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Colorado floods remembered by Hobo Duke

September 14, 2013

On July 31, 1976 this old hobo arrived at a horse ranch below Estes Park on the Big Thompson River of Colorado. It was a beautiful hot afternoon. I was in a hurry to explore the area, so I just set my carry on bag on top of a dresser and started walking around the ranch. There was a sturdy steel trussed bridge spanning the Big Thompson River winding along the ranch. My cabin along the river was below the ranch hands bunk house and kitchen. People were floating down from Estes Park on the river water sitting in inner tubes that looked like fun. It,seemed funny that is was labeled “big”, since it was more like a stream than a mighty river.

The chuck wagon was rolled out for a barbeque dinner at dusk along the river. As a tender foot dude, I was looking forward to doing cowboy stuff. They had a team of horses pull up a hay wagon to ride along the river. I hopped on board with about a dozen guests of the ranch. The mountains above us by Estes Park were growing dark with rain clouds. We were along the river winding toward a deeper canyon with fishermen camping 40 feet below on the river bank. When we got back to the ranch buildings I was ready for bed and it was after 10:00 PM. I pulled out my wallet and dropped my glasses on top of my carry on bag and just fell into bed.

There was a spot light from across the river slashing across my window. A loudspeaker was saying something, but I couldn’t hear it. I was aware that what sounded like hissing steam was muffling the sound of the speaker. Being a Chicago boy, flood lights and loud speakers didn’t make any impression. Then I heard banging on my cabin door. It was the ranch owners daughter telling me I had to leave NOW! I was still groggy, but decided to slip on my trousers again, slide into my shoes and step out. She was running down to the other cabins and it was pitch black dark with no star light or moon light. Of course I didn’t have a flash light. It was cool out, so I was turning back to get my down filled jacket and glasses in the cabin. The bunkhouse had water gushing out of the bottom windows coming right toward me!

I got my glasses, wallet and starting walking up the gentle slope to the entrance road with the bridge across the river. Nobody knew what they wanted to do as about 24 people were wandering with no purpose as I recognized the steam hissing was the speed of the river tearing away at the river banks. There were propane tanks floating down the river with the screaming pitch of propane gas leaking out of the valves. The grinding noise of metal twisting and bending by the force of water told me this river can kill everyone. Some people said they were driving out over the bridge. I didn’t want to take that ride. It started to rain hard and it was so dark with the electric out that I couldn’t see the river, only hear the roar of water. 4 people died as this bridge got pulled down with their car crossing the river. I didn’t see it because I elected to walk to higher ground, but it was a slow slope so the river water seemed to be getting closer to me the more I walked away. 6 other people decided to follow me, since nobody knew what to do.

Barbed wire fencing was around some of the pasture land of horses. I got a few barbs as I crossed the wire, and I held it down for the others who chose me as their leader. I couldn’t see but I felt the ground trembling beneath my feet. It was not an earth quake. The horses were stampeding in the storm! I was about to get trampled to death in a flood! I saw lights in the distance on higher ground and made that our target. The horses did not trample us. The house had kerosene lanterns lit and they invited us in to huddle with about 20 other people on the basement floor. I slept like a rock, and woke up with my body stiff as a board from sleeping on concrete. In the dawn’s early light I stumbled out with the other survivors. The river cut a new path and took down chunks of the canyon. Several homes were teetering with half of the house hanging over the river. I walked back to the ranch house to see my cabin. As I got closer, I saw my neighboring cabin was gone and torn away by the river. My cabin was there and the windows were still intact! I opened the door and saw the mud line up 4 feet inside the cabin. The dresser was still standing. The carryon bag was on top intact and the water never got high enough to touch it.

The floodlight was from the local sheriff who died warning people of the wall of water coming down the canyon from Estes Park following the river. All the canyon campers along the river died.

A helicopter was sent back to the ranch by a banker who left with his son after he got his son’s skull cracked falling off a horse in the mountains. The son’s and father’s luggage was getting picked up. The pilot said he would return to fly us over the river back to town. I waited my turn and then registered my name at the high school auditorium in Loveland to get my name and information as a survivor if anyone was trying to find me. I hitched a ride to Denver and staid overnight at an airport hotel to enjoy a hot shower and a good night’s rest. I booked a flight to Las Vegas 1st class, and booked a room at Caesar’s Palace to celebrate my good luck! Okay, to make this story book ending more amazing, I left Las Vegas with a wad of hundred dollar bills!

At the craps table a little guy that could barely get his arm over the side of the table was throwing dice. I saw a lot of commotion so I joined in. This old guy was smiling like it was Christmas! He had a lot of chips. His bet was always on Pass and that was it. Everyone else had to table covered. He would make 5 or 8 throws and then make his point! This was going on for over a half hour! Screaming, shouting, and a lot of cocktails made this a party! I was making a lot of side bets and making a lot of money. He just kept putting one bet on Pass. A guy next to me didn’t look happy, but he had over a hundred chips of $100 and $250 markings! His run ended and I happily picked up my chips to cash out. 2 guards walked the big winner next to me to cash out. He had won over $50,000! The casino held his marker, so he got maybe $15,000. So he borrowed from them $35,000! I collected $500 and was on top of the world. I flew back to Chicago glad to be in the city. You can keep the mountains!

2013 Colorado flooding

2013 Colorado flooding

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