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The Big Thompson River
by Stormy on August 09, 2008

From a humble stream beginnings in the Rocky Mountains, the Big Thompson has developed a reputation for being an angry river.

The Big Thompson River originates in the central Rocky Mountain National Park and flows east through Moraine Park into the town of Estes Park. Here it pools in Estes Lake and flows through Olympus Dam into the Big Thompson Canyon where it shares the canyon with U.S. Route 34. The Big Thompson Canyon is a scenic 25 mile drive from Estes Park to the town of Loveland. Rainstorms and snowmelt can quickly make the Big Thompson into a turbulent river ready to spill over its banks and on July 31, 1976, the eve of Colorado’s centennial celebration, what has now come to be called "the millennial flood" struck the area. A massive stationary rainstorm dumped a foot of water on the upper Big Thompson Canyon in a period of just a few hours, flooding the Big Thompson and its tributaries and creating a twenty foot high wall of water that rushed down canyon. The rushing waters swept away cars and homes and destroyed miles of highway along the floor of the canyon. 144 people were listed as being killed in the flood with the bodies of six victims never having been found. The Big Thompson Flood is still listed as the largest natural disaster in Colorado (the Hayman Fire was caused by a forest ranger) and by far the most significant in the state in the number of lives lost. In July of 2008, thirty-two years after the disaster, Barb Anderson, a researcher reviewing the records of the flood, discovered that Darrell Johnson, a man reported as having been killed in the flood, was alive and well, living in Oklahoma City. As it turns out, Johnson, his wife and two daughters left the area a day early to return to Oklahoma and weren't even aware of the flood. The early departure saved their lives. The irony of the situation was that no one knew there were four people staying in the Big Thompson Canyon cabin that was washed away, potentially raising the death toll to 147. In reality, four people escaped certain death because they decided to leave a day early. The death toll from the 1976 Big Thompson Flood now stands at 143 with five victims never having been found.

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