In the face of fire and flood, a small group of switchboard operators, saved thousands of Puebloans in the flood of 1921 by keeping the lines open.
Pueblo is a city that may not have existed today if it wasn’t for the astounding resilience and heroism of its citizens. Where other places could have been wiped out by a storm and a surge that size especially in the early half of the 20th century, Pueblo simply prevailed. Where an unknown number of lives were lost to the event, thousands were saved by 39 people in a telephone exchange office under the direction and calming influence of one woman and the ingenuity of one man.
Ms. Josephine Pryor began her walk home after a shift as the day manager of the Pueblo Switchboards for the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company. It had been a clear day so far in early June of 1921, the beginning of what was looking to be a bright summer. It was after 8 o’clock, and Ms. Pryor had left affairs running smoothly as always to the night shift. Out of nowhere along her path, however, sudden bursts of rain turned into a torrential downpour and left her unprepared and worried about affairs at the office.
When flood waters consumed Pueblo, Colo., in June 1921, Josephine Pryor the day manager of the Pueblo switchboards for the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company. led her team to keep lines of communication open. Pryor and her team are credited with saving thousands of lives.
Having already reached her house, she could have looked after herself and her household, but instead she made a return trip, stopping only briefly at her husband’s furniture store on Main Street. When she got back to the Telephone office on D Street, the night controller was already trying to place a call to Denver over the test board and it failed when it was covered with water. After making emergency calls to all off duty operators, over 30 girls nervously placed calls to every subscriber downstream and in the rural areas around Pueblo until the boards lost power. Over the course of a few hours, water levels rose on the streets of the low side of town from a few inches to 15 feet.
Byron Thady, the man who was at the test board, was hurriedly saving documents from the first floor and moving them up the stairs. He removed clothing as the waters rose, eventually to waist level on his last trip. Wading through and using an oil can and some rags as a makeshift lamp, Thady moved all he could before the water pulled a door shut and left him trapped in the dark room. He managed to pry open the top side of the door just enough to slip through before the water rose too high.
Returning to the operators on the second floor, the test boards and lights were going out and Mrs. Pryor was doing all she could to keep the girls calm. Aside from going to their posts individually, she also asked Thady to bring in a Victrola to the operating room. Dark waters spewed and swirled outside as buildings crumbled in. Boxcars were wreaking havoc on buildings near the depot, including Pryor Furniture. Fires sprouted up from debris floating on the water, and inch by inch, the staircase to the first floor was being lost to the flood.
Power to the boards finally went out. Thady used equipment batteries to rig up emergency lighting, which failed after a short time, leaving 39 people with no other option but to go to the third floor and wait the storm out with no food and no power. Mrs. Pryor continued to try to distract from what was going on. She reminded everyone that the telephone building was one of the sturdiest in the area. Brick buildings like it were being consumed as these sentiments were given, and one looked like it was headed in their direction. When it finally arrived, it was miraculously a near miss. A giant crash gave way to a now missing garage next to the building.
Dark shadows and the flicker of distant fires poured through the windows as the night rolled on. Only the intrusion of men in boats with slim rations interrupted the nightmarish scene. The waters were too rough and the boat too unstable to bring anyone out of the building, and so they were left, trying to distract themselves with dancing and conversation by Pryor’s suggestion.
When day came, though the sounds of death lay all around the office, every person in the Mountain States building had survived, and they collectively may have saved the lives of thousands more with their work throughout the night. It took days for the lines to be resurrected. The report that came from the building that evening was from a man who had to ride 20 miles to find a working telephone. The people of Pueblo begged for the help of Denver to save its people. The city was placed under martial law and all clothes, food, and supplies had to be inspected before they could be used or sold.
The death toll of the flood is unknown, with ranging estimations as high as 1500. Irreparable damage was done to the city, with relatively little help coming in from the surrounding region. Nonetheless and against all odds, Pueblo prevailed and rebuilt, when it could have easily been abandoned. Public letters and platitudes filled pages of the newspapers that the citizens should not lose hope.
The Mountain States telephone building still stands on D street between Victoria and Union, and has been repurposed with offices and apartments. The level of destruction and chaos that Pryor and the staff encountered that night was unimaginable, especially considering how few pre-flood buildings remain in the Historic Downtown District. Josephine Pryor was hailed as a heroine and received a commendation, along with Byron Thady and a select group of others, for their actions on the night of the flood.
This story originally appeared in the January 2018 Issue of PULP.