By Wade Broadhead
The Flood of 1921 was Pueblo’s defining tragedy, like the fire in Chicago or the Earthquake in San Francisco. It was a resonate event whose implications have rippled through Pueblo’s history to the current day. Our town’s development can be easily split into pre- and post-flood periods. In the wake of a horrible 1918 pandemic, WWI, a severe 1920 recession and angst over immigration, the 1920s looked brighter for Pueblo; it couldn’t be much worse than what the city had recently experienced. Union Avenue, the commercial corridor, was giving way to Main Street, the Roaring Commercial Canyon. The world was Pueblo’s oyster and better days were ahead.
Then on June 3, 1921, the sirens rang out and people fled to higher ground – though many did not, believing the recently completed taller levee would save them. We know now it did not and over 100 people died.
Much has been written about the flood, but little about its impact on the built environment. Visitors can see the high-water mark (14 feet in some places downtown) on the Union Depot and what was then a newly-built City Hall. However, many do not know that the flood wiped out the low-lying Grove neighborhood, a tight ethnic enclave with three different nationality churches within a couple of blocks.
The flood displaced not only survivors but also their homes. Humanity (as well as its built environment) was much more mobile in 1920. The Russian Orthodox Church steeple, which is framed in the famous photo lying in the center of the street in the Grove, moved up to high ground in Bessemer where it sits today. There are many reports of Italians moving their mud-stained shotgun homes up to Goat Hill. The Slavic community relocated en masse to what is now know as Eilers Heights off of Mesa Avenue. There are other reports of worker housing being moved to the East Side after the flood.
Union Avenue was devastated and turned toward light industrial uses, some of which are being phased out today. Pictures of the district during the depression in the 1930s show a struggling people residing in buildings that are literally crumbling around them, ruined from the flood. It’s a testament to Pueblo’s perseverance that Union Avenue was rehabilitated at all after the flood and the decades of neglect the devastation wrought on the district.
The flood’s legacy can be seen in our built environment, and it can be viewed in our subterranean environment. During tours of the Solar Roast Block on Main Street and the McLaughlin Block on Union, one can still see a post-flood mud line on the basement walls. As rivers cut their paths through the natural environment, they can also carve wounds in our built environment that can take a hundred years to fully heal.
For more information about the flood, visit the Pueblo County Historical Society Library where many of the original records of the flood are housed.