The South Platte River starts high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and flows through the heart of Denver on its way to the Great Plains. It went from being a polluted, noxious cesspool to some of the most sought-after real estate in the city. For decades, the river was so ignored that many didn’t know—or even care—that the South Platte ran right through the metro area. All it took was a flood of biblical proportions to get their attention.
Jamie: It’s a warm summer afternoon in Denver and people are beating the heat by heading down to the South Platte River. It’s the waterway that bisects the city on its journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains.
Frani: Today is the fourth annual South Platte RiverFest and activities range from kayaking the rapids, to standup paddleboarding, to just wading into the river’s shallow sandy bottom to cool off. Nothing says summer fun like being by the water on such a hot day.
Jamie: Maybe this June, but not the one back in 1965.
Frani: Probably few playing in the river today would know that just over 50 years ago, this place was the scene of epic devastation. In 1965, a monster storm turned the normally placid South Platte River into a killing machine.
Jamie: The metro area received 14 inches of rain in just three hoursand that sent a 20-foot wall of water carrying propane tanks, cars, tires, telephone poles, livestock, entire mobile homesjust about anything it could scoop up in its path to carve destruction and chaos.
Roger Dudley: If it was in the way, it went down. There was just no stopping it.
Frani: That’s Roger Dudley. He was 18 at the time of the flood and had just graduated from Denver’s West High School.
Roger: That night I remember getting up on top of my house. We could hear the announcements as they drove around making warnings to people in the flood zone down below our house. I got up on top of the roof to look around better and I saw huge sections of Denver going black.
Jamie: That’s because power plants were situated right along the river.
Roger: All three Denver metropolitan power plants were inundated with water, so they shut off the power to save the plants. We didn't lose power at our house. Others areas did and were out for several days.
Frani: When the skies finally did clear, 21 people were dead, 1700 buildings damaged or destroyed, 16 bridges gone, and many streets impassable. Over time the river slowly retreated to it banksand to being invisible.
Jamie: That’s because before the flood, the South Platte was a cesspool lined by factories and junkyards. It was ignored, neglected, and abused.
Frani: It’s almost as if in June of 1965, the river said, enough is enough, and let loose a fury no one could have imagined.
Jamie: But it didn’t only upend structuresit rearranged how Denver city officials thought about the Platte. One politician in particular was very moved by the disaster. Enter Joe Shoemaker.
Jeff Shoemaker: My dad was in the state senate at the time.
Frani: That’s Jeff Shoemaker, Joe’s son.
Jeff: The quick history is that he was manager of public works for Denver in the late '50s and early '60s. And like managers before him if you had something you didn’t know what to do with you brought it down to the banks of the river and threw it in because the river was already dead, polluted and rotten, so what’s one more load of concrete or one more ton of dirt?
Frani: In fact, the river was so ignored many didn’t even knowor even carethat the South Platte ran through the city.
Jeff: I come from Iowa farm stock and we were back in northwest Iowa on the farm. My father as a state senator got a call from the governor’s office saying as a Denver legislator you need to get back here. And my dad came out and said, "The river's flooded and I've got to get on a plane and get home." My quote to my dad was, “What river?"
Jamie: Back in those days, only poor people had houses near the Platte.
Jeff: Who else who had money would live near a polluted stream of poo? The point is, in 50 years it is a complete 180-degree change.
Frani: That started with his dad. As a state senator he led several initiatives, the first of which was to find the funding to build Chatfield Dam as a bulwark against future floods.
Jeff: In 1969 my father carried the legislation that created the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, and its focus is to make sure that the river is safe and is able to carry water as safely as it can.
Frani: But even as the South Platte was on its way to being tamed, it was still was ecologically dead. It was said that you could hear the flow, but not see the water through all of the trash. More than just containing the river was needed.
Jeff: In 1974 he met the mayor at the time, Bill McNicols—and together a Democratic mayor and Republican senator co-formed the precursor of the Greenway Foundation called the Platte River Development Committee. Nine volunteers with no authority of any kind, got some seed money and said, “Let’s go start to save a river.”
Jamie: The very first project they built was Confluence Park, which is where we’re standing now. It’s the site of the birthplace of the city of Denver and...
Jeff: ...Forty-two years ago the single most polluted place on the river because it was the combination of Cherry Creek and the South Platte.
Frani: The Greenway Foundation, now under Jeff’s leadership has helped to construct numerous trails, parks, and ecosystem restoration projects that have vastly improved the health of the South Platte River.
Jeff: All you have to do and look around this town and see where the biggest buzz is and it’s all up and down the river. My dad was quoted back in the mid-'70s as saying some day the best place to live, work, and play will be along the South Platte River in Denver, and he was dismissed as a lunatic.
Jamie: By the looks of all the people playing in the river today, Joe Shoemaker's crazy notion is a dream coming true.
Jeff: Is the river healthier today? Significantly so. Are there fish in the river? Yes. Are there trout in the river? To a limited basis, yes. Is it healthier for birds and mammals? Yes. Is the river clean enough? No. Not close to being clean enough. Can it be better? Yes...
Frani: And for that reason, Jeff and the Greenway Foundation are hard at work helping to improve water quality and also by promoting events like the one today that reconnect Denver residents to the river that gave the city its start.
Jeff: I’m asked all the time when we’ll be done. Jeff, you've been at this 35 years, your foundation for 42. We’re asked that all the time and we just laugh. There’s no done. There’s no done at the zoo. There’s no done at the art museum. There’s no done at the library. There’s no done at the symphony. There’s no done. What was polluted for hundreds of years is just finally getting back to where it can be and it should be.
My point is, it takes a lot longer to clean up a river than it does to destroy a river. Wouldn't it be great some day for there not to be a need for a Greenway Foundation. That day ain't gonna happen in my lifetime and probably never will, but we just go after it every day, man.💧
This is the first segment in our series on the South Platte River. Listen to all the stories:
"Confluence: Can River Safety and Recreation Mix?" (October 2016)