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This Page Copyrighted 2009 by A.J. Morris
Last Updated
29 Jun 2009

Big Thompson Canyon



Long a favorite with campers, fishermen, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, most people discover the Big Thompson Canyon while driving from Loveland to Estes Park. The road meanders up the canyon, crossing and criss-crossing over the Big Thompson River. In some places the sheer rock walls hedge in the roadway and river both into a narrow slit, while other places the canyon broadens out some, and there are bright meadows and steep, but easily climbed slopes.

U.S. Highway 34 is the two-lane paved road that enters the canyon just West of Loveland, then climbs 2500 feet over a distance of about 25 miles, to the head of the canyon which opens out into Estes Park near the town of the same name. Halfway up the canyon is the little village of Drake, situated where a little side-road loops off northward toward Glen Haven, alongside the North Fork of the Big Thompson River. That side-road loops back and also leads to Estes Park.

Cottages and rental cabins, log cabins, small stores and an occasional gas station dot the roadside, providing much appreciated amenities to visitors. But many long stretches of the highway pass through pristine and untrammeled wilderness, giving both a scenic and recreational opportunity not often found so conveniently accessible.

The upper reaches of Big Thompson Canyon have forested slopes, mostly Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, but the thin forests cling to rocky slopes, there is really not much soil development. The inability of the district to absorb much rainfall was a contributing factor in one of Colorado's worst disasters, the Big Thompson Flood of 1976.

The Big Thompson Flood

Freak weather conditions, lack of porous soils, and a holiday weekend that attracted larger than normal crowds to the beautiful canyon all contributed to the disaster.

It was the end of July, 1976. The entire country had just celebrated the Bicentennial a few weeks early on July 4th. Now it was Colorado's turn to celebrate its Centennial on July 30th. That day conveniently fell on a Friday, so many folks took the opportunity to enjoy a long weekend in the majestic mountains for which the state is so justly famed.

As often happens in these mountains, thunderstorms began to develop along the upper East-facing slopes late in the afternoon as moisture laden warm air from the plains sweeps up into the rapidly cooling mountains and forms thunderheads. High mountain winds usually sweep these storms back into the plains, where they may develop into tornadoes along the Larimer County - Weld County border, or eastward into Weld County.

On Saturday evening, July 31st, 1976, the typical storm developed over the head of the Big Thompson Canyon at about 6 p.m., but that day conditions were different. The strong mountain winds were weaker than normal, so instead of sweeping rapidly down the canyon, the storm crawled along, dumping tons of water on the rocky slopes.

In just one hour eight inches of rain fell, and the storm continued inching eastward at a snails pace. The water had no where to go but into the Big Thompson in its rush to escape the mountains, so the water rose. High it the canyon the water peaked at 8 p.m near Glen Comfort, as it continued to gain force. By 8:30 it peaked near Waltonia. Drake was hit twice, first around 9 p.m. from the main branch of the river, and an hour or less later the North Fork peaked. High water reached the mouth of the canyon around 11 p.m., but continued very high for more than hour, bolstered the secondary surge from the North Fork.

Each step along the 25 mile path, more water poured into the river. Water from the sky, as the storm itself hovered overhead. Water from the rocky mountainsides. Water from thousands of rivulets and gullies along the way, and the larger streams like Fox Creek, Cedar Creek and aptly named Devil's Gulch, along with the North Fork of the Big Thompson poured together to form a wall of water that reached nearly 20 feet high in places.

At Drake, halfway down the canyon, the water flow was about 137 cubic feet per second at 6 p.m., before the storm. By 9 p.m. it was nearer 31,200 cubic feet per second.

There were an estimated 2500 to 3500 people in the canyon that day, far more than usual. The river tore out huge chunks of highway and destroyed bridges, trapping people along the roadway, or hurtling them physically into the river, where cars were torn to shreds. Many of those who survived forsook their automobiles and clambered up the rocky slopes in the rain. These slopes, a challenging climb in fair weather, are a slippery, rocky, trial of torture when when wet.

Cabins and stores near the river were torn up and hurtled downstream with the other debitage. The river roared with tumbling boulders and racing water strewn with wreckage, and the sky thundered back with strobe-like streaks of lightning followed by great echoing rumbles.

