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Castlewood Dam failure, 90 years later: The day Denver was hit with a wall of water

Two people died and more than 1,000 properties were damaged by catastrophic flooding after the dam gave way.
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Posted at 5:26 PM, Aug 03, 2023

FRANKTOWN, Colo. — In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, 1933, following two days of heavy rain, Castlewood Dam keeper Hugh E. Paine was awoken by a horrendous noise described by him as sounding like a tornado. Grabbing his kerosene lamp, Paine walked out to the dam to see what was causing the noise.

What Paine saw that morning was the making of a disaster that, in a matter of hours, would take the lives of two people and ravage farms, ranches and parts of Denv
.er—causing nearly $23 million (in today’s dollars) in damages in the midst of the Great Depression. But it may have been a lot worse if it weren't for the actions of the 48-year-old caretaker that morning.

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"Aerial view of Cherry Creek floodwater and damage in Denver, Colorado after the Castlewood Canyon Dam break; shows the Auraria neighborhood (upper center), Colfax Street (upper left), Cherry Creek, and downtown buildings including the Telephone and Telegraph building (foreground)."

Aug. 3, 2023, is the 90th anniversary of the collapse of the Castlewood Dam, which was constructed in 1890 near Castle Rock and held back the Cherry Creek. It's construction created a reservoir — called Lake Louisa by many — with a capacity of 5,300 acre-feet of water. It's a little-known piece of Colorado history that had lasting impacts on the region.

Today, what's left of the dam — the right and left abutments and part of its crest — sits quietly like an ancient Roman ruin in front of a now-dry reservoir bed inside Castlewood Canyon State Park, 40 miles southeast of Denver. It became a state park in 1964 and expanded another 792 acres, to include the former dam and reservoir, in the 1970s.

Cherry Creek still meanders through the canyon, now unobstructed, carving an even deeper canyon through 90 years of erosion. Flood control is now handled by the Cherry Creek Dam, which was built in 1949 as part of a $275 million New Deal program.

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Ron Claussen, a former park employee and volunteer, said Castlewood Dam may have been doomed from the beginning because of how and where it was constructed.

"All the rocks is Castle Rock conglomerate. It was quarried from the cliff faces on both sides. So, the material was handy. The problem is, when you look around here, this is Dawson Arkose, very crumbly, soft sandstone. So it was probably not the best place to put it," Claussen said.

Castlewood Dam was prone to leaking

Built in 1889, the 600 feet long, 70 feet tall Castlewood Dam provided irrigation water for surrounding farms and a new agriculture development in the town of Melvin, Colorado, which is now underwater in the Cherry Creek Reservoir.

“They were selling 40-acre lots for apple trees at cetera. Well, they needed irrigation water because it's hot and dry around here in July and August. So, this thing was supposed to supply water down to those folks down there,” Claussen explained.

With a width at the base of about 50 feet, it took 11 months and 83 men to complete the dam which was started by the Denver Water Storage Company. A.M. Welles was the chief engineer and designer of the project. The reservoir it created was a recreational destination for many in the Denver area.

But almost immediately after its completion, the dam began having problems.

“It leaked from the very beginning when they finished it 1890,” Claussen said. "And in 1902, there was a big fix. And if we walk around to the other side, you'll see the whole other side of the dam is just filled in with dirt, because they just put tons and tons of dirt up against the dam."

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"Men stand on the top of Castlewood Dam on Cherry Creek in Douglas County, Colorado." (1890-1910)

Fears of the dam breaking and damaging homes and businesses downstream began spreading when news of the leaks made headlines in Denver. In an April 17, 1900, article in the Rocky Mountain News, Welles tried to dispel those fears. He told the paper that if the dam were to break, it wouldn’t have much of an impact on Denver.

“Now, as a matter of fact, if the dam broke, and I don’t care how large a break it was, by the time the head of the flood had reached Denver the last drop would not be out of the dam. Not by any means. If the whole contents of the lake were allowed to spread out, allowing for the removal of the portions of the dam that would be carried away in front of the flood, the water would not do much more than fill the channel of the creek.” Wells is quoted as saying in the article.

But of course that wasn't the case. The 1933 flood as a result of the break was devastating blow to the city of Denver.

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"View of a Cherry Creek flood in Denver, Colorado after the Castlewood Canyon Dam break; shows torrents of muddy water in standing waves. People look on from the side; boys wear plastic visors."

Disaster strikes at 1:30 a.m.

