People cross the Arkansas River on the recently completed suspension bridge in Pueblo, Colo. June 3, 2021. The bridge opening coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the flood that devastated Pueblo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As Pueblo recently dedicated its new Arkansas River levee and recreational amenities, it also commemorated its greatest tragedy: a flood that decimated its city center and killed at least 1,000 people.

What Pueblo is today is inextricably tied to that June 1921 disaster, as over the past century the community transformed the river that nearly destroyed it into arguably its greatest natural asset.    

It is a big story, full of lore passed down over the years and mysteries that have unraveled slowly because records are sparse. The flood and its memory intersect every aspect of city life, from the industries that lured immigrants from all over the world for jobs in the coal mines and steel mill to its thriving arts and culture, agriculture and recreation.

In a pair of ceremonies last week, Puebloans shot fireworks from the new protective levee over their whitewater park and river trail, and laid wreaths at a spot recently identified as a probable mass grave for flood victims unclaimed for a century.

For Pueblo, the ceremonies bracketed the ongoing tension between renewal and memory, fully embracing ongoing rebirth while never forgetting the city’s greatest loss.

 A city of immigrants

In 1921, Pueblo was home to about 50,000 people, many of them immigrants drawn to jobs with the Colorado Coal and Iron Company founded in 1881 as an affiliate of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company. The company later would become Colorado Fuel & Iron, or CF&I.

Some 40 languages were spoken in the plant and the town had 20 foreign-language newspapers, said Lucille Corsentino, chair of the board of the Roselawn 1891 Foundation.

Indeed, the Coal and Iron Company in 1901 established a Sociological Department to assist its immigrant workers and their families with English classes and other civic education.

But many of the workers were young men who came alone with the promise of jobs and dreams of striking it rich in the western United States.

For some, those dreams ended the evening of June 3, 1921, when a 24-foot wall of water fed by torrential rain along the Front Range slammed through the narrow Arkansas River channel in downtown Pueblo. Estimates of the death toll range wildly,  but most sources agree that it likely surpassed 1,000, making it Colorado’s deadliest disaster. And many bodies found in the mud and wreckage could not be identified.

The Arkansas River valley was flooded to the Colorado-Kansas state line. When the water receded, the damage was tallied: more than 600 homes washed away; 2,000 railway freight and passenger cars scattered like toys or smashed to kindling; railroad track, businesses, chunks of streets and vehicles swept from downtown Pueblo, according to the National Weather Service and other historical sources.

As daylight dawned on June 4, survivors were numbed by the vast wreckage. Then the horror sunk in as they realized hundreds of bodies lay amid the debris or were buried below it. Dozens more washed downstream.

The coroner at the time, T.J. McCarthy, could not identify many of them, and with the heat rising above 100 degrees decided to bury 250-300 people in a mass grave along Beech Lane, a long-abandoned road in Roselawn Cemetery. He later relayed that information to his grandson, Kevin McCarthy, who was executive director of the cemetery, Corsentino said.  She and Kevin McCarthy, who died in 2019, were determined to find that mass grave and she believes they have.

 A more immediate concern

In the 1920s, however, the city was mostly concerned with preventing another flood. The Pueblo Conservancy District formed in 1922 and, working with Army Corps of Engineers, determined that the river channel should be diverted south of downtown and a levee built to contain any flood waters. The 3-mile concrete levee was completed in 1925 as the city rebuilt its core around the weedy fields of the historic river channel. Some of the channel area was paved for parking lots, but it remained largely empty for about 75 years.

The levee became a prime target for graffiti. Pueblo was a gritty steel town and it looked the part.

A Bob Marley mural along the Arkansas River levee in Pueblo in a Oct. 23, 2018 photograph. The concrete of the old levee, and its murals, were crushed to create road grade material atop the revamped levee. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It did, at least, until 1978, when some college students painted an unauthorized mural on the levee. The idea took off and eventually was legalized. Painting followed painting and the levee found itself in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records as the largest continuous mural. 

Then, in 1986, the Conservancy District decided to beautify some power plant cooling ponds, and the idea of making downtown Pueblo an attractive place caught on.

That weedy old river channel would in 2000 become the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk, where a gentle 3-feet deep and 30-feet wide canal flows for a mile through a business district bedecked by twinkling lights, wide walkways, green spaces, patio umbrellas and an array of art that reflects the city’s history, culture and creativity.. Beneath it is a giant storm culvert – just in case.

Over in the main Arkansas River channel, the Pueblo Whitewater Park opened in 2005. It attracts kayakers and paddle boarders from throughout the state and region to its eight drops along about a half mile of the river, between Union Avenue and the West 4th Street bridge. The names of those drops – Harpo, Marley, the Grim Reaper and more – reflected the legendary artwork that graced the levee.

