History in Focus: Bridges over the troubled Yampa
After a winter of bountiful snowfall, the annual spring run-off is quickly turning the Yampa River into a muddy torrent. As reservoirs fill, relief from the drought looks promising, and the anticipation of a glorious summer of rafting, fishing, and tubing is on the horizon.
In 1917, a similar massive spring run-off was no cause for joy. Instead, it caused destruction, economic distress, a tragic death, and eventually led to a man-made change in the course of the river.
In April and May 1917, late snowstorms blanketed the region. Temperatures quickly spiked and kicked off rapid melting all the way into the high country causing the Yampa to break over her banks and flood sections of the valley. The Craig Empire and Routt County Republican reported dams bursting, roads and culverts washed out, and flooding in Oak Creek and Mount Harris.
At the time, the river’s natural course just south of Craig made a large southward bend resembling the shape of a horseshoe. The only bridge serving the Craig area was situated near today’s entrance to Loudy-Simpson Park and right in the middle of this horseshoe bend. It connected Craig to Hamilton and was the vital link to the Axial Basin oil fields.
For years spring run-off would slow down through the horseshoe bend and debris would lodge against the bridge. On May 14, disaster struck when a large tree crashed into and swept away the central span of the bridge. As a stop-gap measure, a cable was strung across the river to establish a temporary ferry crossing.
Not only did the blown out bridge slow the economy, it also brought tragedy. Jacob Meng, a young homesteader from Goodland, Kansas, received news his father had just arrived in Craig for a visit. Eager to see his father, the strong-willed 26-year old waited impatiently on the south bank for the ferry to carry him across to meet his father waiting on the north bank.
For some odd reason and against shouted warnings from his dad, Jacob grabbed the cable and started swinging himself hand-over-hand over the Yampa. The Craig Empire reported Meng nearly completed the crazy feat, shouted “Hello, Dad!” but then tired, slowed, and to the horror of all watching, lost his grip, plunging into the ice-cold, raging, and muddy Yampa.
According to the May 30 Craig Empire, Jacob fought to remain on top of the fierce current. After 250 yards, he disappeared under the surface. For days, Jacob’s heartbroken father resolutely patrolled the banks searching for the body of his beloved son.
Six months later in November, Meng’s badly decomposed body was discovered 16 miles downstream near Fuhr Gulch by rancher C.C. Cottrell.
“While most of the flesh on his face was eaten away, presumably by birds, there is not the slightest doubt to his identity” stated the Craig Empire.
By late June, the bridge was repaired and served capably for several years. In August of 1924 a Craig Empire editorial urged all citizens to tell the visiting Governor William Sweet a new bridge was necessary. Eschewing politics between “pussyfooted” Republican County Commissioners and a Democrat administration, the editorial argued, “This is not a political question. It can not be made political.”
Finally, it screamed: “TELL GOVERNOR SWEET WE WANT OUR BRIDGE! NOW!!”
Finally, politics, state engineers, county commissioners, and $100,000.00 in state funding all came together in 1925. The new bridge was constructed over dry ground at the location of today’s Ranney Street Bridge, a new channel cut underneath, lined with rip rap, and the Yampa was routed into its current path. The big looping horseshoe bend slowly filled in, the road grade raised, and the Loudy-Simpson ponds were created. The new bridge opened in late 1926.
In 1982, the current Ranney Street Bridge was constructed and is currently undergoing maintenance and resurfacing. Today the Yampa is viewed as a place to recreate and an economic driver for our burgeoning tourism industry, but 100 years ago the river was a wild force to be conquered for our benefit.