It is a wonder anyone survived such a maelstrom. But most of the thousands present that day managed to make it out. Cabins that were above the flood became crowded refugee shelters, a typical report mentioning 37 men, women and children crammed into a tiny cottage for the night, while the road below crumbled into the river. Some survived in their cars if they stopped on a bit of roadside the fortuitously escaped the worst of the rampage, but more managed to climb the slippery mountainside to spend an uncomfortable, but safe, night on the exposed rock. Rescue workers were certainly kept busy, not only through the night but most of the next day - evacuating those that could be found.

There were 145 people killed that day, and for six of them not even their bodies were ever found. Many more people suffered injuries, from minor scrapes to sever exposure and broken bones. Fifty-two businesses and 418 houses were destroyed, and many more were damaged.

Some of those who died were:

ADAMS, Greg, 27, Loveland, CO
APPLEBAUM, Joseph, 68, Lakewood, CO
APPLEBAUM, Norma, 68, Lakewood, CO
BACK, Irene, 48, Denver, CO
BACK, William Ray, 55, Commerce City, CO
BAILEY, Keith, 51, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
BASHFORD, Stannis, 17, Loveland, CO
BECKER, Louise, 75, Waverly, IA
BELL, Eleanor, 51, Drake, CO
BELL, Myrl, 52, Drake, CO
BISSING, Terri, 27, Glenwood Springs, CO
BOKELMAN, Frances, 62, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
BROOKS, Dora, 40, Austell, GA
BROOKS, Elbert, 41, Austell, GA
CAMPBELL, Elaine PFC, 20, Ft. Carson, CO
CARLSON, Stanley J., 22, Greeley, CO
CARLSON, Tanya, 19, Greeley, CO
CARR, James M., 21, Loveland, CO
CARTER, Etta Marie, 56, Belleville, IL
CHANNER, Genevieve H., 62, Drake, CO
CHANNER, Glenn, 65, Drake, CO
CONLEY, Michael O., 30, Colorado Springs, CO
CURTIS, Larry, 25, Sterling, CO
DECKER, Verna, 94, Drake, CO
EYL, Norman W., 58, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
FELTS, Mary Jean, 29, Springfield, IL
FUJIWARA, June, 27, Maui, HI
GAFF, Mildred, 50, Denver, CO
GODDARD, Richard, 19, Denver, CO
GRAHAM, Beverly, 33, Loveland, CO
GRAHAM, Clara, 64, Cedar Grove, CO
GRAHAM, Lisa, 2, Loveland, CO
GREENLEE, Valah Constance, 84, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
HARMON, Greg, 18, Keokuk, IA
HASKELL, Chad, 5, Des Moines, IA
HASKELL, Emma, 63, Des Moines, IA
HASKELL, Judy, 31, Des Moines, IA
HASKELL, William F., 70, Des Moines, IA
HASKELL, William, 32, Des Moines, IA
HAZZARD, Clarence, 73, Austin, TX
HENRY, Frances - 36, Drake, CO
HENRY, George - 51, Drake, CO
HENRY, Laurie Lee - 9, Drake, CO
HENRY, Shirlee Ann - 14, Drake, CO
HOBBS, Dorothy, 66, Drake CO
HOBBS, Ellis, 68, Drake, CO
HORTON, Kimberly, 18, Aurora, CO