That artwork, though, is gone.

Just a year after the whitewater park opened, the Conservancy District learned that the levee needed to be certified to FEMA standards. An evaluation and survey in 2012 determined it needed to be replaced. Work began in 2014 and was completed last year, with the art on the original levee jackhammered away and the debris used to fill the top of the new levee.

That offered a blank canvas for a new generation of mural painters, who have already begun to fill the wall with color.

Valrie Eisemann paints a mandala along the Arkansas River levee Oct 16, 2020, in Pueblo. Eisemann, a La Veta-based artist, is taking part in a project to paint panels along the 3-mile levee. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Because of the subsequent construction of the Pueblo dam and reservoir, the height of the new levee was 12 feet shorter, and the Conservancy District decided to include a trail atop it and include two pedestrian bridges across the river.

The bridges will create a loop with the Arkansas River Trail and the Levee Trail around the whitewater park, and will include amenities such as benches and shade structures where people can view activity on the river. There is a stairway down the levee to a platform where people can watch whitewater competitions and other activities.

The foot and bicycle bridge near the West 4th Street Bridge just opened and the second, near the South Main Street Bridge, will be coming soon. 

The additional 3 miles of trail also give residents of nearby neighborhoods walking or bicycling access to downtown and the trail system.  

The renaissance that blossomed in Pueblo this century links the amenities of downtown Pueblo and its Riverwalk and whitewater park to the Arkansas River Trail that leads all the way to the dam at Lake Pueblo State Park.

But the flood was not forgotten. Interpretive signs along the Levee Trail commemorate  the flood and discuss the reason for the levee, and there’s a small monument dedicated to the victims.

Tales and technology

Southeast of downtown, at Roselawn Cemetery, there’s also a new memorial that balances Pueblo’s somber memory of tremendous loss with the city’s renaissance.

The Angel Monument was on Friday dedicated to flood victims and also to those killed in two other Pueblo tragedies: the 1904 Eden train wreck and the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. The memorial includes a long farm lane-sized strip of white rock edged with black that covers the site of the mass grave where unidentified flood victims are now believed to be buried.

Kacy Hurst, left, accompanies Rabbi Michael Marks during a ceremony on Friday, when Marks blessed the site of what is believed to be a mass grave at of unidentified victims killed in the 1921 Pueblo flood . (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Armed with grant money, the cemetery foundation hired archaeological consultants who worked with geophysics students from the Colorado School of Mines to investigate what might lie beneath the surface of certain sections of the cemetery in the so-called pauper’s field.

But there was to be no digging, none of the upset that comes along with disinterment.

Four students began their investigation in 2019, using three methods of electromagnetic surveying, said Michelle Slaughter of Alpine Archaeological Consultants, of Edgewater.

They could see some anomalies in the imagery “but weren’t sure what they were seeing,” she said. They planned to return in spring 2020 to do more testing, but the pandemic halted field work.

The students graduated, but passed their initial findings on to their professor, Richard Krahenbuhl, who enlisted another student, Sigourney Burch, to continue the work for her senior design project.

Burch and Slaughter knew they would need some historical research to help them interpret data from the ground penetrating radar, so they went to Corsentino. She pored over cemetery records and was able to identify plot numbers and burial records for all of the area surrounding that strip of land now covered with white rocks.

She found records for 11,650 documented burials in that part of the cemetery, most without markers.

But nothing for the area that everyone believed was once Beech Lane.

“As a scientist, I could not say positively that it was a mass grave associated with the flood,” Slaughter said. But the team determined there were burials there.

She would have liked to do some sampling of the earth, as researchers did recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the effort to find victims buried after the race massacre of May 31, 1921. Just to confirm the graves.

But she understands the desire to leave the area undisturbed.

“Even if we found bones, how would we ever figure out who they were?” she said.

Archaeologist Michelle Slaughter recounts the methods she and Colorado School of Mines student Sigourney Burch used to determine the presence of a mass grave believed to be for unidentified victims of the 1921 Pueblo flood at a ceremony at Roselawn Cemetery. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Krahenbuhl agreed, out of deference to those uncomfortable with digging in the area. Besides, in the Roselawn case they also have the historical burial records.

“I think the correlation between the two is good enough,” he said.

The team also investigated what initially appeared to be a large elm tree in that part of the cemetery, but eventually was revealed to be three trees grown together.

Based on the tree research, Corsentino and others believe the trees may have been planted that way intentionally. Perhaps to mark the mass grave. Perhaps as memorial trees for the three tragedies. While the mystery remains unsolved, they decided the Angel Monument would be dedicated to the victims of all three tragedies — a resolution that seemed to fit the original goal Corsentino and Kevin McCarthy envisioned.

“We fulfilled our project,” she said. 

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.