Most of the Denver residents old enough to remember the 1965 flood were, of course, quite young at the time — some in their teens or twenties, others mere children on the night the South Platte brought the city to its knees. To a kid, an event of such magnitude lacks context, reference, a framework of experience. Yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t regarded as significant. For several longtime residents who shared flood memories with me, the city’s biggest disaster was not just an inconvenience or a break in routine, but a startling lesson about nature, vulnerability and the unexpected.
For anyone growing up in the metro area in the early 1960s, it was easy to ignore the South Platte altogether. Much of the river was not readily accessible on foot, and parents tended to discourage kids from going anywhere near its trash-strewn, tramp-riddled, downright nasty banks. In 1965, Jeff Shoemaker and his family were visiting relatives in Iowa when his father, a member of the state Senate, got a call to come back to Colorado because the river had flooded. Ten-year-old Jeff was puzzled. “What river?” he asked.
Many young people shared Shoemaker’s bewilderment. The river wasn’t part of our lives. Not until that night.
Thirteen-year-old Jim Bain had just acquired a new bike and was keen on riding it across the city, from his home in Lakewood to an uncle’s house in Aurora. He mapped out the route, persuaded his parents that it would be a perfectly safe adventure, and even sweet-talked the guards at the gate at Lowry Air Force Base into letting him pedal through the base instead of going around it. His uncle was supposed to drive him home the next day, but then the flood came.
“We were just cut off,” recalls Bain, the former manager of the Winter Park Ski Train. “You couldn’t get across Denver. I was stuck out there for several days. I remember I had to go buy new underwear.”
Other kids from the southwest side of town got to watch the spectacle of the flood from Ruby Hill, including the destruction of the Florida Avenue bridge and the inundation of Overland Golf Course. Stranded in Aurora, Bain heard it all secondhand, no doubt greatly enhanced. “It was quite a deal,” he says. “It had rained pretty good for several days, but nobody saw this coming.”
You didn’t have to live in the heart of the flood zone to realize that the city was suddenly different. Denver native Lili Zohar was seven years old and living in Hilltop; she remembers the city’s storm drains becoming overwhelmed by the heavy rains, turning the streets in her neighborhood into a series of streams that swept down to a burgeoning lake where Alameda crosses Leetsdale. She and her brother body-surfed the torrent with the abandon of youth in an age before helicopter parenting.
“It was incredible,” Zohar recalls. “The closer you got to the drain, the stronger the current was. It’s amazing we weren’t sucked in; the drains were probably already packed with stuff. When I think about it now, I’m horrified. But at the time it was just this total excitement. We lived in this semi-desert, and here the street was a river.”
I was eight years old and living in Capitol Hill that day. What I remember most about the flood is a sense of powerlessness — literally, since the electricity went out, but figuratively, too. The reliable voices on the television were abruptly silenced. My mother lit candles in the kitchen. My father arrived home late and grim-faced.
The 1960s was a time of great faith in technology. We had Gemini rocket launches and robot toys and spy gadgets and amazing new weapons, like the laser in Goldfinger. Yet here we were, like some bumpkin pioneer family in a sod shack, with nothing to do but wait out the storm by the flickering candlelight. The flood humbled us all, and I have never forgotten it.