HUFFSMITH, Richard, 19, Loveland, CO
HUFNAGLE, Ken, 66, Loveland, CO
HUFNAGLE, Nora, 67, Loveland, CO
JENKINS, Helen Evelyn, 61, Denver, CO
JOBST, Dorothy, 57, Omaha, NE
JOBST, Rev. Eugene, 57, Omaha, NE
JOHNSTON, Rae Ann, 28, Crystal, ND
KARSTENS, Debra Koch, 22, Loveland, CO
KARSTENS, Don, 23, Loveland, CO
KINDRED, Evelyn, 62, Drake, CO
KOERNER, Kurt, 20, Arvada, CO
KRONENBERGER, Ed, 52, Littleton, CO
KRONENBERGER, Ester, 50, Littleton, CO
KRONENBERGER, Kim, 22, Littleton, CO
LAFFERTY, Mildred, 58, Drake, CO
LAFFERTY, Pat, 61, Drake, CO
LEE, Ealy A., 62, Loveland, CO
LEMON, Kelly, 13, Des Moines, IA
LEYDEN, Barbara, 29, McLean, VA
LOHRY, Andrew, 73, Drake, CO
LOHRY, Elizabeth, 47, Drake, CO
LOOMIS, Cathie M., 29, Seattle, WA
LORENCE, Brenda, 15, Phillipsburg, KS
LORENCE, Debbie, 13, Phillipsburg, KS
LORENCE, Jim, 43, Phillipsburg, KS
LORENCE, Phyllis, 41, Phillipsburg, KS
MACIEJEWSKI, Benjamin, 48, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MACIEJEWSKI, Betty, 49, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MANONGDO, Priscilla, 28, Quezon City, Philippines
MARES, Allyson, 5, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MARES, James Jr., 33, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MARES, Jamie, 8, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MARES, Renee, 32, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MARES, Ricky, 6, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
MARSHALL, Eula, 77, Wichita, KS
MATTHEWS, George, 17, Aurora, CO
MATTHEWS, Katherine, 54, Aurora, CO
McCARGO, Lois, 63, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
McCARTY, George W., Jr., 20, Newport, RI
McKISSACK, Jack, 58, Aurora, CO
MILLER, Dr. Jeffrey, 27, Greeley, CO
MOORE, Deborah, 17, Drake, CO
MORGAN, Homer, 21, Aurora, CO
MORNINGSTAR, Dorothy, 69, Lisbon, IA
MORNINGSTAR, Leon, 65, Lisbon, IA
MORTON, Charles E., 62, Drake, CO
NELSON, Myrtle, 45, Fleming, CO
NELSON, William, 48, Fleming, CO

OGLEY, Tena-Marie, 19, Ovid, CO
OLER, Nettie, 52, Longmont, CO
PALMER, Nona J., 19, Denver, CO
PLANT, John Joseph, 42, Broomfield, CO
PLANT, Judy, 37, Broomfield, CO
PLANT, Michael, 14, Broomfield, CO
PRIMM, Grace, 79, Kansas City, MO
PURDY, Sgt. W. Hugh, 53, Loveland CO
REMSING, Frances, 48, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
REMSING, Martin J., 65, Loveland, CO
REMSING, Martin, 8, Big Thompson Canyon, CO
RHOAD, Carol L., 23, Grantsville, PA
RICHARDSON, Elizabeth, 54, Springfield, MO
RICHARDSON, Leonard, 59, Springfield, MO
RICHARDSON, Lisa, 16, Springfield, MO
RICHARDSON, Rebecca, 9, Springfield, MO
ROGERS, Ellen, 58, Brighton, CO
ROGERS, Wes, 59, Brighton, CO
RUDD, Cheryl, 19, Greeley, CO
SAUNDERS, Eugene, 65, Lawrence, KS
SAUNDERS, LaVera, 60, Lawrence, KS
SCAVONE, Irene, 77, Oak Lawn, IL
SCHELL, Claude, 86, Greeley, CO
SCHELL, Mae L. , 70, Greeley, CO
SCHLATTER, Catherine, 23, Denver, CO
SEIBERT, Annie Gussie, 61, Caldwell, TX
SEIBERT, Casper Louis, 62, Caldwell, TX
SHEETS, Rex, 26, Loveland, CO
SMITH, Earl, 30, Drake, CO
SMITH, Jacob, 3, Elgin, IL
SMITH, Joseph S., 64, Drake, CO
SMITH, Lylith, 57, Lexington, TN
SMITH, Sara, 6, Elgin, IL
STARR, Ann, 80, Loveland, CO
STINNETT, Shirley, 56, Kansas City, MO
TURNER, Drew H., 25, Fort Collins, CO
VENRICK, Ross, 61, Catawba, OH
WATERS, Clarence, 63, Riviera, AZ
WATERS, Mary Sue, 62, Riviera, AZ
WATSON, Cheryl, 21, Loveland, CO
WATTS, Aaron, 3, Fort Collins, CO
WEISS, Beulah, 60, Loveland, CO
WOODRING, Edna May, 57, Estes Park, CO
WOODRING, Fred, 63, Estes Park, CO

If anyone can add more names to the above list, or if anyone would like to share memories of these folks or the tragedy of that day, we would appreciate your adding comments, using the comment form below.




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