City’s worst flood was in 1904

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By Martin Salazar

It was a Thursday night in September and it had been raining incessantly for four straight days.

Sleeping residents along the banks of the Gallinas were awakened by the roaring of the waters. With the Gallinas overspilling its banks, a frantic evacuation ensued.

So began the worst recorded flood in Las Vegas history on the night of Sept. 29, 1904.

Although the damage sustained during last Friday’s flood were nowhere near as bad as in 1904 — 109 years ago — the similarities are noteworthy.

Both floods occurred in September following several days of rain, and the flooding began on Thursday nights.

The screaming headline in the following evening’s Optic tells it best: LAS VEGAS DEVASTATED BY WHOLLY UNPRECEDENTED FLOOD.

“Last night Las Vegas experienced the most disastrous flood in her history,” the story in the Sept. 30 Optic reported. “The little Gallinas, swollen to a stream a quarter of a mile wide and many feet deep, swept along a mighty current, which endangered lives and destroyed much property.”

The Optic went on to report that property loss from Bridge Street up the canyon was extensive and that the Agua Pura dams had broken, bringing tremendous volumes of water down the Gallinas. So intense was the flooding that it washed out the railway, leaving Las Vegas “isolated from the world.” Dams and bridges were also gone and every establishment from Clay & Rogers’ to Ludwig Ilfeld’s was swept by an angry torrent.  

“The river changed its course and dashed such a volume of water against the stone work which supported the railroad embankment that it melted away like chaff and the whole platforms and station were broken in a thousand pieces and floated down the raging stream,” the Optic reported. “The changed course of the river brought the current full against the abutment of the east end of the bridge and this was undermined and part of the earth work was washed away.”

According to the report, the falling of the stream saved the bridge. The Moore Lumber Company lost several sheds and lots of valuable lumber. Clay & Rogers lost four horses.

The Optic reported that Las Vegas had received almost 5 inches of rain between Sept. 26 and the morning of Sept. 30, 1904. At the time, the Optic referred to the amount of rain  as something “absolutely unprecedented for Las Vegas in the later part of September and for that matter a record breaker for any time of year.”

The story went on to chronicle the heroic efforts to get people out of flooding areas: By 1 o’clock the hackmen (drivers of horse-drawn carriages) began moving the residents of the flats near the river. They had considerable difficulty and for a time it looked as though some of the residents were cut off by the flood. The water was already running over the road and it looked as though an impassible channel might be cut at any time. Several times the steady hack horses balked at the flood, but finally they went through it and all the people in danger were moved to safety.

The Optic reported that peopled were awakened by the roaring of the waters.

“Dripping figures moved about the banks of the stream and shouted to each other through the tumult,” according to the account. Word was sent to business owners whose places were endangered “and before the climax was reached there was a considerable crowd on hand.”

A report commissioned by the New Mexico Floodplain Managers Association in 2003 states that the highest flow in the Gallinas was on Sept. 30, 1904. On that day, the river rose to 14 feet and the peak discharge was 11,600 cubic feet per second. By contrast, the Gallinas reached to about 7.5 feet this past Friday with a recorded flow of more than 1,500 cubic feet per second.

While there were no reported deaths in Las Vegas during the 1904 flood, other areas did suffer loss of life. According to local historian Jesus Lopez, the 1904 flood claimed eight people in Watrous, eight in Springer and four in Chaperito.