Saturday, July 13, 2013

When Lyman Dam Broke!

An old grainy copy of a photo of the construction of Lyman dam.  It isn't labeled with a date so not sure which construction - but guessing from other photos I have seen of the '2nd' or reconstruction of the dam - I would say this is from the first time.

I know I have come across photos of a flooded St. Johns after the dam break - but can't recall where - when I find them again I will add some.  But I DID come across a wonderful typewritten copy of former St. Johns pioneer resident Elda  W. Brown telling her memory of the night it went out.  I included an excerpt below:

In April of 1915, now that’s a long time ago, I was a teenager, a junior in high school.  We had a dance one night as school was closing.  It was such a fun dance.  Everyone was happy and had a good time.  We’d gone home and been asleep an hour or so when we heard someone screaming, “Get up quick the dam’s gone out!”

We were more scared [than] ten years before in 1905, another dam had gone out, a much smaller one.  The Salado Dam a few miles below this one.  This dam was much bigger than the Salado and we didn’t know how much of the town would be covered with water or washed away.

I’ll never forget the terrible roar that water made as it rushed nearer and nearer to town.  It was so dark!  We had no electricity or street lights.  All that could be seen was a lantern bobbing as people rushed here and there to see that everyone was warned and safe.

Jennie Palmer, a school teacher, lived just below the dam near the little old adobe school house that still stands on the hill.  She had come down to the dance and left her three children with her friend, Mrs. Ray, who also had three children.  Jennie had asked the engineers and others if it was safe to live there.  They assured her that it was safe, the Dam couldn’t go out!!!  When Mrs. Palmer got back up there, her three children and her home were gone.  Mrs. Ray and two of her children were also drowned.  Dewey Ray, a little older, had been able to hang onto a big tree until morning when he was rescued.

Mrs. Saavedra and her tiny baby were also drowned.  They lived a little further down north.  Her husband had left that day to find work.

The horror of that night as everyone watched helplessly as the water roared past!

The houses near the river were all flooded.  Two large lumber houses on the east side of the river, by the bridge, were picked up and torn to bits by the swirling torrent.  Cows, sheep, chickens and all kinds of animals were drowned.  Men who had horses near were able to ride below the town and save most of the cattle and horses in the fields, when day light came the water was still rushing by.

I remember so well how quiet, sad and helpless people were the next day and for many, many days after.  The men were helping to find the bodies of those who had drowned.  Mrs.  Saavedra had been carried many miles from her home.  Her baby was only one half mile away…

The others were found along the way.  The body of little Louise Palmer, five years old, was never found.  Men hunted up and down the river for many weeks.  Louise’s parents hunted for a long time after, always hoping.  

The funeral was such a sad one.  The Palmer’s only three children gone.  I always thought that they could have taken their loss easier if the body of Louise could have been found.  The Rays hadn’t been around long.  Theirs was such a sad funeral, the mother and her two beautiful little daughters in caskets.  Some of Dewey’s family came to be with him and took him with them.

The farmers had the hardest time, some few moved away but most stayed and worked harder.  My husband, Albert, said his father with his five sons hauled 317 wagon loads of trash off their alfalfa field in the big field below town.  All of the fences were swept away and to be rebuilt.

The top of the dam was still standing for some days like an arch over that big hole.  The force and pressure of the water had pushed out the bottom of the dam where there was quicksand.

The state helped to rebuild the Lyman Dam as it is now.  It stands after all these years and the people have prospered.
The night the dam went out there was a young boy, Fred Schuster, who had recently come from Germany.  He was staying at the Barth Hotel upstairs.  He had washed his feet in a tin tub the night before and left the water by his bed, when he heard the screaming to get out quick or be drowned, he stepped in the tub and said,  “Oh ---- it’s too late, I’m gone…”

Read this article in its entirety at Arizona Digital Newspaper Program

I also came across a couple of  old Territorial School Registers - this one is from 1911 and the teacher is none other than the above mentioned Jennie Palmer.

Palmer Children Headstone at St. Johns Westside Cemetery - from

Some additional information that I came across on August 31st at the Museum:

 A photograph of Mrs. Ray and her children along with the following "Caption":

"Mrs. Reese (Wilden) Ray and her children, LIly (4), Ethel (6), Hazel (9) and Dewey (17).

Mrs. Ray and family came to St. Johns early in the year 1915.  Her husband had died the year before and leaving two older girls, Olga and Olive, in Colorado, she traveled here for Dewey's health.

  They were at a friend's house below the dam when the dam gave way.  The two younger girls Lily and Ethel, were carried to safety by Mrs. Ray.  She returned to the flood waters for Hazel whom she had left behind.  Dewey accompanied her, having already escaped the waters once.  And the three (Mrs. Ray, Dewey and Hazel) were all drowned.

 The two younger girls and Olga are presently living in California.  Olive Ray Bryant died January 7, 1977 in Ft. Pierce, Florida where she is buried beside her husband Barney Beers Bryant." Caption submitted by:  B. B. Bryant (grandson); Corpus Christie, Texas

Ray Headstone at St. Johns Westside Cemetery - from

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is so poignant. I'm researching this because it is the anniversary (the one-hundredth anniversary) of this horrible event. Thanks for posting