Keeping the Spirit AliveSopris, ColoradoBill Burnelli

A History of the Purgatoire River Flooding


Flood Map


The following is extracted from Report No. USACE-ABQ-2010-003, Prepared by Gregory D. Everhart for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque, (USACE). July 13, 2010

P. 34 "Trinidad has been devastated by floods since the time that people started living in the area. Heavy flooding was reported in the years of 1866, 1883, 1886,while major flooding occurred in 1921, 1925, 1929, and 1934, 1955, and 1965, and disastrous floods in 1904 and 1942. " With continued efforts of politicians, local leaders, and the public in general, a project study for the solution of the problems at Trinidad was included in the Flood Control Act of 1936."

The flood of 1904 and 1955, because of it's significant impact to Sopris, is further described:

By 1895 the area's coal industry was burgeoning and great demand was placed on the lumber camps to produce more rail cross-ties and bridge supports for the expanding railroads and for mine props as bracings in the many coal mines. "One of the lumber camps, "Catskill", was founded in 1890 by the Maxwell Grant Company at the head waters of Long's Canyon in Colfax County, New Mexico. Soon five major sawmills, along with beehive charcoal ovens, and a railroad line was brought in from Trinidad. "During it's peak, Catskill had four busy hotels and a population of about 2,500. During the boom years, thirty to fifty flatcar loads of lumber were shipped daily. The charcoal that was shipped was in such great demand that three thousand cords of wood were burned daily in the Catskill ovens". (Everhart, P.33) "But by the turn of the century timber was becoming scarce. In 1902 the RR tracks were being pulled up." Robert Julyan, "THE PLACE NAMES OF NEW MEXICO".

Catskill's RR route is shown running from NE To SW across St. Thomas plat and Sopris plat in Al Laiminger's book "Sopris Maps & Recollections" P. 23 and P. 42. It is labeled "Denver, Texas & Fort Worth RR". The RR's new name from 1892 until 1982 was "Colorado and Southern RR". The tracks ran west on a constructed ledge at the south wall of the narrow river valley near the Piedmont (Blasi) bridge and close to where Johnito fell (luckily he didn't suffer greater injury). It then headed SW behind Angelo Brunelli's Frontier Tavern and further on, between Sopris Gym and Baseball/Football field then past Jim Trujillo's house before heading up Long's canyon.

"Between September 25 and the 29th, 1904, 2.8 inches of rain fell across the Long's Canyon area just southwest of Sopris with an additional 3 inches falling on September 29th. On September 30, 1904, ".... a wall of water surged down Long's Canyon sweeping away 24 bridges, 10,000 ties, and miles of track from the Colorado and Southern". Between Sopris and the community of Jansen that was located on the North side of the Purgatoire, this same flood event destroyed a 500-foot section of the track, moving it down stream "en toto". Several blamed CF&I for the flooding problems in the valley. In describing the CF&I caused flooding problem and their lack of concern for the watershed, Paul Butero said "They cut trees up there till hell wouldn't have it". (Everhart, P.33)

Arizona StreetCommercial Street Bridge

Left - Arizona Street, 1955 Floods

Right - Commercial Street Bridge, 1955 Floods


Linden BridgePark Cafe

Left - Linden Bridge, 1955 Floods

Right - Park Cafe, 1955 Floods

"Sopris, one of the oldest and most productive coal towns in Las Animas County, now sits at the bottom of Trinidad Lake. During World War I, Sopris had a population approaching 2,000. The mine shut down in 1940, and by 1970, when the Corp of Engineers finished the dam designed to save Trinidad from periodic rampages of the Purgatoire River, only 300 residents remained." Source: "The Coal People" Rick J. Clyne

"The river rises in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 14,000 feet with 40 miles and drops 8,000 feet as it enters the narrow canyon west of Trinidad". "The federal government first investigated the possibility of building a dam across the Purgatoire in the mid-1930s under authorization of the 1936 Flood Control Act. Initial surveys were conducted in Long's Canyon near Sopris in 1938, but an economic analysis of construction costs versus benefits convinced the USACE that the "Sopris Dam" was unfeasible and by 1940 they had rejected all options for a dam." "....the signing of the Arkansas River Compact in 1949 cause the USACE to re-evaluate the dam option. But, again, the project was deemed economically unfeasible in 1954". (Everhart P. 34)

In May of 1955 another major flood ravaged the Purgatoire valley causing $1.9 million in damages including significant damage to the highways and the railroads." (Everhart P. 34) Sopris was rained on steadily for 4 days before the flood came. All three bridges, the Piedmont (Blasi), Starkville, and Laveses (Sopris Plaza) leading out of our communities on the south side of the river were closed. Finally on the 4th day the Piedmont Bridge was declared safe for travel. This flood was the final blow that decided the fate of all residents of Sopris, St. Thomas, Jerryville, Piedmont, Longsdale (El Rito), Laveses (Sopris Plaza) and Viola.

"This led to including funds for the Trinidad Dam in the 1958 Flood Control Act. The USACE estimated that it would cost $9.8 million to build the dam, relocated the families living in four towns (including Sopris), moving three cemeteries, re-building twelve miles of state highway and county roads, and relocating nine mile of Colorado & Wyoming railroad tracks. In addition, the Jansen reservoir had to be drained, bulldozed, and relocated." After political maneuverings and delays "Contracts for dam construction were awarded in 1968 and the facility's gates were closed in 1977". The result was an earth-filled dam measuring 6600 feet long, 200 feet high, with a capacity of up to 114,000 acre feet of water". "Through agreement with the State of Colorado, the recreation areas were to be managed by the state thus creating the Trinidad Lake State Park".

The USACE began the process of buying the communities of Sopris. It began dismantling buildings and structures. In the Spring of 1965 Lincoln High School graduated it's last senior class - the school was then torn down. Residents were paid lump sums for their homes and land. Soon thereafter, the bulldozers rolled in to demolish structures and their remains were dumped in an unknown side canyon".

Source: USACE W912PP-08-F-0024 William A. Dodge, Ph.D and Karen Van Citters, CSI, CDT

Return to Top of Page
To contribute additonal material, please email or