The Castlewood Dam stood for 43 years up until 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1933. Two days of non-stop rain was too much for the dam to handle. Paine, the dam caretaker, knew it too. His attempts at opening several of the dam's valves to relieve the pressure, wasn't going to stop what was 43 years in the making.

The eastern section of the dam was the first to break, followed by the middle and western sections. The dam's foundation was weakened by years of erosion. The collapse released more than 1 billion gallons of water downstream and sent an eleven foot wall of water thundering down Cherry Creek. By 7 a.m., that wall of water arrived in Denver, taking out several bridges and flooding homes and businesses along the way.

"When you're driving down Speer Boulevard, you've got that beautiful little concrete channel with a bike path down there and a nice slowly running creek. The water was going up over the top. There was a log that floated into the lobby of Union Station and bumped into stuff," Claussen explained.

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"View of the Cherry Creek flood in Denver, Colorado after the Castlewood Canyon Dam break; shows torrents of water, automobiles on Speer Boulevard, and a gas station with tile roof and sign: "Standard Oil Company."

News accounts at the time painted a frightful picture. In an Aug. 3, 1933 article in the The World-Independent, the Associated Press reported on the casualties and the devastation: "Mrs. Claude Hill, 50, mother of seven, was drowned near Mathieson near Colorado Springs and her body was found several miles down the gulch. Her home was swept from its foundation and carried several hundred yards by the torrent. Hill and the children escaped."

A second victim — 81-year-old Tom Casey — was taken by the floodwaters. "He stepped off his back porch into a hole, water, and he couldn't get out. He drowned," Claussen said.

The flood continued to ravage Denver, spreading to downtown shops and Union Station. The AP article continues: "The flood carried tons of debris into Denver and isolated several sections. Police patrol automobiles sounded the alarm after the dam broke, and about two o’clock this morning the police rescued several marooned families. The water supply in many sections of the city was demoralized. Telephone and light service is impaired. Six inches of water covered the floor of the Union Station. Merchandise stores and scores of store basements were damaged. Prisoners were removed from the city to the county jail, and several feet of water covers the low level downtown streets."

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Denver remained flooded for several days. The break caused extensive property damage throughout the area, leaving a trail of destruction to highways, crops, livestock, railroads and buildings. It was estimated to have caused damage to 1,100 pieces of property.

Severe weather continues to wreak havoc in some parts of the park. Heavy rainfall in June destroyed every bridge crossing over Cherry Creek. More than 14 inches of rain has fallen over Castlewood Canyon since Jan. 1, according to the National Weather Service. On June 22, the high level mark was 9.5 feet. Normal creek levels are typically between 2 to 3 feet. Crews are working at restoring the bridges but it will take weeks and may not be completed before August.

The heroes of this story

Paine and Nettie Driskill, a Parker telephone operator, were hailed as heroes for the actions they took that August morning in 1933. The warning Paine provided to Driskill who then conveyed it to those downstream is credited with saving several lives.

"He tried to get out and ride to Castle Rock, but the rod was washed out. So the dam took out the road. So he had to go up and he started calling people. Then there was Nettie Driskill, who lived up in Parker, she was a telephone operator. When she got wind of it, she started calling police departments, fire departments on downstream. So that's how everybody knew what was coming and why nobody else really got killed," Claussen explained.

Paine was born in Douglas County and lived all his life in Castle Rock, according to a March 2, 1939, article in The Englewood Herald. He died on Feb. 28, 1939 at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The paper reported that Paine had "long suffered from a stomach ailment. He went to the hospital February 18, and underwent an operation."

Driskill received national acclaim and was even featured in Time magazine.

90 years since Castlewood Dam failure sent a wall of water into Denver

The Night the Dam Gave Way

In the late 90s, park officials published a booklet — written and researched by Sharon Randall, Tracy Dixon and Patty Horan — that chronicled personal accounts of the 1933 flood. Many were young children or teenagers, but area citizens remember the night the Castlewood dam gave way.

Below are some examples from the publication titled, The Night the Dam Gave Way, A Diary of Personal Accounts:

Gone fishing, a green horse & Lake Louisa

As a lad of about five, I was given the privilege of going fishing when my chores were finished. I would set out with a willow pole I had fashioned with some grocer’s twine and a hook given to me by someone who had my welfare at interest.

