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Denverites scarcely knew where the South Platte River flowed through their city. On most of the thoroughfares that crossed it, there was only a low bridge, a few hundred feet long. The river was much too wide and fast to wade across, and too shallow and fast for swimming or boating. But it truly wasn't much of a river.
Colorado Water Conservation Board
On the Wednesday night of June 16, 1965, though, that modest river demanded our attention. A huge thunderstorm had hung for a good part of the afternoon over a small area south of Denver, near Castle Rock, Colorado. The area getting most of the rain was all in one watershed, drained by tiny Plum Creek. The saturated land around Plum Creek became unable to absorb more water, and in the early evening the creek became a raging torrent, quickly dumping a phenomenal amount of water into the South Platte.
The Platte didn't rise; it almost exploded. Starting at about Castle Rock, a twenty foot high wall of water began a journey toward Denver. Through the late evening, in darkness, we listened to radio descriptions of disappearing bridges, and flooded property.
Not until the morning light did we really know what had happened. The Platte had grown to a mile-and-a-half wide in places. It had destroyed or seriously damaged all but three of the bridges that spanned it in Denver.
We began to learn where the river ran through our city. It ran through the rail yards, and warehouse districts, and near the homes of some of the poorest citizens. And the morning light revealed thousands of trucks and freight cars scattered through the center of our town, and thousands of people trying to mop up, and dig out.
Some homes and commercial buildings were completely filled with mud. Some warehouses had all their merchandise piled in a muddy heap against one wall by the force of the water. There was no visible evidence of some of the bridges. Some houses had all the earth washed from around their basement foundations. The resurgent Colorado sunshine reflected brightly off still-wet mud, and created a spirit of irony.
Today a control dam creates Chatsfield Reservoir southwest of Denver, protecting the city just as another and older earthen dam, southeast of the city, controls Cherry Creek. And the 1965 flood is recalled by few, like the devastating floods of Cherry Creek a half century earlier.
© J. C. Adamson, 1996