Like many frontier towns, both Denver and Globeville started near a river, the usually sleepy, muddy Platte. The Arapaho and Cheyenne respected the river, gypsies camped along its banks, but white settlers mainly used the stream to dispose of refuse and paid little attention to what went on there over the years.
As Denver and Globeville grew, so did their abuse of the Platte. Animal carcasses from meat packing plants, refuse from factories, railroads and the city of Denver found their way into the river. Power stations, chemical plants, oil storage tanks, landfills, weeds, car bodies, tires and hobo camps lined the river's banks as it meandered through Denver. Storm drains poured road salt and raw sewage into the Platte. No one seemed to notice. Over the years, the river gained attention only when it overflowed after cloudbursts or record amounts of snow melt. There were periodic attempts to remedy the problem in Globeville, including a WPA project during the 1930s that redirected parts of the river and installed riprap along the banks. But the neighborhood, like much of Denver, wouldn't pay much attention to the river until June, 1965.
The spring of 1965 must have seemed like the end of the world along Colorado's front range, with small earthquakes, cool temperatures, rain, hail and tornadoes. Streams were running high with heavy spring snow melt. On Wednesday afternoon, June 16, a cloudburst dumped record moisture over an area south of Denver, turning normally quiet creeks into powerful rivers that joined the swollen South Platte near Littleton to become a half-mile-wide rampaging flood.
By early 7:00 pm, mud, cars, trailers, dead animals, parts of houses, uprooted trees, propane tanks and boxcars slammed against bridges in Denver, propane tanks exploded, power outages darkened much of the city, and radio and television stations periodically went off the air. 1.
The rail yards near Globeville, the Slovenian Gardens, the Polish Hall, Holy Rosary Church and the meat packing plants all sustained flood damage. When the power went off, the city’s north side sewage treatment plant near East 52nd and Franklin shut down and raw sewage spilled into the river and backed up through floor drains the in neighborhood. Holy Transfiguration, as well as St. Joseph's Polish Church lost records and many homes and businesses suffered damage.
The Colorado National Guard was mobilized Wednesday evening, June 16, and remained in the damaged areas all summer, while neighbors helped each other put things back in order. Denver and Globeville would be forever changed by the 1965 flood, but it would take almost a decade for any meaningful change to take place. One of Globeville's citizens would play an important part in the change.
John Zapien remembers, "This river trail, the whole thing came about under the administration of Mayor Bill McNichols, who appointed his Republican rival, Joe Shoemaker, to form a committee to decide how to use $1.9 million in federal revenue-sharing money." The Platte River Development Committee [PRDC] included Dana Crawford, Hiawatha Davis, Jr., Daniel Trujillo and John Zapien.
"So we formed this committee and we got busy and our biggest adversary was the city! They washed out their concrete trucks in the river and they wanted to put an asphalt plant right where that little park is by the McDonald's.
"We identified 240 places that were polluting and got all but 40 of them to agree to change. Do you remember the old dynamite plant, the Hercules Powder Company, that used to be where the Pepsi plant is now? They had these elevated stands and balls of black powder with little tin roofs over them! That's the kind of challenge we had."
The first successful projects were Confluence Park and Globeville Landing, with a multi-use trail connecting the two sites. More parks and trails were completed and hundreds of sources of pollution were identified and eliminated. Over the past 40 years, the committee has evolved into the 501(c)3 Greenway Foundation, responsible for over 100 miles of hiking and biking trails, 20 parks and natural areas and has improved the quality of the South Platte River. 2.
Zapien sums it up, "That's the best thing we ever did."
1. Deluge of Century Unloads Fury Upon Foothills, Plains. Denver Post, June 20, 1965
2. The Greenway Foundation
Globeville Landing Park