Earlier this summer I wrote about Rim Country's deadliest fire event, the Dude Fire, which killed six firefighters in Bonita Creek on June 26, 1990. This week we look back at an even deadlier event, one that was water-related.
37 years ago, Rim Country was flooded with people who were enjoying yet another holiday weekend. Summer was coming to an end and kids were readying themselves to head back to school in the midst of an era when school still started after Labor Day. Frank Kush and his Arizona State University Sun Devils were at Camp Tontozona, readying themselves for another season of battle on the gridiron, as fishermen cast for trout in nearby Tonto Creek. But then tragedy struck; tragedy that would become Rim Country's deadliest water-related event.
Days earlier, a strong tropical storm had developed off of the Mexican coast. It was named Tropical Storm Norma, and would prove to be one of Arizona's deadliest storms ever. It started as a tropical disturbance on Sunday, Aug. 30, becoming a tropical storm the next day. It strengthened over the following couple of days, reaching its peak winds of 60 miles per hour on Thursday, Sept. 3. But while it would weaken into a mere tropical depression by the following day, its outflow was sucked into Arizona, creating disastrous results.
According to report in the Payson Roundup, immediately following the disaster, the storm hit at 11:45 p.m. on Friday night of the holiday weekend. Over the next 24 hours Payson's weather recorder, Anna Mae Deming, measured 6.7 inches of rain. The storm took its biggest toll in the Christopher Creek/Kohl's Ranch area, washing out numerous cabins and killing many. Just how many people died because of the storm is debatable. A couple of weeks after the storm the Payson Roundup reported that 17 had died, with one still missing. A National Weather Service site states that 23 died in total from the storm, including 14 on Tonto Creek. Meanwhile, historian Stan Brown has put the number of fatalities at 28 in Rim Country alone. Whatever the case, this was one brutal storm.
The bulk of the damage occurred in the Kohl's Ranch area, where many cabins located between Tonto and Horton creeks were washed downstream. This area had even heavier rains than Payson; according to the National Weather Service 7.12 inches of rain fell at Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Just downstream at Camp Tontozona players got a firsthand look at things as they were happening. According to the Sept. 10, 1970 Payson Roundup, "players saw two automobiles and parts of two cabins from a neighboring area float by." Two buses were stranded at Camp Tontozona, and thus the players had to thumb rides to return to the Valley.
This area is where the bulk of fatalities occurred. One particular story was told on the front page of the Sept. 10, 1970 Payson Roundup.
"The party had been staying at a cabin north of Kohl's Ranch owned by the Fuller family. Fearing the building might be washed away, MacDonald had everyone get into their cars.
"Mrs. MacDonald drove the leading auto, MacDonald the second. As they approached the Tonto-Horton bridge over Tonto Creek, Miss Weese said, ‘I saw a huge wall of water coming.'
"‘The water caught him up and the car went over a cliff like a toy,' Miss Weese said. ‘I saw him clinging to a tree. Then he disappeared.'"
Meanwhile, south of Payson, returning to the Phoenix area was not all that easy. The road was washed out at Sycamore Creek, forcing people trying to return home to the Valley to go the long way via Roosevelt Lake, or go north of Payson over to I-17.
Some businesses in Payson sustained damage from flooding as well. The Sept. 10, 1970 Payson Roundup discussed flood damage at the Frontier Market and Drug Store, as the building was flooded to a depth of six inches. The cost of the damage was estimated at $9,500.
Overall, at least $200,000 worth of damage was sustained in Rim Country, as numerous bridges had to be fixed following the vicious storm.
Here's where I found my information from for this story:
Information on Tropical Storm Norma was primarily from two web sites:
I also utilized the old Payson Roundups at the Northern Gila County Genealogical Society library in Payson to gather information from old stories.
A note to readers
In the coming weeks I'm starting a little side project. Ever since I attended a preservation workshop put on by the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office in April, I've been fascinated by the possibilities in Rim Country. 50 years tends to be a magical mark of sorts for National Register possibilities and according to county records there are 78 structures that are 50 years and older in and around Payson's Main Street. There are also numerous other structures throughout Rim Country in and around that mark. We have a lot of potential and I plan to start digging as time permits.
I've created my own form based on the National Register form. As I have time, I'll be mailing that out to structures that were built in 1962 or earlier according to county records. Since county records can occasionally contain mistakes, I'd appreciate any information that people can pass along regarding old structures, particularly in the outlying areas. I hope to gather quite a bit of information for my files; information that you may see in future Rim Review articles. If you have an older place and would like to show it off, contact me because I'd love to see it and find out more about it from you first hand.
Don't forget that if you have old photos I'm always interested. I'm happy to scan the photos and give you a copy on CD, if I can have permission to use them.