"Searching for Bodies", 1921 Pueblo flood


How Many People Died During the Pueblo Flood?

Pueblo-based professor Jonathan Rees searched for the answer to the perpetual question of just how many deaths the Great Flood of 1921 had caused. What he came away with was even more important: a sense of the flood’s impact in shaping the city of Pueblo, even to this day.

First street, Pueblo flood of 1921

The 1921 Pueblo flood devastated a large section of Pueblo, including not only the business district of the city center but also some of the poorest neighborhoods. The water did not recede for days, and when it did it left behind heaps of rubble and mud many feet deep.

Denver Public Library

A few years ago, I got a chance to work on a Colorado Encyclopedia article about the 1921 Pueblo Flood. Having taught history in Pueblo for almost two decades at that point, I had certainly heard of it. I had also seen more than a few pictures of the extraordinary physical devastation left over after the waters had receded. What I needed was a resource that could tell me all the basic facts associated with the disaster: Exactly when did it happen? How much economic damage did it cause? And, of course, I wanted to know exactly how many people died.

I went to the vertical file at the Western History Collection in the Rawlings Library, our main library here in Pueblo. A vertical file usually consists of a lot of newspaper clippings, organized by popular subjects for library patrons by a succession of librarians over time. Before the internet came along, vertical files were one of the best resources communities around the country had for understanding their own history. Rawlings Library, an institution whose roots go back decades, did not disappoint.

The file on the Pueblo Flood consists of four folders stuffed mostly with newspaper clippings that go back a full one hundred years—back to the papers published during the flood itself. While it includes a few papers from throughout the region, most of the clippings were from our still-surviving local paper, the Pueblo Chieftain, and its one-time compatriot, the Pueblo Star-Journal. The Chieftain and the Star-Journal ran retrospectives on the flood many times over the years, often on the major anniversaries (fifteenth, twenty-fifth, fiftieth), but sometimes as the memories of a particular survivor or as part of large retrospectives on the history of the city. 

Reading those clippings is where my trouble began. In 1994, the Chieftain reported that the flood took “more than 250 lives.” In 1981, it reported that the flood killed “more than 200 people.” An earlier, undated yellow clip that was probably from the Star-Journal reported that, “The Great Miracle of the Pueblo flood of June 3, 1921 was that so many hundreds of persons escaped the fury of the cloudburst and entrapment. Only 100 are known to have perished.” In 1938, the Sunday edition of the paper reported that the official list placed the death toll at 78.

Shoveling mud by destroyed house after 1921 Pueblo Flood

Two men shovel mud next to the ruins of a destroyed home. This house had been ripped right off its foundations and carried for blocks before it was deposited in the heart of the business district, a block south of the Opera House. Entire neighborhoods were washed away in this fashion, leaving over a thousand families homeless.

Courtesy Pueblo City-County Library District

How could these numbers be so different? At first, I wondered if the paper was adding to the death toll as time went on in order to make the event seem more historically significant. However, the Chieftain’s 2011 report gave the casualty figure as 120 and the first reported casualties in the days following the flood was in the thousands, so I had to reject the idea of a steadily growing total. I had seen vastly different casualty totals for the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 based on which days the person doing the counting wanted to include as part of that event, but everyone agrees that the Pueblo Flood lasted three days.

While that is true, the answer to the question of how many people died during the Pueblo Flood seems to lie in the unknown number of bodies that washed up later—sometimes much later—than the initial aftermath of the tragedy. The later reports in the Chieftain include mentions of people whose bodies had washed down the river, only to be covered in silt or debris. One of those reports mentions a skeleton being discovered downriver as late as the 1950s. The question becomes, then, how many of these people made up part of the grand total?

In his 2020 Harvard master’s thesis on the Great Pueblo Flood of 1921, Jonathan A. Cohen notes that the death toll estimates he found range from as low as “just under a hundred” to as high as 1,500. As part of his work, he put together a spreadsheet that suggests that just over 600—but perhaps more than 900—people lost their lives. The obvious reason for the undercount was that many of them were poor immigrants or just poor, which meant that their absence was harder for authorities or the local newspaper to detect.

