the thousand and one incidents, actual and exaggerated, that have been borne on the breeze of rumor since the flood, we shall mention here but few, since they would not prove of any special interest to our readers at a distance, for whose satisfaction this cursory sketch was scribbled.  The fortunate finding alive of the young man Schell, after buffeting the billows of three miles, the heroic and happy escape of Martin Wall, after encountering the distress of a deck passage on the jail roof for an equal distance, and the remarkable presence of mind and power of perseverance shown by the colored woman, Mrs. Smith, while tossed on the waters with her family of five children for a couple of miles, afterward effecting a safe landing-place for them and her till morning, are deserving the pen of an Irving to only do them justice.  The perilous condition of Mr. William N. Byers and family, also,together with the considerate coolness displayed by them while dangerously surrounded, would deserve no less congratulatory mention than the kind efforts of Gov. Evans, Col. Chivington, and those skiff-contriving soldiers would demand a corresponding complimentary one.  Of the various persons who proved them solves kind and humane to assist, it would be invidious to individualize, where each did all he could. 

    "The number of persons drowned, as well as the amount of property, real and personal, that was lost and damaged, has been variously estimated by varying approximations.  Some think there has been about $1,000,000 worth of goods and property laid waste and lost in the city and country surrounding, and between fifteen and twenty lives lost, or, at least, that many persons started Statesward via the Platte.  Our opinion inclines us to the belief that the total amount of pecuniary loss will leave a very big breach in $1,000,000.

    "Not knowing for certain the number of transient folks in the town, or those in the upper ranches, who are missing, we will waive expressing an opinion at present on the latter, but doubt not for a moment that a few hundred thousands' worth of loss and damage was sustained by our merchants and citizens of town and country.  The following are the fatal effects, so far as heard from up to date:

    "C. Bruce Haynes, late of the Quartermaster's office; Gumble Rosebaum, clothier; Otto Fisher (four years old); Henry Williamson, who herded stock for Gen. Patterson down the Platte; a woman and two children from Plum Creek, and a Mr. and Mrs. I. R. Lyson and two children.  August Metz, of Blake street bridge, who was carried along with the torrent eighteen miles to Henderson's Island, is the only person found whom we have yet heard of.  Among the heavy suffers in property are Byers & Dailey, publishers and proprietors of the Rocky Mountain News, who lost their entire all, with the building and the lot it stood on; A. E. & C. E. Tilton, house, lot and $6,000 worth of goods damaged; also F. A. Clark, Gen. Bowen, William McKee, Mr. Charles, Messrs. Hunt, Met and others, lost all they had in store or office, together with the buildings and sand-subtracted lots on which they stood.  Esquires Hale and Kent lost nearly all their office books and papers.  The probate records, city records, Commissioners' Court records, Judge Odell's old dockets, Judge Wilcox's dockets, nd the city safe itself, all, all are gone, and whither the deponent saith not.

    "In the country, Messrs. Gibson Arnold, Schlier, Lloyd and Stover, ranchmen, and scores of others, lost stock and had their well-trimmed farms desolated into wastes of sand and gravel.  D. C. Oakes lost his saw-mill, part of which was impelled down the current for a few miles.  Messrs. Reed, Palmer and Barnes lost, collectively, over four thousand sheep off their ranches up Cherry Creek.

    "There have been portions of the heavy machinery of the News office found fast and deep in sand-bars, several miles down the Platte.  The strangeness of the fact of machinery moving so far distant in a water current will be lessened by remembering that the water, loaded with hail and sand, made bodies float whose specific gravity in the clear element would have immediately fixed them to the bottom of the stream.

    "Several sacks of flour which floated down the Platte have been discovered lying high and dry on sand-bars, four to six miles from the city; also, many things that were given up as lost, were yesterday found, free from damage by the action of the watery element, or from the wandering thieves that practiced prowling around for days past, seeking what they might pick up and pilfer.  In some of the storages of the town there was an amount of clothing and dry goods drenched, so that the owners might materially make more money selling it by the pound avoirdupeis than by the stick-yard lineal measure.  But we must beg an apology of our distant readers for our tediousness this time and will conclude this account with the lesson it teaches:

    "Men are mere ciphers in creation; at least the chattels of the elements and the creatures of circumstance and caprice.  While worldly fortune favors, they think of naught but self, care little for the laws of nature and care less for nature's God!  Providential warning will alone affect them, when their well being and their wealth are affected at the same time.  As 'the uses of adversity are sweet,' so the interpositions of the Almighty are found eventually salutary and gracious.  That the great clouds and eternal foundations are the Lord's and will obey His fixed laws forevermore.  That His kind purposes are as high above our selfish comprehensions as are high above out selfish comprehensions as are those of the physician above the understanding of the infant he inoculates.  Had we continued settling cherry Creek as we commenced, and thoughtless of the future, see what terrible destruction would have been our doom, in a few years more, when the waters of heaven, obeying the fixed laws, would rush down upon us and slay thousands instead of tens.

    "One good effect of the flood as the washing away of all that remained in the shape of hostile or sectional feeling between the East and West Divisions of the city.  It also put a stop to all building on the treacherous sands of Cherry Creek, and as West Denver, being on the lowest ground, suffered most, it subsequently led to the abandonment of many of its business houses, the proprietors establishing themselvs to new places in the East Division of the city, which rapidly acquired prominence and importance.  Many frame residences for the three years following the flood were removed from the West to the East Division of Denver."

History of the City of Denver, Arapahoe County, and Colorado
, O. L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers, c. 1880, pp. 202-210.