Memories Of Labor Day Weekend 1970 Come Flooding Back

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1970 Labor Day weekend Flood — Horton, Christopher and Tonto creeks

Jim Hagen

Over Labor Day in 1970, we went to the cabin with friends Garry and Marey Beth McKracken. It started raining as soon as we arrived and didn’t let up for the whole three-day holiday. It poured down for three days and two nights. When the rain ceased, the sound of the rain on the roof stopped, but another sound was still prominent. The sound was intense, like a jet aircraft flying right over the top of the cabin at a low altitude. We looked at one another and all wondered, “What in the world is that noise?”

We left the cabin for the first time in three days. The ground was so saturated that water oozed up around our shoes with every step. We headed toward Christopher Creek from where the noise seemed to come. We hiked down the road and toward the Christopher Creek Bridge. The “creek” had become a huge roaring river sweeping everything — trees, logs, mud, rocks, debris of every sort in its path — the power and volume so great that the arroyo could not contain it. The river went over the top of the bridge (20 feet above normal) and half the water left the streambed and was roaring down the highway pushing huge boulders ahead of it.

Christopher Creek was changed dramatically. The water, rocks and logs blocked the bridge at Mountain Meadow ranch, flooded cars and left deep mud inside all the cabins. The streambed caved in on both sides and many trees were uprooted. Huge rock piles and log piles were left in the flood’s wake.

The storm was over all of Arizona, did a lot of damage and killed 29 people statewide. Most of that loss of life was near Payson in the Rim Country. At Christopher Creek a woman became concerned when water started coming into her home. Her child was next door at a neighbor’s cabin. She charged out of her home to go get her child and was swept away in the flood of water.

Five miles away from Christopher Creek a bridge crosses over Tonto Creek. Horton Creek flows into Tonto at the bridge. Upstream on Tonto Creek two families became concerned about the storm’s violence and decided to leave for Phoenix. Eleven people occupied two station wagons traveling together. Just as they reached the bridge a 40-foot wall of water came down Horton Creek and swept both families away with a loss of all the lives aboard. Years later I found the frame of one of the cars five miles downstream from the bridge.

There was utter destruction on the Tonto Creek Bridge site. The bridge was battered and scarred by the trees, logs and boulders that came down with the flood.

South of Payson on Highway 87 at Sycamore Creek the water was sweeping over the top of the bridge. A highway patrolman traveling toward Phoenix figured the water was not too deep on the bridge and that he could cross safely. What he didn’t know: the approach at the far end of the bridge was washed out. He plunged off that end of the bridge and lost his life in the floodwaters. The storm completely changed the stream and left large piles of boulders, logs and debris.

Locally, every little ravine was a roaring river. No one was safe to try to cross. Because of the washed out bridges we had to return to Phoenix by way of Roosevelt Lake and the Apache Trail ... a long, hot and arduous dirt and gravel road.

The Flood of 1970

Barbara Himmelberger

I don’t know where the years have gone. In the beginning, about 49 years ago, we rented Cabin #2 at Christopher Creek Lodge each year. But in 1970, the year of the flood, my husband, Bob, said that we needed a bigger cabin. My eldest son, John, was with us, recently back from Vietnam, along with our 15-year-old son, Steve, our 9-year-old daughter, Barbara Ann, and Barbara Ann’s friend, Penny. My middle son, Rob, stayed at home. We ended up renting Cabin #7.

The day before the rain came, Penny’s father and brother stopped by on their way up the mountain. There was a trickle of water in the creek.

In previous years, we had enjoyed it when it rained. When it began to rain this time, we were not concerned. The girls were reading in the loft while I was knitting a sweater. I think the others were reading, too. The smell and sound of the rain against the backdrop of the forest was very comforting. It was nice and cozy in the cabin. Life was good!

After a while, we noticed that the storm was getting louder and the rain heavier. We went outside to see what was going on. It was immediately clear that something unusual was happening. Before long, trees and boulders were coming down the swollen creek. One log hit the bridge abutment by the entrance to the lodge, flew into the air, and hit Cabin #2! The roof collapsed.

By this point, concern had set in. John halfway jokingly said that he did not survive Vietnam to come home and die at Christopher Creek. The water coming down the creek sounded like the ocean. Although John wanted to leave then, his father didn’t think that the water would reach the cabin. He was wrong. No one warned us!

When we decided to abandon Cabin #7, the dirt road behind Cabin #2 was washed out. The people in cabin #6 moved up the hill into the next cabin (with strangers). We moved into their cabin. I wrapped the girls in towels and blankets from Cabin #6. To make matters worse, the power went out.

During the night we could see and hear the road crews on the highway. The beeping of the trucks when they backed up, along with the sound of the boulders continuing to tumble down the creek, helped contribute to a rather fitful sleep.

The next morning, we saw the extent of the destruction. Some people were looking for their small dog. The creek was very wide and all of the vegetation was gone. My husband and sons took some wooden planks from a fence that had been knocked down, laid them over where the road was gone, and we drove out in our two cars. We were very fortunate that our cars had been safe on higher ground. Other cars had been washed down into a wooded area (where the Tandems are now).

Because of various bridges being out, we had to drive home to Phoenix via Flagstaff. On the way home, John heard on the car radio that some friends of mine from church, Dick and Jane Fellars, had drowned in the flood. They evidently drove off a bridge at night, not knowing that it had been washed away. Their young son was later found alive, holding on to a tree.

All in all, the total number of deaths in the path of the flood was around 26. It is my understanding that a woman drowned trying to cross the creek behind the Landmark restaurant, just down from the lodge. You can’t stop water!

Finally, I would just like to say that during my 83 years I have traveled all over the world and Christopher Creek is my most favorite place ever! I love the lodge, the back woods road, and the little store. I love it all! Except for the flood of 1970.

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