Searching for a casualty figure to use in that encyclopedia article made me much less interested in how many people had died and much more interested in why newspapers and the historians who use them fixate on casualty accounts. It is obviously a tragedy that many people died in Pueblo during the flood, but is the flood somehow more historically significant if that casualty figure is a few hundred people higher? The Pueblo Flood probably is one of the worst floods in United States history, but it remains incredibly important to Pueblo whether or not our city’s misery was deeper than the misery suffered anyplace else.

"Searching for Bodies", 1921 Pueblo flood

This photograph, titled "Searching for Bodies" by the photographer, was taken the morning after the flood. Locating the missing and the deceased was an enormous challenge, and many were never found. The last body recovered was found several miles downstream, buried in mud near the town of Avondale. It was discovered in late December, more than six months after the flood.

Courtesy Pueblo City-County Library District

Luckily, the same Chieftain articles that varied so greatly in the casualty figures they used tended to agree on the long-term significance of the flood to the history of the city. They did this by outlining the many public works designed to prevent future floods that ended up shaping the city in its modern form. For example, in just the two years following the flood, the Pueblo Conservancy District (formed in the wake of the tragedy) built seven bridges and moved many miles of railroad track, as well as light, telegram, gas, and sewer lines. 

They also relocated the Arkansas River channel as it ran through Pueblo, moving it half a mile south so that it would do less damage if it ever flooded again. In the long term, water projects related to the flood included the Pueblo Dam, Lake Pueblo behind it, and the levees for both the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek running through town. For those of us who see them often, the murals painted along those levees are one of the defining features of the entire city. 

Despite these physical improvements, the contingency of how Pueblo might have developed differently absent the flood seems most important. The 1920s, of course, are remembered as being one of the most prosperous decades in all of American history. What would Pueblo have looked like had it been able to invest in new buildings and industries during that decade instead of rebuilding and improving its physical infrastructure because of the flood? Before the New Deal, cities like Pueblo got no help from the federal government when recovering from disaster, so the city had to use local capital that might have gone toward other kinds of expansion.

Pueblo Levee mural being painted, 1980s

The Arkansas River levee in Pueblo is a large earthwork and concrete structure that has helped contain countless floods since 1921. Starting in 1978, it was the site of a large art project as local artists and students began painting it with approval of the city council. In 1995, the three-mile-long project was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest painting in the world. The original mural was destroyed in 2016 when the levee was rebuilt, but an ongoing project in Pueblo is working to paint a new mural.

Courtesy Pueblo City-County Library District

I can’t help but wonder if Pueblo wouldn’t have ended up looking a lot more like Colorado Springs had the flood never happened. Colorado Springs experienced explosive growth after World War II during a time when Pueblo was still paying off its debts incurred in the wake of the flood. “Ever since the flood,” wrote the Chieftain in 1978, “Union Avenue [our main downtown thoroughfare] has tried to make a comeback, like the thriving street it was before the flood, but has never quite made it.” Had the flood never happened, the avenue might have just kept growing.

The centennial of a tragedy like the Pueblo Flood is obviously a good time to remember the lives that were lost, even if we don’t actually know exactly how many people died. However, in the absence of a memorial, the physical changes made to Pueblo because of the flood are the most important monument to those people’s lives. 

Another thing I learned reading that vertical file? Floods were once a regular occurrence in Pueblo. The changes made in and around the city after the 1921 flood have solved that problem, and their scope—and their success—should serve as a reminder of a day that changed the city forever.


More from The Colorado Magazine

Through the Lens: The Aftermath of the 1921 Pueblo Flood. In the days that followed, photographers documented the destruction wrought by the flood. A century later, their images are powerful testimonies to the devastating scale of the catastrophe.

Seeing Red: The unethical practice of redlining in PuebloIn 1915, my great grandmother Bettina Trapaglia immigrated to the United States from Italy. On the ship’s manifest, archived in the records at Ellis Island, she listed her destination as: Elm Street, Pueblo, Colorado. The Elm Street neighborhood was home to many Italian immigrants.