Updated: Jan 12, 2022
The 1921 flood changed the history and landscape of Pueblo forever. Fifty years later, artists discover a giant concrete canvas and set a Guinness World Record. Forty years later the canvas is destroyed and rebuilt.
One hundred years ago on June 3rd, 1921, two cloud burst events flooded the city of Pueblo. Only 78 bodies were recovered, but an estimated 250 to 1,000 people died. Livestock, homes and railcars were washed away. The Arkansas River was nearly a mile wide in places. The only hospital at the time was south of the river, the hospital I work at was built due to loss of life north of the flooding river.
The Arkansas River had been an international border between New Spain and Louisiana Territory until the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and then the border between the U.S. and New Spain until 1821. Within three years of the flood, that mighty river was relocated against the bluffs and a giant levee built to protect the city. In 2000, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk Project (HARP) opened in the channel of the original flow of the Arkansas River through downtown Pueblo. If you stand on the Main St or Union bridge above the Riverwalk channel today, you are standing on that historic international border.
Like most tragic events, people put aside their differences after the flood and came together to solve problems and rebuild. There was no FEMA or outside assistance to clean up, locals dug through the mud by hand with shovels.
But the 1921 flood changed our history and landscape forever. To get funding approved for the levee, a compromise was made in the Colorado legislature to also fund construction of the Moffat Tunnel west of Denver. The opening of that railway tunnel in 1928 forever shifted railroad traffic away from Pueblo and the area’s economy.
Levee becomes a canvas for painters
The plain gray walls of the levee stood unnoticed for 50 years protecting the city from future flooding. In the late 1970s art students snuck onto the levee at night and started painting murals by flashlight. First a fish, then a bathtub, then rubber ducks. So many dynamic works of art followed by an estimated thousand artists. By 1995 the Pueblo Levee Mural was over 3 miles long and made the Guinness Book of World Records for largest outdoor continuous mural! Thanks to the amazing woman and teacher, Cynthia Ramu, a very active muralist and volunteer coordinator of the project for over 20 years!
For over 40 years the levee was a huge canvas for artists from all over the world. The world record held until 2014 when repairs began on the 92-year-old levee. The old levee was shifting down the steep slope and buckling at its foundation according to Kim Kock, Pueblo Conservancy District consulting engineer. The repairs were required to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certification after Hurricane Katrina rules and keep downtown Pueblo out of the floodplain.
The reconstruction involved jackhammering the face of the murals about halfway down. The top half of the levee was hauled away in giant dump trucks for other construction projects. The levee was dropped 12 feet overall due to Lake Pueblo now upstream helping prevent flooding.
The concrete panels are half the height (and cost) to avoid the excess weight that caused past buckling. And best of all, a 40-foot gravel maintenance and public access road now provides easy access and more safety on top of the levee and along the kayak park. The first of two pedestrian bridges opened in 2021 to provide trail access to the levee.
As a painter on the mural, it was hard to watch but I visited the area periodically and watched the demolition of the 2013 mural I helped paint.
I had the pleasure and challenge of painting a mural on the old levee in the fall of 2013 (Pedal for the Planet mural Facebook page) and another mural for Active Pueblo the summer of 2021. What a different experience! The new levee is not near as high, the concrete panels are half the height but just as steep (around a 45-degree angle but varies I hear). But boy! The new wall is slick!
The 90-year-old concrete was very weathered, so we carefully painted with no ropes or harnesses. There was nowhere to tether a rope in most spots on the prior levee anyway.
We had to walk almost a mile walk on a narrow path each way hauling paint and supplies in 2013 and now we can drive right up!
Only one of the original murals survived the jackhammer. The Corn Maiden mural was carefully moved to the hillside near Main St trailhead not far from the Rawlings library. But artists have been hard at work the past year on the new levee working to reclaim the world record from South Korea. Forty-five murals have been painted upstream of the 4th Street bridge with 16 murals in progress. The concrete has sufficiently cured between 4th St. and Main St. bridge, an area the Conservancy District has reserved for “historic” murals. I vote that the Grim Reaper painted in the 1980s on the 4th drop of the kayak park is historic and should go back up!
Learn more about the City of Pueblo Master plan for the Arkansas River Levee. A non-profit, Friends of Levee, formed in 2021 to expand recreation options of improved trail, benches, shade structures and events. Cynthia Ramu has hosted a Winter Solstice Lantern Walk for years at the Riverwalk but she and the Conservancy District, Friends of the Levee and other volunteers, hosted the 2021 Winter Solstice Lantern Walk at the new suspension bridge with almost 200 people attending. Mark your calendar now for Saturday, June 18, 2022 for a full day of festivities along the Levee for the Summer Solstice!