Great Flood of 1921 devastated North La Junta and Pueblo 100 years ago

James Bartolo
LA Junta Tribune
A shot taken by local attorney Clyde Davis in 1921 shows flooding near the corner of First Street and Smithland Avenue looking East in La Junta.

Readers of the Daily Democrat on June 7, 1921 fetched the morning paper to read a rather somber headline.

“F.T. Lewis Body Found,” followed by “Wife, Mrs. White and Little Girl are Still in River.”

Francis T. Lewis, a 58-year-old city engineer in La Junta and resident of Horse Creek, was popular among citizens living in the Valley according to the La Junta Tribune Democrat’s 50-year retrospect of the 1921 Flood published June 5, 1971. The bodies of Lewis' wife, Frances, and Gertrude White, wife of Frank White, were found soon thereafter.

“(Lewis), his wife, Mrs. Frank White (her husband farmed Lewis’ place) and Mrs. White’s two nieces from Kansas had driven to a point near Fort Bent in order to view the flood,” according to the Tribune Democrat in 1971. “They were trapped by the ‘swell’ of water that had inundated North La Junta.”

By the time Lewis' death was reported in the Daily Democrat, word had already made its way around town about the disappearance of the late city engineer, his wife, Mrs. White, and the two young girls. Tuesday morning headlines simply confirmed the worst. North La Junta residents followed the flood’s evolution from “heavy rains” in Pueblo to disaster in their own backyards.

More on the flood from Pueblo: The great flood: How three days in 1921 forever changed the Pueblo community

The morning of June 3, readers of the Daily Democrat read of these heavy rains slowing traffic just east of La Junta on the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway. West of La Junta, in Pueblo County, “cloud bursts” in Dry Creek, northwest of Pueblo, were reported in the Democrat as well. The night of June 3 proved to be one of the most fateful nights in Pueblo history.

“The first warning of the approaching flood reached the city around 6 p.m. on the 3rd… the sudden breaking of the levees cut off the people from the higher land, and in an endeavoring to escape many were drowned, as were many other houses in the lowlands who refused to heed the flood warning,” according to a 1922 U.S. Department of Interior geological survey.

In La Junta, communication with the nearby city of Pueblo was cut off by 10 p.m. that night. Residents throughout the valley, including La Junta, lost their power, as it was supplied by Pueblo’s power plant. La Junta’s emergency power plant was rendered powerless as well, leaving La Junta without light on June 4.

Without electricity, the Daily Democrat worked the presses by hand.

“Business in La Junta was practically suspended today on account of the heavy rain which fell along the Arkansas River and its tributaries,” according to the Daily Democrat on June 4, 1921. “From early this morning little squads of people stood about on the stream discussing the possibilities of a great flood when the waters in the Arkansas River reaches La Junta.”

Some residents of North La Junta left with their belongings in search of higher ground. Water at Pueblo’s Union Station was six feet deep as deaths in Pueblo continued to grow. In Fowler, Judge Henry Fosdick’s log cabin got four feet of rain by noon. Water reached Rocky Ford within an hour. Bridges in Manzanola, West Rocky Ford and Swink were destroyed.

“People northwest of Rocky Ford marooned in lowlands in immediate danger,” the Daily Democrat reported the evening of June 4. “Help is out of the question.”

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The Daily Democrat headline for June 6 ran in all capital letters and two-inch font; “NORTH LA JUNTA LAID IN RUINS”

“It was about three o’clock when a large amount of driftwood was seen coming down the river,” according to the Daily Democrat. “This was followed by a big swell of water and in less than thirty minutes the water had covered all of North La Junta to the Fort Lyon canal and it had come through the subway on Bradish … backed up on Second Street as far as the county jail.”

The Aftermath of the 1921 Flood looking north in La Junta.

Mayor Fred A. Sabin called the city to a public meeting the following day to plan the town’s recovery from the flood. Stories of deaths and damage caused by the flooding in La Junta persisted on the front page throughout the month of June. On Aug. 3, water in the Arkansas River reportedly reached flood stage near La Junta once again, according to the Democrat.

“A number of residents in North La Junta spent a sleepless night Wednesday night, as they had their belongings all packed up ready to leave for higher ground,” according to the the Daily Democrat on August 4, 1921.

While no serious damages would be reported resulting from the flooding in August, the people of North La Junta were not taking any chances.