Setting The Stage For Disaster: Labor Day 1970

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The remnants of Tropical Storm Norma crashed into Arizona 43 years ago this coming Labor Day weekend.

The effects were not particularly good: more than 20 people lost their lives, many of whom were in the upper Tonto Creek area north of Kohl’s Ranch. The entire region, as well as the entire state, was negatively affected. This weather event and its impact on the area, particularly Christopher Creek, is going to be discussed in more depth on Sept. 2 at the Landmark in Christopher Creek. Let’s set the stage for this discussion. What was this area like in 1970 as the weather hit?

The region experienced tremendous growth during the 1960s. The boom kicked off in the late 1950s as the Beeline Highway from Phoenix to Payson was being paved. Around the same time the road from Payson to Christopher Creek was improved and paved. The Rim Lakes (Woods Canyon, Willow Springs and others) were also built.

A couple different population figures are available. One has a population for Payson of 814 in 1960 and 1,787 in 1970. Another, a Payson community profile from the early 1970s, has the population of within a half-hour drive of Payson at 1,948 in 1960 and 3,565 in 1970. By the time 1980 arrived those numbers would be even higher.

On the East Verde River north of Payson there were and are a number of subdivisions including East Verde Park, Flowing Springs, Beaver Valley, Whispering Pines and Rim Trail, many of which contain second homes of owners who have full-time residences elsewhere. Beaver Valley in particular had some extra features including a swimming pool and community railroad. It had been a resort earlier in the 1960s and had been converted to lots by a developer; lots which were still actively being marketed and sold by the developer at that time.

A little bit further eastward the upper Tonto Creek and Christopher Creek areas were booming with fishermen and other recreational activities. An article in The Arizona Republic on Aug. 16, 1970, with regards to Tonto Creek, stated “the upper end is crowded with campers, picnickers – plus hatchery trout.” With regards to Christopher Creek the same article says that it “generally is crowded with anglers where the stream and campground flanks paved Route 260. Yet, Al Ellis and others report great wilderness-type fishing where the stream boxes up.”

Advertisements in The Arizona Republic the Wednesday prior to Labor Day weekend 1970 provide a little bit of insight into the region. There was an advertisement for Gordon Canyon Ranch (on today’s Colcord Mountain Road), which was run by the Treat family. Kohl’s Ranch had an advertisement, and then there was the Christopher Creek Lodge-Motel touting that you could “fish from your porch”. Earlier that summer a couple of other noteworthy Christopher Creek area advertisements had appeared. There was a May 10 advertisement for the Christopher Creek Store & Bar run by Blanche and Heber White. It said to “watch for opening of our new steak house.” That place eventually turned into the Landmark. There was also an advertisement in that same issue for the Creekside Trailer Park run by Olive Ashby.

Down the road from Christopher Creek was Camp Tontozona, where Frank Kush’s Sun Devils were preparing for their season. The Devils had been coming to Tontozona since 1960 and in 1970 the Sun Devils arrived at Tontozona on August 30 and were slated to return to Tempe on Tuesday September 8. It was a typical Tontozona year for Kush’s Devils, filled with grueling, three-a-day practices. An article in The Arizona Republic on Aug. 31, 1970 provided a snapshot of how the 1970 camp was going to be. “‘We expect to have a tough camp,’ said Kush, who’s never been known to run an easy one. ‘We have pretty much a veteran ballclub, and my patience is just liable to be a little bit shorter with this bunch.’”

That is what the region was like as the remnants of Tropical Storm Norma hit Arizona. The results would be devastating with roads and bridges washed out and many lives lost. The scenic waterways of the region with their lush vegetation and fishing holes were also impacted. There are just a handful of really historic weather events to have occurred in Rim Country and this was probably the biggest.

More to hear

On Monday, Sept. 2 at 10:30 a.m. at the Landmark in Christopher Creek many stories will be told from a variety of people who experienced the flood in different capacities. It’ll be a great opportunity to step back in time. For more information, including if you have a story to tell yourself, you can contact Don Farmer at (480) 200-8687.

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