Ross Rudel

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June 9th, 1972 arrived two days shy of my twelfth birthday. That afternoon I was pitching a little league baseball game in West Rapid for the McDonald’s sponsored team, ‘The Big Macs’. Horizon to horizon, the sky was filled with massively bulbous, pendulous clouds ranging from dark gray to black, and after I beaned a couple of batters our game was ‘called for darkness’. This was around 4 in the afternoon, two weeks prior to the Summer Solstice. The atmosphere was dead calm, with that ominous sense of ozone typical of impending thunderstorms in the Black Hills; multiplied.
My parents drove me to our house midway up Cleghorn Canyon and departed to attend a civic event downtown, leaving my older brother Greg and me home alone. As dusk approached KOTA posted a running banner on the television screen warning that Rapid Creek could rise 3 to 5 feet with the impending storm. Wide-eyed and feeling adventurous, Greg and I decided to take his small motorcycle to the mouth of the canyon where Rapid Creek passed to watch this spectacle unfold. Before we got out the door the Gods unleashed the first wave of torrential rain and we reconsidered our plan. Within minutes we felt our old three story house tremble as a wall of water, initially ten feet high, forty feet wide, roared down our normally dry canyon, instantly cutting power to the house. Peering out the window we witnessed our neighbor’s culverted driveway create a huge dome in the water’s flow, which was quickly leveled. We donned rain gear and went outside to bear witness and by that time the soil of the canyon floor had dissolved, exposing huge boulders to tumble in the torrent, which we felt rumbling the earth beneath our feet. My brain could barely process the pounding rain, nor the vision of a large river where hours before stood a pastoral canyon floor. The amount of water falling from the sky gave the sense that one could drown standing face upturned, as it honestly seemed there was more H2O than oxygen in the atmosphere.
Our property had two terraced walls below our home’s stone foundation and the water was just cresting the first. I was terrified realizing our parents would have no way to reach us. In candlelight, at length, Greg convinced me the likelihood of water reaching the house was remote. We went to bed, hoping for the best, having no idea if our parents survived this catastrophe.

Meanwhile: When the flood hit, my folks realized there would be no way to reach the canyon, so they diverted to what they knew was high ground; our church, Canyon Lake Methodist. Many others came to the same conclusion, so the church became a sanctuary for those fleeing the rising waters. As the bird flies, the church was not too distant from the east rim of Cleghorn Canyon, so with no other way to determine our wellbeing, my father and a family friend set out to attempt a reconnaissance mission after midnight. Our home would be on the distant side of the canyon from their approach. With an arduous effort they were able to reach the rim, but with no electricity to the residences the canyon was a black hole. It was only with the frequent lightning flashes they were able to discern the contours of the canyon floor and eventually conclude that our house was still standing. Praying Greg and I were safe in the structure they returned to wait for the storm to pass and day to break.
After a sleepless night the rain subsided and my parents were able to access the house on foot, as the roads leading to and into the canyon were gone. They arrived to find Greg and me safe, sound asleep.

I awoke to a radically changed world. Up until that point my fledgling adolescent mind had only been able to process the epic event before me in Cleghorn Canyon, but that was simply one of many sources that fed the Rapid Creek watershed. Everything upstream from Cleghorn had been horribly flooded with lives lost, but it was the failure of the Canyon Lake Dam at the edge of town that unleashed utter carnage.
Like all of Rapid City, we spent the following months with the daunting task of helping townsfolk salvage and clear what little remained in the flood plain. The devastation was mind numbing, as were the 238 souls taken by that apocalyptic night. This was the Black Hills’ ‘perfect storm’.

In the immediate aftermath, there were surreal aspects to the flood’s demolition. Boats and cars were dispersed throughout the city, lodged in trees, stacked, or planted at odd angles in the mud of the flood plain. Story Book Island, a menagerie of structural renditions of fairy tales had been dislodged and transported to nonsensical locations. Cinderella’s walk-in pumpkin resided in the Baken Park parking lot. Thousands of fish, dispensed from the hatchery above Canyon Lake were dead or struggling to survive in puddles throughout the city on normally dry ground. Ironically, claw foot bathtubs were freed to roam and settled in bizarre situations. Everywhere was lumber and construction material, once evidence of human ingenuity, now reduced to nature’s entropy, accumulated at any point that provided resistance to the night’s radical currents. And most disturbing, every house still standing in the flood plain had a water line clearly demarcating the height to which the floodwater, with all its detritus, had invaded the tranquility of human habitation.
Many of those houses stood for years as the city and county sought to define the flood plain and restrict future redevelopment. Creek front homes that were once idyllic dwellings were now condemned and vacant. This meant that in those years following the flood, as a teenager with friends seeking places to hang out, we had a variety of homes to choose from with access to Rapid Creek. This experience was strangely conflicted. Tragedy afforded us this luxury. Teenagers are not particularly known for reflection, but if we were ever too irreverent, there was always that water line in the house to remind us of the privilege we indulged. And that omnipresent line was often above eye level.

Ross Rudel



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Citation

“Ross Rudel,” Flood of 1972, accessed September 28, 2022, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/649.