August In Colorado History

Dearfield Founder O.T. Jackson's home in disrepair
Dearfield founder O.T. Jackson home (2008) | Rocky Mountain News, Ellen Jaskol

Colorado historical headlines from the month of August include flooding from the Castlewood Canyon Dam break, historic designation of Dearfield ghost town, and creation of the Holy Cross Forest Reserve by President Roosevelt.

August 4, 1995: Dearfield Ghost Town Added to National Register of Historic Places

Dearfield horse drawn carriage
Dearfield, Colorado (c. 1920-1930) | Denver Public Library

Dearfield, a ghost town 25 miles east of Greeley, is added to the National Registry of Historic Places on August 4th, 1995. This preservation event recognized the important role African Americans played in the West.


Oliver Toussaint Jackson, a Boulder-based African American entrepreneur and prominent member of black communities, established Dearfield as an all-black agricultural settlement in 1910. He envisioned a self-sustaining settlement for black families, where they could run businesses, cultivate farmlands, and own homes.


The first African American settlers to join Jackson in Dearfield faced a difficult start. Harsh weather conditions, shortages in fuel and water, and challenges farming their pastures tested their strength. Still, the settlers of Dearfield persevered. They learned to raise livestock such as chickens and ducks, and grew proficient in farming crops ranging from squashes and melons to beans and potatoes.

Dearfield family in their melon patch in 1915
O.T. Jackson pictured with child in Dearfield melon patch (1915) | Denver Public Library

As the community’s prosperity grew, so did the arrival of more families. At its peak, Dearfiled boasted a population of 700 residents.


World War I provided Dearfield reliable demand for its diversity of crops. But when the war ended in 1918, demand dropped, crippling Dearfield’s farming industry. Across the nation 400,000 farmers lost their farms, including many of Dearfield’s residents. Families were forced to leave the community in the hundreds. Dearfield’s population was eventually whittled down to 12 residents in 1940. When the last remaining resident passed away in 1973, Dearfield became a ghost town. 


Eighteen years later, historic preservationists stepped in to stabalize Dearfield. After the town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, a partnership between Colorado Preservation, Denver’s Black American West Museum, and the University of Colorado launched an initiative to preserve some of the remaining structures. Funding for the project was granted by the Colorado General Assembly and the State Historical Fund.


Today, people can walk the grounds of Dearfield and visit the original structures, many of which have been stabilized.


Find it: Dearfield Ghost Town, US Hwy 34, Dearfield, CO 80654

August 3, 1933: Castlewood Canyon Dam Break Floods Denver

Castlewood Dam flood waters at Acoma Street in Denver, Colorado (1933)
Torrents of muddy flood waters at Acoma Street (1933) | Denver Public Library Special Collections

The Castlewood Canyon Dam, built 30 miles southeast of Denver in 1890, bursts on August 3rd, 1933. An extended wet spell culminating in localized rainfall of three to nine inches (estimates vary) in a three-hour period was credited with overwhelming the reservoir behind the dam.

 

When the dam broke, a fifteen-foot surge of water was unleashed down Cherry Creek. Six bridges were swept out, countless power lines destroyed, and hundreds of acres of farmland inundated with a battering-ram of water. Peak surge was estimated at a furious 126,000 cubic feet per second.

 

As floodwaters reached Denver, they breached the concrete walls of Cherry Creek and spilled onto Speer Boulevard. Market Street was buried in three feet of water. The floor of Union Station was covered six inches deep, and a log was seen bumping around inside the building.

Flood waters at Speer & Champa after Castlewood Dam break
Flood waters at Speer & Champa after Castlewood Dam break (1933) | Denver Public Library

The Denver Post called it the worst flood since 1864. They reported an estimated one and one-half billion gallons of water passing through Denver, depositing 20,000 tons of silt. Two lives were lost, and property damages topped $1 million, a staggering sum at the time.

 

Following the Castlewood Canyon Dam disaster, Denver began work on a comprehensive flood-control plan for the Cherry Creek drainage. In 1950, the new Cherry Creek Dam was completed. The Castlewood Canyon Dam was decommissioned.

 

Years later, Castlewood Canyon State Park was expanded to include the old Castlewood Dam. Today, people can visit the park to explore the canyon and view the old dam site.

August 25, 1905: President Roosevelt Creates Holy Cross Forest Reserve

Nolan Lake Holy Cross Wilderness in Colorado
Nolan Lake, Holy Cross Wilderness | Image Courtesy CO Mtn Man

President Theodore Roosevelt signs Proclamation 592 to establish the Holy Cross Forest Reserve in 1905, protecting nearly one million forested acres. Two years later, the area became the Holy Cross National Forest, and was then transferred into the White River National Forest in 1945. In 1980, a 120,000 acre portion of the original Holy Cross Forest Reserve was designated a Wilderness Area.


During his presidency, Roosevelt’s conservation efforts within Colorado included establishing six national forests and 15 forest reserves. Future presidents would go on to turn Roosevelt’s forest reserves into national forests. In 1932, the Medicine Bow Forest Reserve, established by Roosevelt, was renamed the Roosevelt National Forest in his honor.


Today, the Holy Cross Wilderness Area is a popular hiking destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Its namesake mountain, Mount of the Holy Cross, a jagged fourteener, is one of the most recommended hikes in the area. Nolan Lake, Beaver Lake, Grouse Lake, and Missouri Lakes also provide scenic hiking opportunities.