Looking back 53 years at devastating flood

Former Littleton city manager recounts how advocates forged unusual path after cataclysm


The view from the windows of the classroom at Carson Nature Center in South Platte Park was especially pertinent. In the distance is a sculptural reminder of how high the water was running on June 15, 1965 … The scene is especially calm, quiet, green and peaceful today … South Platte Park now includes 878 acres, accumulated through the years by purchases and on occasion, donations.

A group of Historic Littleton Inc. members gathered on July 26 to hear longtime resident and onetime Littleton City Manager Larry Borger talk about the devastating 1965 flood and the resulting development of a major community natural area — including the political practicalities of making it happen and the grassroots activism involved over a period of years.

Borger was a graduate student, interning in Littleton that summer. He wrote his thesis about the flood and community response — he passed the thick volume through the audience as he spoke of immediate local response of “Dam the Platte” ASAP and the standard Army Corps of Engineers response of channeling the river below that dam. (The concrete-lined Los Angeles River is an example.) “The response (here) was mostly right,” he observed. “There was a huge amount of damage.” Local sentiment was strong for “action now! Dam the Platte.” And the Engineers had a major function of building dams nationwide, so a plan was pretty much already on file … “they dusted it off.” Congressman Don Brotzman was locally involved and said he’d take the new proposed plan to Congress for approval.

Citizens and elected officials developed a vision of a wide green natural area in the floodplain along the river instead of a channel, Borger said as he continued his presentation. The idea was “synergism” — two or more governmental agencies working together to reach another result. “A dam makes downstream land available for development,” is the common thought. At the time, then city council member Carle Zimmerman (who was present on July 26), said “a plastic rose by any other name is still a plastic rose …” The Denver Water Department came up with money and the City of Littleton had some money. “If we bought the whole floodplain … the thinking went: the Corps wins, the city wins — but they have to leave it alone,’ Borger continued. “It was conceived as a natural park, not a wilderness.” Littleton Independent editor Garrett Ray was an early supporter, Borger recalled. The Corps said “we’re not in the local park business…” We said “Why not?”

“We had to take it to Congress.”

Felix Sparks, head of the Denver Water Conservation Board, said there was no alternative to that natural plan — If Littleton could come up with $400,000, and the Corps came up with “soft channelization” with grass, trails, etc. … “The Corps was dumbfounded,” Borger recalls. A city bond issue for $400,000 was involved and passed two-to-one, with the largest turnout yet, Borger recalled happily.

Brotzman said “You sell the bond issue, I’ll sell Congress.”

In 1974, Congress passed the Water Resources Conservation Act, which in Section 88, allowed for the project on the South Platte River to happen — to be monitored by the Corps. A copy of that act, with the important phrase highlighted, was also passed around. It meant that alternative “non-structured” river plans could happen across the nation. “It said you had to look at alternatives …”

Funds for the project also came from other sources: Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, Arapahoe County, etc. and property was added through the years to a present total of 878 acres (larger than New York’s Central Park).

“Chatfield Dam could hold two 1965 floods,” Borger added as he looked out the window. “These are second-growth trees — many from the 1990-1993 `10,000 Trees’ campaign,” where citizens planted trees and shrubs along the riverbanks for several years. Perhaps some of our readers participated?

The project/park was dedicated in 1983 and came under South Suburban Parks and Recreation District management. Additional parcels were donated and purchased and the Carson House was donated to become the Carson Nature Center in 1986 and dedicated in 1992. GOCO grants have allowed for additional land purchases, and the park has grown from the 1980s’ 112 acres to the present 878 acres.

As metropolitan population density increases around us, this natural area offers a nearby opportunity to be surrounded by greenery and wildlife, with the related silences, sounds, vistas and smells not to be found on concrete or asphalt.

A majority of those present were in Littleton on June 16, 1965 when a warning came through that a “wall of water,” originating from a major rainstorm on Plum Creek, was rapidly advancing along the South Platte toward Littleton. Fourteen inches of rain had fallen. Emergency warnings went out to the Centennial race track, where valuable horses were stabled, to Columbine Country Club residents and golfers, to businesses and homes along the riverbanks. Ten square miles of homes and businesses were destroyed. With the exception of the Bowles Avenue bridge, bridges were washed out between Littleton and Denver. When the first warnings came, many ignored them and kept on golfing or whatever else they were doing. When that wall of water finally came into view, it was too late for much response and losses were heavy …

Visitors to the Carson Nature Center will find a lot of material and a model of a flooding river to aid in understanding what happened here 53 years ago. And they will find paths into a delightful park experience.


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