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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Head-rises wiped out frontier towns

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
My recent column about the treacherous Canadian River quicksands brought responses of similar experiences along with suggestions that I tell of "head-rises."

A head-rise is a wall of water, either small or large, brought on by a heavy downpour of rain upstream. A head-rise may occur on a down-sloping cow trail, ranch road, arroyo, canyon, creek or river. A head-rise can even occur down a wide flat draw if enough rain falls quickly.

The steeper the terrain the more dangerous the head-rise. Even in the barren desert, a brief downpour can set off a dangerous flood. History tells of many mining towns located along creeks or rivers that were totally wiped out by floods.

Silver City, N.M.
, is located in an area subject to flooding under the right conditions.

One of their early head-rises split the town in half, leaving a deep canyon almost down main street, after a vicious flood.

Bridges had to be built to get from one side of town to the other. A city park has been established in the crevice left by the water.

On Aug. 28, 1908, east of Raton, N.M., near the famous TO Ranch, cloudbursts sent a head-rise of unknown height down the Cimarron River through Folsom, N.M. Arriving at 3 a.m. residents were unaware of the danger.

Nineteen people died and 16 dwellings and businesses were destroyed as well as damaging miles of railroad track and bridges.

One of the dead was Mrs. S.J. Rook, a local telephone exchange operator who tended the local exchange from her home. A friend of Mrs. Rook who lived in the mountains above Folsom alerted her to the cloudburst and flood of water approaching the town.

Though facing certain death unless she escaped immediately, Mrs. Rook chose to remain at work warning more than 40 citizens of the upcoming disaster allowing them to escape to high ground and safety.

Her body was recovered 12 miles downstream in the wreckage of her home, still wearing the headpiece worn by telephone operators of the time.

At the same time during the disaster and Mrs. Rook's famous stand, a local saloon holding several migrant hay-haulers sleeping off a long night of drinking was washed off its foundations and carried downstream a mile before lodging in the river banks. The men were found OK and still sleeping soundly.


During the 1940s, while recovering from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the weather reversed its dry cycle and brought several years of plentiful rains.

Our ranch bordering the Canadian River continually suffered from erosion and damage caused by head-rises and flooding.

Miles of fences were destroyed and acres of riverbanks lands were washed away down the river.

We prowled the river banks after each flooding looking for posts, telephone and REA poles washed down by the water.

Once we found a nice wooden bridge which we took apart and used to build new corals.

Always, we had to watch for tangles of barbed wire, mad, wet rattlesnakes and quicksand in the bayous.

Almost overnight after a head-rise, the wet muddy river bottoms became dry again and the red sands began sifting with the winds.

It was a never-changing pattern.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" September 30, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
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