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Motivated by memory: Big Thompson Flood Memorial set to host annual commemoration

July 29, 2018


Terry Frei 

This Tribune archive photo shows three people standing along U.S 34 near the entrance to the Big Thompson Canyon. (Tribune File Photo)

In the mid-1990s, Barb and Andy Anderson moved back from Iowa to the Cedar Cove area of the Big Thompson Canyon. They had lived in the Canyon at the time of the horrific 1976 Big Thompson Flood, managing to escape to higher ground and surviving as 144 died — including four members of the neighboring Graham family. Teresa Graham, 10, was best friends with the Andersons’ daughter, Tina. Teresa’s body was never found.

After returning to the area, Barb was chagrined to spot that the only Big Thompson Flood memorial was a single stone in the Canyon, engraved with mention of the flood and nothing else.

 To go


The Big Thompson Memorial annual commemoration, on the flood’s 42nd anniversary, is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, 1461 Big Thompson Canyon Road (U.S. 34).


“I just thought it was so impersonal,” she told me. “It just had to have their names on there. So that’s when I started to try to get the memorial put up.”

After Anderson enlisted help from others with a passion for the project, a more complete and touching memorial honoring the dead — complete with all the names ­— was dedicated by the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in 2001. Anderson, now the president of the Memorial committee; secretary Marlene Johnson, who lost her mother in the flood; and the county coroner’s office rounded up family contacts for all the victims. It was a different time, with long-distance phone calls mounting up charges and fewer Internet resources, but they were able to invite someone from every victim’s family to the dedication.

Since then, the nonprofit Big Thompson Flood Memorial, Inc., has held annual commemorations on July 31.

“This is my baby,” Anderson said, her voice breaking. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It was to make sure no one — no one — was ever forgotten.”

There will be a slight change of approach this year.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m., on the 42nd anniversary of the devastation resulting from a torrential storm than dumped 12 inches of rain in four hours, families of the victims and others interested again will gather at the Big Thompson Canyon Volunteer Fire Department building. They will renew acquaintances, exchange memories and salute those lost.

Tribune Graphics Department

The Memorial organizers also annually honor those killed with the presentation of one-year college scholarship grants to their direct descendants, and this time there will be four awarded. By now, the scholarships have trickled down to great-grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren of the victims. The 2018 awards will bring the total of scholarships granted to 46, and it all began after remembrance projects evolved into Anderson putting together a book, “Reflection of the Hearts,” a collection of eye-witness accounts of the flood.

“Money was coming in from the books,” Anderson said, “so we decided, ‘What would be a better way of doing it than giving the scholarships to the students of the grandparents that died in the flood, and giving it to them as a gift from their grandparents?’”

After more formal services and ceremonies annually at the anniversaries, the group’s board asked those at the 2017 gathering about holding an informal potluck and remembrance gathering this year and staging the services and ceremonies only every five years, with the next one at the 45th anniversary in 2021.

Water rushes down the Big Thompson River as the road sits high above west of Loveland. (Tribune File Photo)

The response was positive.

This year’s more informal event is open to the public. For GPS purposes, the fire station is at 1461 Big Thompson Canyon Road (U.S. Highway 34), about 35 miles west of Greeley. The memorial is adjacent to the station, and the organizing Memorial committee now is Barb and Tina Anderson, Johnson, and Peggy Lafferty.

“We’re hoping for a crowd of 125 to 150,” Johnson said. “But people don’t RSVP to this. We’re just kind of winging it and hoping we have a good crowd and that the weather holds. If we have clouds or it looks like rain, those people that survived it or those people who lost someone, they don’t go into that canyon.”

Lois McCargo, Johnson’s mother, was a 63-year-old widow who lived in the Big Thompson Canyon.

“When you come out of the narrows, to the left is the little cherry pie place,” Johnson said. “As you cross the bridge, she had built a ranch-style house on the right side of Highway 34. The river makes a big swing right there and she had moved into the house there in December of 1975. She had lived in the canyon for several years, but only in that house for seven months.

A Greeley Tribune archive photo shows a man standing at the waters edge along what was the Narrows Canyon Road. (Tribune File Photo)

“This is coming from people at the hotel just to the west and that survived. . . They were trying to throw a rope to my mother and have her hold on to the rope as they pulled her through the water. But they watched that wall of water hit that house and completely sweep it off its foundation. She was found on the Sylvan Dale (guest ranch) property, about five and a half miles away. That’s how far the body was washed.”

Barb and Andy Anderson and their two children were living right on the Big Thompson at the time of the flood.

“That night, we made it out,” Barb said. “We couldn’t get our dog out. We lost him. We were lucky that the neighbor boy opened the gate to the east, and we could get up their long driveway, which took us up on higher ground. We got our neighbors all in the car with us, and we were just lucky to get out.”

This Tribune archive photo shows the shards and splintered remains of homes that were swept away during the 1976 flood. (Tribune File Photo)

The Memorial group lists six of the 144 victims as Greeley residents at the time of the flood. They were:

» Stanley J. Carlson, 22

» Tanya Carlson, 19

» Jeffrey Miller, 27

» Cheryl Rudd, 19

» Claude Schell, 85

» Mae Loretta Schell, 70

Cedar Cove resident Bob Graham, who lost his mother (Clara, 64), wife (Beverly, 33), and two daughters (Teresa and Lisa, 2) in the flood, now lives in the West Point area of Greeley. He is 77 and retired from his long-time job at a Greeley metal supply company. He has a second family, with wife Michelle and two adult daughters.

“He got up last year and told his story of that night,” Anderson said, sobbing. “That was hard because I’d never heard what all happened.”

Graham on Saturday told me, “I’ve kind of gotten accustomed to the anniversaries coming around. It’s hard, it reminds you of it. But we’re going to the get-together Tuesday evening. There’s been enough time now that I don’t feel the hurt as frequently as I used to. I’ve been very fortunate in the recovery. But you do think of it.”

This Tribune archive photo shows some of the damage left behind after the 1976 flood. (Tribune File Photo)

Anderson, the major mover in getting the memorial built and behind the annual observances, isn’t completely sold on the downscaling of the ceremony this year and in years other than the milestones. On Tuesday night, the committee is supplying chicken and guests are asked to bring other food for the potluck. Well, that plus their memories of those lost to be exchanged in informal discussions into the night, even if they were handed down through families.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Anderson said. “This is for the people who lost their loved ones. We’ll go by what they say. I feel like there is a part of it they will miss because it’s always been very reverent, I would say, and very meaningful. There’s always people that lost family members who come and (have) never been to one. There’s probably going to be some this year. Some of those, it’s hard for them to come, so that’s where I think they will have missed part of it this time.”

For those of us who were living in Colorado on July 31, 1976, that night is a time marker. I vividly remember where I was and hearing of the devastation. But for me, the toll was numbers. To those who lived it, and to the families affected, it is more. Still. Through the generations.