Sunday, April 09, 2017

When the Rio Grande Floods

by Marc Simmons

Early visitors to New Mexico often compared the Rio Grande to the African Nile. That was because our great river, like the Nile, regularly flooded its inner valleys during spring and summer, at the same time dropping its burden of rich silt that fertilized the fields.

While soil enrichment proved a sound benefit, that had to be weighed against the destructive effects of flooding. They included the loss of human life, livestock, buildings, utilities and sometimes entire towns. The railroad center of San Marcial on the river north of old Fort Craig, for instance, was washed away in 1929.

Famed archaeologist Adolph Bandelier witnessed in 1884 a major episode of the Rio Grande leaving its banks. It reminded him that flooding in previous centuries must have played a major role in "burrowing new channels, obliterating Indian pueblos and changing the location of farm plots." That particular flood, in fact, destroyed much of Santo Domingo Pueblo.

Old Town Albuquerque had experienced a devastating inundation in 1874. When the rise of the river spread across its valley, the plaza area for a time remained above water, being situated on a low mound about two or three feet high. Shopkeepers took no chances, however, and while the road remained open they fled in wagons loaded with whatever merchandise could be salvaged from their shelves. The majority of residents escaped to the hills to the east, where they lived in tents for days until the water subsided.

Another memorable flood occurred in late summer of 1900. Before that time, the New Mexico Territory had suffered a prolonged drought. In mid-August, The New Mexican reported that the Rio Grande had gone bone-dry, and farmers and stockmen throughout the region were in desperate circumstances.

Tne newspaper also mentioned that the Zuni Indians were conducting a search in their locality for the witch whom they believed was responsible for causing the drought. Concluded The New Mexican: "There are hard times in store for both the witch and the Indians."

The drought-breaker came in the middle of the night on Sept. 7. A huge downpour dumped several inches of rain before dawn. The press headlined the event with the words "WAS A GREAT FLOOD!"
One story was titled "A night of terror at Trimble's stage camp." Albuquerque businessman W. L. Trimble operated a shortline stagecoach service to Santa Fe, for the benefit of small towns not on the railroad. Midway between the two cities he had built a major facility to accommodate his coaches and animals.

The flood's roar, descending an adjacent arroyo from the mountains, awakened the camp crew. Men raced through a swirling torrent to reach the large frame barn where 46 horses were stabled. Working furiously in the dark, they managed to release all the animals but one.

A few moments after the last man was out, the structure collapsed, or as employee Tom Cain later put it: "The barn was completely whirled out of existence." Lost, too, were a drove of hogs, all the outbuildings and two stagecoaches parked in the compound.

Other stories of heroism and rescue came to light over the next several days. As was common, the flooding had knocked out a number of railroad bridges, interrupting train service. Two bridges had gone down south of Santa Fe, including an iron one over the Galisteo arroyo.

By Sunday, Trimble had sent all his spare stagecoaches and teams up from Albuquerque to be used in shuttling passengers over the gap between the downed bridges. Once the passengers reloaded, the trains had to back up to the last station.

Slowly in the 20th century, floodwaters were harnessed by dam building and flood-control projects through the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, established in 1925. Nevertheless, in spite of the current complacency, the potential for localized flooding remains, so more chapters in this story will certainly be added.


Marc Simmons is a semi-retired historian and author of thirty-five books  I was honored to present The Rounders Award to him in 1991.

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