Last Sunday, a new monument commemorating the 1910 Caliente flood was unveiled. The stone monument is at the south end of railroad park in Caliente.
It recalls the flood in January that year that washed out 100 miles of railroad track, including taking out an engine and several cars and causing heavy flood damage throughout the Meadow Valley area.
In his book “Through the Rainbow Canyon,” author Walter Averett quoted 17th Century English philosopher Francis Bacon, “Nature, to be commanded, must first be obeyed.”
The original grade of the Southern Pacific Los Angeles to Salt Lake (SPLA&SL) railroad, built just after the turn of the century “was so close to Clover Creek the rails were hardly out of the water in places,” Averett wrote. Washouts were common. A four-day storm had caused numerous washouts in March, 1906. More would happen in 1907 and 1909.
The rails were repaired each time, but nature always seemed to find a way to have the upper hand once again.
Toward the end of 1909, heavy snows had fallen in Lincoln County. Averett notes, “Then a warm rain began, a day or two before New Year’s Day. Major flooding and erosion occurred and by the morning of Jan. 1, 1910, the railroad had lost 100 miles of track, almost an entire freight train and $1 million worth of rip-rap that was to be put in place after the 1907 flood. Besides that, an eastbound passenger train, the Los Angeles Limited, was stranded at Elgin.” Averett says the train would not reach Salt Lake until late May, although passengers were taken back to Las Vegas and rerouted.
Flooding brought down telegraph lines and four feet of water swamped the roundhouse at Caliente. Two bodies were later found below the town, one an unnamed section hand, and the other an unnamed employee at the roundhouse.
The weather had been cold previously, so with the flooding four feet of ice covered the rail lines in places.
Numerous other trains in the county at the time were also stranded. Averett continued, “The major damage began at Barclay, in Clover Creek Canyon and all the way down to Guelph. Meadow Valley Wash and Clover Creek quickly overflowed inundating the town. Bridges were out, several houses were lost, the depot was undermined, not to mention the two known drownings.
Averett writes, “Robert Graham, editor of the Caliente Prospector, risked his life to cross the flood so he could walk to Panaca to send out the news. One of the Wadsworths took the message across the mountains to Modena, and from there telegraphed the news to Salt Lake City.”
The little town of Elgin was practically washed away. Train #81, a westbound freight, was caught in the flood near Boyd, with all the tracks in front and behind completely washed away. “The crew got to safety,” says Averett, “but watched as Engine 3657, and the entire train, except the final five cars and the caboose, was swept away.”
Life in Caliente and other towns along the railroad took months to recover, although a new telegraph line was built in just two weeks, and an overland stage route was established to bring supplies from Modena to Pioche and then distributed in Caliente and elsewhere.
With the backing of State Senator James D. Clark, the railroad was repaired and regular service between Los Angeles and Salt Lake, through Rainbow Canyon and Caliente, resumed May 21.
According to the plaque on the new flood monument, in 1911 additional flooding caused the railroad to rethink its position. The rail line was moved to at least 15 feet above the creek, where it remains today, and able to withstand some of the massive floods that have occurred since or are likely to occur.