Town, visitors come together to prepare for possible floods
Photo by: 
Kate Gienapp

The remote town of Lake City, tucked away into the steep San Juans south of Gunnison, holds a history that spans about 150 years. Part of that longevity can be credited to a spirit of collaboration that began shortly after the Civil War — in order to survive the harsh winter conditions of the remote town, veteran soldiers on both sides had to work together in spite of their differences.

It turns out that some things never change. While winter still poses challenges to local residents, the idea of working side-by-side hasn't waned. It’s a good thing too — given the recent historic winter in Colorado.

“This is 2008 on steroids,” said Rob Nelon, who grew up in Lake City before making the move to Crested Butte.

On May 6, Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in Hinsdale County in response to significant debris in the high country following a historic avalanche episode in March. Similar emergency declarations ratified by leaders in Hinsdale County  and Lake City (the county seat) on May 7 and 8, respectively.

Nelon was among hundreds of volunteers who stepped up to take a stand against the imminent flood danger by filling thousands of sandbags over the course of the last week.

“We have to be prepared because this is going to happen layer by layer,” said Nelon of the snowpack turning to water. “It’s like a melting cake.”


‘This town needs us’

After more than 700 man hours in the span of six days, the goal of 15,000 sandbags was reached in record time, according to Nicolle Rosecrans, a coordinator from Voluntary Organizations Active In Disaster (VOAD). The original goal involved filling 15,000 sandbags over the course of 15 days.

Students from Gunnison High School (GHS) are partially to thank for making quick work of the process. This past Friday, students exceeded the 1,000 sandbags a day by threefold, beating out even local law enforcement officers.

“As it stands now, next time I’m in trouble I’m gonna call Gunnison High School,” said VOAD spokesperson Michael Davis.

Still, Davis added that as of press time there was no immediate threat. He welcomed tourists to visit the small town.

“These folks are dependent on tourism for their economy and there currently is no critical threat,” he said. “People should feel comfortable coming here to stay in the hotels, eat at the restaurants, shop and hike.”

According to Davis, the high run-off period is expected to occur between June 6 and June 10, but with colder weather in recent weeks, run-off could be at its peak later, around June 18.

Don DeLoach, a second homeowner from Colorado Springs, was also on call to offer a helping hand throughout the process of filling sandbags.

“This town needs us, they don't have enough people to do this sort of stuff,” said DeLoach, who has lived part-time in Lake City for the past four years.

Despite the mounting concerns of flooding throughout the town, for the majority of residents, it’s business as usual, he said.

The sandbags will be placed around important infrastructure around the town such as the Hinsdale County Courthouse and the Hinsdale County Museum. Protecting the town’s irreplaceable history has become a top priority as the snow melts.


Preservation unprecedented

However, some of the town’s history has already been swept away in avalanches. Just last week, the Rose Lime Kiln up Henson Creek, dating back to 1881, was destroyed in a slide following the acquisition of the historic site for $29,000.

While it wasn't in the cards to keep the kiln safe from the surrounding snow, major efforts are underway to preserve the artifacts of the Hinsdale County Museum.

“This is unprecedented,” said Grant Houston, editor and publisher of the Lake City Silver World and president of the Hinsdale County Historical Society. “We started this museum more than 45 years ago and we’ve never had to move things out.”

As he spoke, volunteers raced against the clock to salvage historical relics of a time long gone — court records, diaries, photographs and even fire trucks. One such item that was carefully packed away was a large doll house built by the infamous cannibal Alferd Packer — a creation he made while serving out a life sentence.

“You’re not going to find that at the five and dime, are you?” asked Houston.

The sentiment of saving precious records and artifacts wasn't lost on Bonnie Pitblado, professor in anthropological archaeology at the University of Oklahoma. Pitblado had made her way to Lake City in recent weeks as a part of her university class through which students will perform small-scale excavations and surveys right outside of town.

However, the near month-long field trip quickly changed course upon arriving in Lake City, where the sandbagging efforts and flood warnings were hard to miss.

“Honestly, this was not on my radar when I made our plans,” said Pitblado. “But we realized very quickly what we needed to do.”


‘Beauty of a small town’

Pitblado and her team of students got to work, not only filling sandbags but heading the efforts at the Hinsdale County Museum.

“I tell you, this is the beauty of a small town,” added Gunnison resident Loline Sammons as she observed everyone shuffling artifacts from one place to another in the museum.

Sammons, among other volunteers, worked to not only move all the items within the museum but to catalog them as well. Nothing went out the door without entry in the database, she added.

For Pitblado and her students, the serendipitous segue from archeological digs into the more recent history of Lake City felt like fate.

“Whether the floods come or they don’t, the collection is going to be better for this,” said Pitblado.

Part of the collection has been moved to storage containers located on higher ground in the county, while more sensitive materials requiring climate control will be sent to the City of Gunnison.

Western graduate and geoarchaeologist Chris Merriman, who also happened to be working with Pitblado outside of town, never questioned chipping in.

“I asked, ‘Would you rather be in the field?’” said Pitblado. To which Merriman quickly responded, “I’d rather save Lake City.”


(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or



> The Lime Rose Kiln, dating back to 1881 has stood the test of time until just this spring when it was destroyed in an avalanche. The destruction to the site comes after the untimely purchase of the chimney and four mining claims totaling 30 acres for $29,000 from the Hinsdale County Museum which closed the deal earlier this March.

> Following the thousands of cubic feet of debris deposited in Henson Creek from avalanches above, local leaders determined the material in combination with spring run-off will likely destroy the Hidden Treasure Dam, dating back to the 1890s. It was decided the best course of action was to remove the dam in a controlled manner to avoid a catastrophic flood surge of debris that could further impact Lake City downstream.