Denver, May 19 - 20, 1864

When Denver was founded in 1858, the miners and gold seekers camped on both sides of Cherry Creek, an insignificant stream bed that no one took too much notice of other than for gold panning purposes. On one side of the creek was "Denver City" founded by William Larimer. On the other side of the creek was "Auraria City." The rivalry between the two settlements was so intense that the Rocky Mountain News and the City Hall were both built on stilts in the creek bed, despite warnings from the Native Cheyene and Arapahoe who had lived in the area for years. The Rocky Mountain News carried the following article in 1885 after another flood:

"There is a tradition that when Count Murat and his party of permanent settlers first reached the mouth of Cherry Creek in the fall of 1858, friendly Indians warned them against camping in the bottoms on account of great floods which had come down the creek in times past, and when the Count and his party laughed at the idea of Cherry Creek producing floods the Indians pointed to the debris left by the falling waters in the tops of tall cottonwoods on the banks of the harmless looking gully. This unanswerable argument probably influenced the early settlers into going a few miles up the Platte and establishing the short-lived town of Montana [on Little Dry Creek at what is now Englewood.]"

The settlement at Montana was soon abandoned, and the settlers moved to the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte. By 1860, Denver City and Auraria had merged to become Denver and the Rocky Mountain News published the following article on August 1:

"Cherry Creek appears to present a rather serious problem, for we have had a demonstration of what may be expected from a heavy rainfall on the Divide [the Palmer Divide, south of Larkspur], though we are not yet inclined to believe the Indian claims that the whole settlement is subject to flood."

The debate about whether Cherry Creek posed a serious flood threat to Denver was settled in 1864.

Albert B. Sanford, the curator of the State Historical Society Museum, wrote an article for the Colorado Magazine in May 1927:

"Encroachments of owners on lots on what was commonly called the channel, by construction of stables and outbuildings had narrowed the narrow course to hat was considered, by a sort of gentlemen's agreement, a reasonable right-of-way for the creek in caring for its drainage responsibilities. On the afternoon of May 19, 1864, a moderate rain occurred in Denver, but for several hours heavy black clouds obscured the Divide and frequent rumblings of thunder were heard... By midnight, the great majority of citizend were in their beds. Suddenly those who chanced to be awake heard a strange sound in the south like the noise of the wind, which increased to a mighty roar as a great wall of water, bearing on its crest trees and other drift, rushed toward the settlement..."

Sanford's mother wrote the following in her journal: "Camp Weld [barracks of the First Colorado Regiment, just south of Denver], May 25, 1864. On the night of the 19th the watchman of the Government corall punded on our door witht he startling intelligence that a great flood was coming down Cherry Creek and many people were drowning. We thought him fooling until the roar of the waters could be heard, as oc a mighty tempest. [Mr. Sanford] rushed to the creek but returned quickly, saying I must see the awful sight. We found hundreds of people along the creek banks. Many of the women and children in their night clothes, having been rescued from their homes below by the cavalrymen from the barracks. By the light of the bonfires along the creek, we could see the inky waves, 15 to 20 feet high, carrying trees, houses, cattle, and sheep -- and for all we know human beings -- to certain destruction.

The Cherry Creek Flood Commission, appointed by the mayor of Denver in 1912 offered the following:

"The first flood of which we have any record occurred on Thursday and Friday, May 19 and 20, 1864. The flood reached its maximum height about 2 a.m., May 20. This height it maintained until about 7 a.m., at which time the waters began to recede. This flood had its origin at the upper end of the Cherry Creek watershed, being occasioned by a heavy fall of alternating hail and rain, occurring on the afternoon of May 19. This storm extended over the watershed of Plum Creek also, which discharged into the South Platte River, making an unprecedented height."

In all, 19 people were killed in the 1864 flood, including the Tyson Family who homesteaded south of Castle Rock on East Plum Creek.

source: http://history.dpld.org/floods/1864.htm