March 26, 2015 Vol. 14 No. 18
Flooding is a fact of life, and death, in Manitou
Written by Jeanne Davant   

Local First Grocer shuts down


The doors at Local First Grocer, 116 Canon Ave., were locked this week as the 11-month-old business ceased operating.

Photo by Larry Ferguson


On the warm, sultry evening of May 10, 1947, Manitou Springs High School student Yvonne Bjorklan, her older brother Dale and their mother were walking along the sidewalk near the Cliff House.

It had been very hot that day, and late in the afternoon, hard rain and hail began to fall.

Newspaper accounts don’t tell us where the Bjorklans were headed that night. Perhaps they had gone outside for some air and were heading back home.

Just after 7 p.m., a deafening roar emanated from Cave of the Winds Road as a huge wave of water thick with hail and debris rushed down from Williams Canyon.

At first the floodwaters were carried in a 6-foot-deep, 4-foot-wide storm sewer beneath the sidewalk where the Bjorklans were. But just as Yvonne reached a manhole cover over the storm sewer, the pressure below blew it off and the girl fell in.

Dale, a senior at Manitou Springs High School, had to be restrained from jumping into the storm drain to rescue his sister. Yvonne’s body was found below the Cañon Avenue bridge behind the Episcopal church parish, more than 1,000 feet away from the storm drain cover.

Mr. and Mrs. C.M. Shaull and their children, Katherine and Fred, of 303 Cañon Ave., were more fortunate. They lost only their home, not their lives.

C.M. Shaull ran outside when he heard the ominous rumble from the canyon and saw a huge wave of water rushing toward him. His first instinct was to try and outrun the flood in his car, which was parked in the street.

He was reaching for the door handle when the water slammed into him. It hurled him 25 feet backward, against his front porch.

Shaull yelled for his family, and together they escaped through the front door. Inching their way along the house, they managed to get to higher ground. A few minutes later, the front porch collapsed. The flood lifted the house off its moorings and slammed it back down again, tearing off the top floor.

The Shaulls’ neighbor, Glenn Nelson, of 103 Cañon Ave., also considered himself lucky.

Nelson had gotten home minutes before the flood struck, burying his car to the roof in mud and debris. Had he arrived a few minutes later, he thought, he would have been trapped in his vehicle and drowned.


Flooding common

If elements of this story sound familiar, that’s because there are similarities between the 1947 flood and the deluge that struck Manitou Springs on Aug. 9, 2013.

In both cases, floodwaters came into Manitou from Williams Canyon and Ute Pass, washing out parts of U.S. Highway 24. Several homes were destroyed and others severely damaged. Water burst through the pavement of Cañon Avenue. Basements flooded, vehicles were moored in muck, and businesses shut down.

Unfortunately, a life was also lost in the 2013 flood. John Collins’s car was caught in the flooding along Highway 24 as he was driving toward his Divide home after work. Collins’ body was found, like Yvonne Bjorklan’s, under a pile of debris.

Floods like the ones in 1947 and 2013 are not isolated events. In fact, they are commonplace in the Pikes Peak region.

According to a flood risk assessment prepared by the Office of Emergency Management in Colorado Springs, local streams and creeks are expected to overflow their banks at least every five years or so.

Sometimes these weather events cause only minor street flooding, but significant flood events have occurred every few decades.

On June 10, 1864, a 20- to 30-foot rise in Fountain Creek obliterated most of Colorado City, now Colorado Springs’ Westside. Several people died.

On July 3 1882, a flood roared down Ute Pass, destroying bridges and railroad tracks and killing one person.

On July 26, 1885, a sudden downpour drenched the area with 16 inches of rain and hail in an hour. Flooding took out railroad bridges and killed one person.

A flood on June 5, 1921, took a different path. A storm cell that hovered over the south side of Pikes Peak sent flood water rushing down Ruxton Creek. The water overflowed onto the street and washed several homes almost all the way down to Manitou Avenue.

As it converged with Fountain Creek, the flood picked up steam. It tore out trees, swept rocks and debris downstream and created a lake where the Aquatic Center is today. Water backed up to the Briarhurst Manor after a mudslide dammed up the creek. Manitou Avenue was impassable; the only way people could get into and out of Manitou was via El Paso Boulevard.

Considerable damage was done in Manitou, but downstream, in Pueblo, it was far worse.

The raging Fountain Creek and other drainages swelled the Arkansas River to a depth of 20 feet. About a third of Pueblo was inundated, and more than 350 people died.


Colorado Springs hit hard

A major flood in May 1935 affected Manitou but reserved most of its fury for Colorado Springs.

It had rained every day that month, and the saturated ground reached its limit on May 30. A series of storm cells started moving through on the evening of May 29; it rained all night and into the next morning.

The deluge, centered on the Palmer Divide, turned Monument Creek into a 20-foot-wide river that emptied into Fountain Creek. The water rushed southward, sweeping away everything in its path.

More than 70 homes were destroyed, collapsing as if they were made of sticks. Hundreds more were damaged.

In Colorado Springs, four people died and 16 were hospitalized for injuries. Elbert and Kiowa were completely cut off, and six people perished in the two towns.

Until the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012, the 1935 flood was considered Colorado Springs’ worst disaster.

Widespread flooding in the South Platte and Arkansas river basins in June 1965 caused 21 deaths and heavy damage in the Denver area.

Manitou was not spared during that particularly wet season, but flooding struck a worse blow to Manitou in late April 1999.

By nightfall on April 29, a storm stalled over the mountains had dumped more than 12 inches of rain in three and a half days. The rain intensified on the 29th, dropping 5 inches in less than 24 hours.

That evening, water spewed from the mouth of Williams Canyon. The Williams Creek channel below Cañon Avenue jammed with debris, and water broke through the pavement. Mud and debris blocked a dozen streets.

In the flood’s aftermath, Manitou residents had to boil their water for a week. The post office shut down; mail was disbursed at City Hall. On May 1, a 20-ton boulder loosened by the rainfall tumbled down an embankment and smashed into a home.

Although no one in Manitou was killed in the 1999 flood, damages totaled more than $4 million.

Over the decades, the city has attempted to mitigate the damage from recurring floods. The walls along Ruxton and Fountain creeks date to the 1921 flood, and other construction projects were completed in the 1930s.

The history of flooding in our area shows us that it occurs in conjunction with heavy monsoonal rains we often get between May and September. But now there is another element in the mix: Soils scorched in the Waldo Canyon fire exacerbate runoff from the mountains into the creeks.

Manitou’s current flood mitigation efforts are by far the most extensive and are designed to mitigate significant flooding. But it is important to remember that floods are a fact of life in our city and our region.

It has happened before, and it will happen again.


Sources: Drowned Girl’s Body Found, Red Cross Starts Aid Work, Gazette Telegraph, May 12, 1947; Weather and Climate Impact Assessment Science Program, Flood Summary, El Paso County, April 29-May 2, 1999; Flood Risk Assessment, Office of Emergency Management, Colorado Springs; Colorado Springs’ Worst Disaster, undated supplement, The Pikes Peak Region on Parade, Colorado Springs Free Press; Monument Valley Park in Ruins After Raging Flood, Colorado Springs Gazette, May 31, 1935; John Hazlehurst, Incoming tide—Part 2: Flash floods might make region forget 1999, Colorado Springs Business Journal, May 3, 2013; John Hazlehurst, Disaster! Could a flash flood cripple the Springs? Bet your life on it, Colorado Springs Independent, Dec. 15, 2005