When thunderheads gathered over the Thompson Canyon on July 31, 1976, residents of Glen Haven assumed an ordinary summer thunderstorm was about to hit the Colorado foothills. The rain started, and as the sun set, lightening flashed frequently and the power went out. But then the water started to rise. The Big Thompson River flowed over its banks literally filling the canyon, drowning roads, residences, and businesses nestled between the sharp walls of rock.
Thirty years ago, what should have been a typical thunderstorm ended up as the worst natural disaster in Colorado history. The storm stalled over the Thompson Canyon, dumping 12 inches of rain in approximately four hours. The Big Thompson Flood killed 144 people, destroyed 418 homes and 52 businesses and created $35,500,000 in damages.
To mark the 30th anniversary of this devastating event, the Water Resources Archive at Colorado State University Libraries – in the midst of its own five-year anniversary – has created an exhibit for audiences to experience the Big Thompson Flood. "Water Through Time: An Exhibit Recalling Colorado Water Events Upon the Fifth Anniversary of the Water Resources Archive" marks the Big Thompson Flood anniversary and other landmark events in Colorado’s water history.
"By presenting historical perspectives, we want to increase understanding of water’s place in our future," says Patty Rettig, head archivist of the Water Resources Archive and curator of the exhibit.
The archive opened in 2001 as a repository to collect, preserve and promote the historic artifacts and documents that capture Colorado’s water history. It has grown to include 40 collections of individuals and organizations – a collection so vast that the archival materials would extend almost a quarter of one mile if boxes were placed end to end.
"Our collection is open to the public and like the collection, the exhibit is a chance for people to see water history firsthand, to understand floods, droughts, water projects and policies that are affecting Coloradoans to this day," Rettig said.
The many photographs in the Big Thompson Flood exhibit include a haunting list of the 1,000 missing, a truck sinking into the river and a home punctured by a giant pine. Official documents and a collection of oral histories from the victims in their own words offer an unforgettable portrait of the Big Thompson Flood and its aftermath.
Also featured are materials that document the Invention of the Parshall Flume (1921-1922); the Signing of the Colorado River Compact (1922); the Arrival of the Dust-Bowl Droughts (1930-1940); the Completion of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (1957); and the Commencement of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project (1962).
The exhibit, in room 202 of Morgan Library on the Colorado State campus in Fort Collins, is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, go to http://lib.colostate.edu/archives/water/ or call 970-491-1844.