50 years later, memories of a murderous and destructive night remain vivid – The South Dakota Standard
Fifty years ago last week, I was in Rapid City with my parents, attending the South Dakota Title Association convention at the old orange-roofed Howard Johnson Hotel on Interstate 90.
I had just finished my second year at Washington High and was 15 years old. We had arrived in Rapid City after returning from a driving vacation on the West Coast where we had visited my sister, Nancy, who lived in Berkeley.
On the way back to South Dakota, we spent the night in Salt Lake City, then arrived in Rapid City the next day, Wednesday, June 7, 1972. We had been on the road for 19 days. On Thursday, June 8, I went to the Carlsen Ranch, where my father grew up, to see my Uncle Hank.
On Friday, June 9, I spent the day with another aunt and uncle, Ralph and Jeri, at their home in Rapid City. They lived about a quarter mile down Rapid Creek from Canyon Lake, which was a beautiful lake and park in Rapid City, at the base of Rapid Creek Road, which took you into the Black Hills.
Their home was west facing the town’s nine-hole golf course, so they had a beautifully manicured park across the street. It was a very nice three bedroom house with a basement apartment. Because there was a basement apartment, it sat very high on its poured concrete foundation, and the front and back porches were about four feet above the level of the yard and driveway.
This is an important fact.
Had a fun day with Ralph and Jeri. The Carlsen family was going to meet for a family reunion at their house the next day, Saturday, June 10, so I helped them get ready for the reunion. We had lunch then set up a tent and tables in the garden, shopped in Baken Park and I did a few other errands for them.
As we finished the day, they said, “Why don’t you stay with us tonight?” We are ready for the reunion, and we could have dinner and go to the movies. I told them my dad said he wanted to go swimming with me that night after his meetings and before the closing banquet, so I thanked them and told them I would see them tomorrow. I’m so glad I didn’t accept their offer to stay the night.
I returned to the Howard Johnson Hotel about the time my dad finished his meeting. We went to the pool, which was half indoors and half outdoors. We swam a few lengths, talked about the convention, and talked about my trips to the ranch and seeing Ralph and Jeri.
As we swam the clouds above became very ominous. They literally gave off a green glow as it was late in the day and the sun behind the clouds gave it an eerie glow. It started to drizzle then moved quickly to rain quite heavily.
I will never forget my father who said, “I have never seen a sky like this.” Now my dad was 50, a pilot, and raised on a ranch. He’d seen a lot of bad weather, and I thought, ‘Maybe we’re going to have a long night.
I did not know.
We went back to our hotel room and my mom had gotten ready while we were swimming, so my dad quickly got ready and they went to the banquet. After they left, I called Ralph and Jeri. They said they were fine. They had taken down the tent and pulled some tables into the garage. I asked them to let me know and I’ll see them tomorrow. At that time, the rain was falling very hard.
I watched the weather reports on TV, and they said there was heavy rain in the Black Hills and watch out for flooding. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be any flooding issues in the Black Hills due to overnight rain. I called Ralph and Jeri back, and they confirmed they were fine. I asked them if they wanted to come to the hotel, but they said they would stay.
The rain fell intensely in the upper Black Hills and quickly filled Rapid Creek, Boxelder Creek, Spring Creek, and Battle Creek, all of which led to Rapid City or nearby areas. Between late afternoon and midnight, 15 inches of rain fell over a period of approximately seven hours. As it was raining, Don Barnett, Mayor of Rapid City warned residents of flooding and to stay home or move to higher ground.
An interesting note: the weather sirens never went off that night in Rapid City. Some of my aunt’s and uncle’s neighbors left their homes, but no one stopped and urged them to leave.
Around 10:45 p.m., the dam at Canyon Lake, a quarter mile upstream from their home, gave way, sending a wall of water downstream. The houses north and south of my aunt and uncle’s house were swept away from their foundations. Their houses were filled with water.
Some people survived by clinging to their roofs. Others were taken away. As I mentioned earlier, my aunt and uncle’s house sat high on its foundation and was four feet from their driveway. In addition, it rested on a poured foundation rather than a concrete block foundation. I’m not sure the house would have survived on a block foundation.
The water came a few inches above their back door. Their basement filled with water and mud. Their garage and vehicles were swept away. Other vehicles on the street behind them ended up in their backyard. They both stayed at their back door, which was closest to Canyon Lake, keeping it closed.
The vehicles in the backyard offered them some protection from the torrent of water, and their high foundation saved them as they held the back door firmly for hours. If the water had risen another 1 or 2 feet, they might not have survived. My aunt and uncle were 60 years old and they were exhausted.
We have heard reports of severe flooding. We heard that the dam at Canyon Lake had failed. My aunt and uncle’s phone didn’t work. We left around 8am and tried to drive to their house. We couldn’t reach it the normal way down Jackson Boulevard, as those streets were either still flooded or filled with debris from the flood destruction.
I suggested we drive to higher ground and try to come to their house from the south. Maybe we could get close enough to walk. We went up to higher ground and could see their house, so we took an open road south until we got to the golf course. Cars and trucks were driving on the golf course, so we started driving through the rain-soaked golf course.
Halfway through the course we saw a van driving towards us and it stopped. A cousin who lived near them had joined Ralph and Jeri in his pickup, and they stopped when they saw us coming. My aunt and uncle were exhausted and in tears. We started crying tears of joy that they survived. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.
We stayed the rest of the day and examined the damage to their home, helped them find accommodation and made a plan to come back the following week to help clean up. We left on Sunday June 11, as my father needed to return to his office for a few days. We returned on Thursday June 15 and stayed for five days. We stayed at Howard Johnson’s again because we had reservations before we left. My cousin, Ken, came to Rapid City from Fairfax the same day as us.
There were also other friends and relatives who helped my aunt and uncle. Everyone who worked in cleanup and search and rescue had to get their shots at the public health office, which we did on the first day. Despite our vaccinations, my father caught hepatitis about 45 days later and was hospitalized for a few days. I remember it turned very yellowish. He was very ill.
My aunt and uncle were able to clean and restore their house. They continued to live there for another year before being evicted by the city, so it could expand its nine-hole golf course to an 18-hole golf course. They loved their home and were very sad when the city chased them away.
While my aunt and uncle were grateful to be alive and to have survived, 238 people lost their lives that night. There were many poorer people and Native Americans who were disproportionately affected by the flood in terms of loss of life and property in trailer parks and dwellings built in the most dangerous part of the plain. floodable.
About 25% of those who lost their lives were American by birth even though they were only 7% of the population. As is often the case, the poorest people live in floodplains across the country and are often disproportionately affected by floods.
The Rapid City flood left an indelible impression on me of the deep sadness of so many who lost loved ones, of respect for the many people who came to Rapid City to help its citizens clean up and begin to rebuild, to see South Dakota National Rangers work for months to help clean up the city (as shown above in a photo of the United States Geological Survey)and the eternal impact the Flood had on survivors and witnesses, like me.
Needless to say, I will never forget our memorable 1972 trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles that culminated in the tragic Rapid City flood.
Chris Carlsen has lived most of his life in South Dakota. He has family roots in West River, South Dakota, with his father growing up on a ranch between Castle Rock and Haystack Butte north of Newell. Chris grew up and continues to reside in Sioux Falls.