About a mile north of our ranch home was a wooden pier that extended from the roadside into the water of the lake. A true “Tom Sawyer,” I walked the mile with my freshly dug worms in a can and sat on the pier with my bare feet splashing in the cool water. This was my daydreaming place. I don’t recall what luck I had catching fish, but at the time that was not terribly important.

I enjoyed many summer mornings at waters edge and was always reluctant to check the time. We didn’t have digital watches as children, but were taught to tell time by the position of the sun and the length of our shadows. Growing up we were always expected to appear at mealtime, or no lunch or dinner!

When the dam washed out in the flood of 1933, my siblings and I were fast asleep. About daybreak we were awakened by my Uncle John, who was in charge of horses and had been out gathering and feeding them. He called to us in our bedrooms that we should get up to see the “green horse” in the lake. We tumbled out of bed and hastily got dressed and assembled to go see a green horse. We drove north on Castlewood Canyon Road to the reservoir and saw the broken wall of the dam and no water. Nothing remained but a shiny pit of silt in the naked bottom of the lake and not a green horse to be seen anywhere!

Our family has a connection to the construction of the Castlewood dam and reservoir through my great Aunt Louisa Roracher Engel, wife of homesteader George Engel. I grew up listening to Aunt Louisa tell these stories.

As pioneer ranchers, my aunt and uncle sought every opportunity to exist and prosper in an era of limited opportunities. When the dam was being built, the company had numerous workmen and teams on the site. It was a natural challenge to my great aunt to provide services to them. The workmen lived in tents on the site. The labor was intense and there were few amenities. Aunt Louisa contracted with the company to feed the workers and provide hay and grain for the animals. She would hitch up her wagon and take a cold lunch at noon, mostly homemade bread, smoked sausage and often cheese, all products that they made at the ranch. In the evening, after a long day of toil in muddy conditions, the men could look forward to a hot meal of beef stew, chicken or pork. They had a homemade dessert on special days or weekends. My great aunt had a garden where she grew everything from asparagus to strawberries, so the menu was varied for those isolated workers in an austere environment.

Needless to say, there were many occupational injuries at the site and lucky for the men, my great aunt was also a trained nurse. She had a remedy for all ailments, but the one they liked most was a whiskey flask she carried in her apron to relieve pain.

Besides being the first catering service in Douglas County,Aunt Louisa was also the medical practitioner. On her days off, she laundered and mended the workers’ clothes.Aunt Louisa related these stories to me with a sense of pride. She found satisfaction in doing what she could to help others, at the same time providing her an opportunity to benefit financially. Her stories were of a simpler time.When the workers had a day off, she prepared a special meal, enhanced with some chokecherry wine. The men sat around a campfire and a fiddler among the group provided music. The men would join in singing.And they would hold hands and dance circling the fire and keeping time to the music—what Aunt Louisa termed “a miner’s jig.”

When the construction of the dam ended, the workers who had been fed and nursed showed their appreciation to the enterprising woman who had helped make a difficult project reality.They held a ceremony and christened the lake they were creating ‘Lake Louisa.’

Telephone Rang in the Night

In 1933, I was a child living with my parents at what is now Leetsdale Drive and Forest Street.Very early in the morning on Aug. 4, while it was still dark, our telephone rang. It was the Sullivan telephone operator with the warning that everyone should go to high ground as the Castlewood dam had collapsed and there was a huge flood coming. My parents immediately got us dressed and we drove to the top of the hill near Forest and Alameda. By this time it was starting to get light and we were able to see the first signs of the flood coming down Cherry Creek. It was carrying debris of all types, as well as large, uprooted trees. The water overflowed the banks and many homes and dairies that were near the creek were flooded.

Somewhat later in the morning, Mother went downtown to do some shopping. Soon she came hurrying back having been warned that another flood, even larger than the first one was coming down the creek. This must have been entirely a wild area. If it was a flood, people would have time to move their farm animals to higher ground. Our switch went as far as the Doepke Ranch, from there Josie Doepke notified Hugh Paine at Castlewood dam. Also, Castle Rock and on to Franktown. The word got out without television or video cameras.

If I recall correctly, we had been having frequent rains and small floods the summer of 1933.When the call came in the evening of Aug. 3, 1933, the report was:“This is a big one.”That time of day our animals were all secure.The alarm was passed on. Then, all we could do was watch and wait, hoping our telephone lines were not washed out.We also worried about our many friends along Cherry Creek in Franktown and Parker.

We did not hear that Castlewood dam had gone out until early the next morning when Josie Doepke called us.We passed the word along the phone line.

