Filmmaker Justin Bregar Discusses Documentary About Flood Of 1921 In Pueblo

June marks 100 years since Pueblo endured its most historic and devastating natural disaster: the flood of 1921.

Video Transcript

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: June marks 100 years since the city of Pueblo endured its most historic and devastating natural disaster, the flood of 1921. The Arkansas River flooded, sending rushing water, said to be more than a mile wide and 15 feet deep in some areas, across town. It destroyed most of the downtown area and took many lives.

So to remember that historic event, the city of Pueblo is holding a 100-year anniversary event. And joining me now is Justin Bregar, a filmmaker who has worked on capturing the history of this and the recovery of Pueblo over the years. So, Justin, tell us a little bit about just how devastating this flood was to Pueblo.

JUSTIN BREGAR: Well, it hit at a time that Pueblo was kind of the industrial center of Colorado. And where it hit, the downtown area was kind of the center of railroad traffic. At the time, all railroad traffic that went west of Colorado went through Pueblo. So the Moffat Tunnel didn't exist, so you couldn't really go west of-- west straight from Denver, so you had to come down through Pueblo.

So it was actually-- and, you know, it hit the town. Flooding on the Arkansas River is a very violent thing. There's a lot of flow, and it knocked the buildings down. It knocked railroad cars off of their tracks.

And it also-- there were a couple of lumber yards downtown, so it also lit the lumber-- some of the building materials actually reacted with the water and lit the lumber on fire, which then floated down the main streets and lit buildings on fire.

And it just-- that night had to have just been, you know, kind of a nightmare scenario with, you know, there's no power. There's no light. It's storming. There's these floating barges of fire kind of going through the downtown area.

But it essentially shut down the city of Pueblo, locked that area of the city off from even relief efforts around it because it washed the bridges out. And so it was a pretty massive, pretty devastating event.

The death toll is pretty hotly debated. They didn't keep real good records of that at that point. And so estimates range from the low hundreds to thousands, and it's really hard to kind of nail that down at that point.

But economically, you know, it really hit the railroads hard. It really hit the business district that was down in that area at the time pretty hard.

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: Yeah. We were looking at some of those pictures from the past, and it's just incredible to see the damage.

You've been working on capturing how Pueblo has kind of bounced back and redeveloped over the years. Tell us what you've seen.

JUSTIN BREGAR: Well, I was born here, so I've-- I haven't lived here my entire life. I spent some of my time up in Denver and other parts of the state.

But the first thing they did in the immediate aftermath of the flood was they decided they didn't want this to ever happen again, so they moved the river and built the levees to kind of hold it up against the bluff and move it out of coming-- going right through downtown.

So in the place of the river, the city did some urban renewal and a redevelopment and built the Pueblo Riverwalk, which is a beautiful, beautiful river walk kind of modeled on the one in San Antonio, and it's a big draw down here.

But, you know, in terms of recovery, it's hard to tell. It would be very interesting to kind of be able to do a-- to know what it would have been like if it had never happened because the Pueblo flood, you know, we think of it as a Pueblo thing, but it's really a state of Colorado thing because of the railroad and the way that worked.

The Moffat Tunnel may never have been built or may have been built much, much later had the flood not happened because part of the deal in getting the recovery effort kicked off in the conservancy district was that the Pueblo legislators, which were pretty-- you know, at the time it was the second-largest city in the state, so there was a lot of power there. They basically agreed to vote for the Moffat Tunnel bond issue.

And Pueblo-- the developments of the Front Range would have probably been very different had all railroad traffic-- you know, had you never had that big blank area of, you know, the time that you couldn't travel by rail through Pueblo. So that kind of kneecapped the city a little bit at a time when things were-- it was a bad time for that to happen because then you had the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and it was a pretty lousy couple decades for the entire world but definitely the city of Pueblo.

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: Yeah, it's interesting to think about all of that. I know you've been working on a documentary about this. Have you talked to families who were impacted by this and kind of their lineage and what they have to say about it?

JUSTIN BREGAR: Yeah. I mean, there's obviously not really anybody alive anymore that actually lived through it. And even if they were, they would have been very, very young because this is the 100th anniversary.

But we do have-- in the documentary, we have one gentleman whose father actually was sent down to bring his grandfather up from where he lived, which is in the path of the flood, and that didn't happen. He wouldn't leave-- his grandfather wouldn't leave the-- wouldn't leave the home. So he's basically the grandson of a flood victim.

But yeah, it's pretty difficult, at this point, to find-- you can find, you know, two, three generations back, but it's pretty difficult to find even those-- even the grandchild-- you know, even the children of the victims of the flood are relatively-- you know, they're definitely getting up there in age.

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: Yeah, absolutely. One last question for you. When people visit Pueblo, what should they look at or notice to see the impact of that flood in modern day?

JUSTIN BREGAR: Well, I mean, you can definitely see the-- where the river is. And the river, that's not its natural path. The river actually-- you should visit two things if you want to kind of know the topology of the flood-- the river walk, which you should visit anyway if you come down here. But the river walk is the original path of the river. So that's where it originally was.

And then you can kind of walk down Union Avenue. You know, it's walkable. You can walk down Union Avenue to where it goes over where the river is now, the Arkansas River. And you can see the levees that were built and the recovery effort, and that kind of-- that'll give you-- essentially walking between those two areas, you've walked the majority of-- that's the kind of cutting across where the flood-- where the flood was.

And then, you know, after you watch the documentary and you look at the pictures-- you can see pictures of the Nuckolls meatpacking plant, for example. It's still there. It's being redeveloped into a multiuse facility, and you can kind of see where that is.

And there are areas of the town that never recovered and just didn't-- they're not really residential areas anymore because they-- at one time they were. But the Grove is an area down here that was impacted very, very heavily by the flood, and that's kind of right around the Nuckolls meatpacking plant.

So it's kind of that-- and if you're interested in kind of why Pueblo is where it is, you can also visit the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River, which is-- that's why Pueblo has always had kind of a problem with flooding. But for the most part, the big barrier dam out of Lake Pueblo and Lake Pueblo would stop something of that magnitude at this point.

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Justin, for all this important insight. It's just fascinating to learn more about this. We appreciate it.

JUSTIN BREGAR: Absolutely.

MAKENZIE O'KEEFE: And we'll have more details on the flood and the 100-year anniversary on our website, cbsdenver.com.