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Rapid City Flood nears 50th anniversary

Rapid City Flood nears 50th anniversary

By Joseph Budd

Native Sun News Today Staff Writer

RAPID CITY—You think about everything that has happened in 50 years: cars used to just have seat belts and window vents; stick shifts were normal; phones were land lines anchored to the wall by a cord; and the internet did not exist, you got the newspaper every morning, at the door, you listened to the radio, watched what few channels were on TV, or you talked to your neighbors or friends.

Rapid City, was a growing city, just over half the size it is now, spreading out from the banks of Rapid Creek, a small stream originating high in the Black Hills, but nonetheless the finest water source in Western South Dakota.

There were previous episodes, with flooding on this quiet stream. One dated back, to 1878, when Rapid Creek rose by 10 feet, killing one person. Another case of flash flooding, in August of 1890, destroyed any bridges across the creek at that time, and water was two feet deep on Main Street.

But efforts were made, as the city grew, to adjust to these risks. Canyon Lake, situated up towards the western end of Rapid City, was the primary recreation destination in those days, with long docks jutting deep out across the lake, and the lake itself was noticeably larger and deeper than the present day version. An earthen dam spillway started the creek on its trek into the floodplain, past houses and iron red hillsides overlooking the west side, then into the downtown sector finally passing car dealerships, the fairgrounds, and long forgotten trailer parks, before meandering east of the city into Rapid Valley.

Leading up to the flood, it was a wet week, steady rain saturating the grounds up in the Rimrock Canyon, until additional rains simply increased runoff. The humidity was uncharacteristically stifling. Forecasts predicted heavy afternoon thunderstorms in Rapid City on the afternoon of June 9. 1972, and a towering wall of black clouds rolled in ominously from the west, and from these clouds rain pounded down with such force windshield wipers could not swipe it from windshields. Areas nearby, like Rapid Creek, Spring Creek, and Box Elder Creek, would report various stages of flooding early in the evening. By 7:15, a flash flood warning was issues for the northern Black Hills, then expanded to the central Black Hills. Efforts were made to alert people via the local radio stations or on TV stations, but for long term residents, they’d seen the smaller floods. A few families contemplated going to watch the events happen.

Heavy debris blocked the Canyon Lake spillway. Water levels would rise 14 feet, including 4 feet, in only 15 minutes.

Rapid City’s 29-year-old mayor, Don Barnett, accompanied personnel urging people to evacuate the flood threatened areas. One family, reached at the caretaker’s cabin below the dam, was told to leave their supper at the table and go. The family did…the cabin was never found.

By 10:30pm, a second broadcast was issued for the low lying areas, via radio and TV. Fifteen minutes later, the waters began to spill over the dam.

Canyon Lake Dam was 34 years old, 20 feet high and 500 feet long, holding back a 192 acre-foot reservoir. After the dam gave way it roared along the river course at an estimated 50,000 cubic feet per second, collecting whatever was in front of it, be it a car, garage, house or a person. The torrent ricocheted off large obstacles, hillsides, grain elevators, but unleashed its most terrifying destruction on the North Rapid neighborhood between Omaha Street and the present day civic center.

The water raged around the Bennett Clarkson Hospital, set up near some floral gardens, forcing hospital staff to move patients to the higher floors and work by flashlight. Accounts talk of people crying for help in the dark, of falling and drowning, or being fished from the waters further downstream.


As the town woke up that Saturday, folks were shocked by what they saw. Some parts of the town, due to destroyed bridges and the wall of water, were turned into islands. At the base of North Rapid, where the flood had a chance to spread out, a mud plain of destruction was left in the wake, shattered houses, crumpled cars, even an El Camino dangling from a tree limb.

The flood caused $160 million in damages (1.2 billion in today’s dollars), 238 people lost their lives. About 5000 autos and 1335 homes were destroyed and 2500 homes were significantly damaged, The city created a 754 acre flood zone, now known as the greenway. This belt of parks and recreational land, can be traced from the rebuilt Canyon Lake, far to the east, to the Fairgrounds on Cambell Street.

A large number of Native Americans lived in the neighborhood north of Omaha Street, a neighborhood totally destroyed, displacing thousands of persons.

The recovery, was a slow process, dealing with cleanup, body recovery, working through the missing lists. At the height, the city’s missing list, was over 2000 people. Ultimately, 235 people were confirmed dead in the flood, three bodies were never located. The city auditorium, located where the Dahl Fine Arts Center is now, was given a short term extension on its life, first as a makeshift shelter, then as a distribution station for supplies and immunizations.

Donations would pour in from all over the country, and a hangar at Ellsworth AFB would help hold the donations. Bridges would be built, temporary ones until more permanent structures could be assembled. It took time to rebuild, but it would happen. A week after the flood, another storm would come through, dumping a good deal of rain. By some estimates, it was a frightening repeat. However, due to the existing damage, the loss of the dam and the channels had been already cleared of houses, the damage was minimal.

Canyon Lake was redesigned in 1976. Although smaller in size, and containing a central island, it was deepened to hold more water, although the signature fishing docks were never rebuilt. Rapid City hasn’t seen a major flood with significant damage since.



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