We heard about the flooding of Denver on our radio.We then began to worry about Dad’s brother, Ivan Gilbert, who had a tire store on the corner of 13th and Speer Boulevard.We finally heard from him that everything was all right and he had not suffered much damage.

County bridges were washed out.Telephones were down.Those two items got top priority in our area. As soon as the water went down, repairs were begun.

After the flood, we were unable to cross Cherry Creek for several days. We would go through our pasture and our neighbor’s to the south, to get to Greenland Road. We could also go west through the school section and reach Dahlberg Road. These back trails were well defined as they had been used by the early settlers to get from neighbor to neighbor by horse and buggy.

The loss of Castlewood dam was felt by everyone, just as much by the ones “above” the dam as the ones “below.” Friends and neighbors had lost property, crops and animals. In spite of the precautions, some people just did not get the word in time.

We all know the result of this flood and the loss of Castlewood dam was the construction of Cherry Creek dam. I am glad my father lived to see it started, even though he didn’t live to see it finished. My father was a strong advocate of soil conservation dams which would help prevent such serious flooding in the future.

When we lost Castlewood dam, we also lost our favorite picnic area. It was one of the places we always took our out-of-state visitors to see. The park is a beautiful place, but it will never be the same to me.
Elizabeth Gilbert Saunders Castle Rock

A Young Man’s Adventures

In the early 1930s, I was going to East High School in Denver. My closest friends and I were strongly attracted by the lore of the West. Our heroes were Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Kit Carson and the other legends of those exciting times. Naturally we were interested in the guns used by these men, and spent many Saturday mornings visiting the pawnshops and gun stores on Larimer Street where a Colt Frontier six-shooter could be bought for $10. All of us had been trained by our fathers in the use of firearms and it was easy to find safe places to shoot at tin cans by going a short distance beyond the edge of town, which was then at about 26th and Monaco.

This was also the time when Model T Fords had become obsolete and used ones were selling for $25. One of my friends had one, and when we could scrape together enough for a little gas at 15 cents a gallon, we extended our range. We discovered Castlewood Canyon and spent time exploring and walking across the dam. From the high rocks on the east side we could look across the lake, which seemed very large. One calm day we decided to see how far our shots would carry, by observing the splashes. I had a .45 as I recall, its heavy bullet carried about half-way across the lake.

When the dam broke in 1933, I along with just about everybody awoke to the news on the radio of the catastrophe and hurried down to a vantage point to see the debris filled muddy waters choking the course of Cherry Creek and piled up against the bridges.

That fall, having graduated from East, I took a course in anthropology under Dr. E.B. Renaud at the University of Denver. I did not re-enter college until the fall of 1934, but in the meantime, with my friend, Hugh Capps, engaged in some amateur archeological exploration. We identified many sites on the Plains and collected arrowheads, fragments of pottery, bone implements and grinding stones. We also excavated a rock shelter in Red Rocks Park. About mid-summer, I remembered the large cave under the west rimrock of Castlewood Canyon. We persuaded my mother to drive us out there and leave us for three or four days. After carrying our gear up to the cave we made camp and began digging, turning up a patched moccasin as well as the usual potsherds and flint and bone tools, typical of the Plains Indian culture.

In the back of the cave there was a dripping seep from the roof which gave us a supply of drinkable water, which we caught in a pan. The cave seemed to extend some distance beyond this, and I got the idea that a mountain lion might be holed up there, so I crawled in as far as I could go with a flashlight in one hand and my trusty six-shooter in the other. Fortunately, no mountain lion was in residence.

We had heard stories that a group of robbers had holed up in the cave. At one time against the rimrock at the north end of the cave, we found the remains of a roughly built corral.

The work in the cave was hot and dusty, but we found a place in the gouged out bed of the creek where the flood waters had created a waterfall slightly more than head high. The remaining flow was enough to create a perfect shower where we washed and refreshed ourselves in the morning and also after the day’s work. Of course to enjoy this luxury we had to climb down the canyon wall and back up again. But it was worth it!

While there, we also explored some of the canyons to the west of Castlewood, but did not discover another cave to match the one we were living in. We did find a good spring bubbling out of the ground near the entrance to one of the western canyons.

It is my recollection that, at the time I am writing about much of this area, it was embraced in one or more of the “school” sections, land reserved to the state for the support of the schools. A few years later I attended an auction of this land, or part of it. Unfortunately, the bidding quickly exceeded my means.
Harvey B. Cochran Denver