by Greta Hanson Maurer
Day 1: The Storm Begins
Even 62 years later, Jess Downey vividly recalls when the weather started to turn on Monday, April 1, 1957. He was hanging out with a friend on North Creek cut-off when the rain turned to large snowflakes, and he headed home. At the same time, a big storm began to brew in his own body, the result of an inflamed appendix.
Day 2: Buried in Snow, the Long Day
Carol Wright remembers waking up to the sound of her mother’s voice “No electricity! Looks like it’s been out since 11:00pm!” She looked outside and couldn’t see the car, it was already buried in a couple of feet of snow. She started a vigil of cleaning the snow off the family JEEP every couple of hours for two days, for fear of the canvas roof caving in.
Out of electricity for days, the Wright family, like many at that time, still had heat from their coal furnace. A damper system made it possible to move the heat from one room, or another. Their cookstove was good for coal or electricity, so cooking was no problem. The family had a gravity fed well, so gratefully water was not an issue.
Dick Amman specifically remembers the day, “We had five feet of snow in our yard, I was a 14 year old kid, and remember wearing my uncle's paratrooper pants and walking to Traeber's store to load all the pockets with cans of soup.“ A natural hub, the store likely carried the news that the roof of the Gayway—the local dance hall and restaurant—had collapsed from the weight of the heavy snow very early that morning, underscoring the havoc created by the dense snow.
For Frank and Vela Downey, keeping the home warm, or securing water was not at the top of their list. Jess experienced a rough night, and they had enlisted the help of Beulah area registered nurse and designated medic for St. Mary Corwin Hospital, Betty Wheeler. She diagnosed the young man with an acute appendicitis, his discomfort could only be resolved with surgery, there was no time to waste.
The magneto phone system was out, despite the best efforts of the frantic Beulah phone operator cranking on the line. The lines were down, a system maintained by the individuals themselves, a quick fix was not apparent. The road to the top of Beulah Hill lay buried in deep drifts.
The National Weather Service lists Record Snowfall Data for Pueblo and includes 'Greatest Amount in 24 Hours' on April 1-2, 1957. According to Dave VanManen, keeper of Beulah preciptation data, there are no Beulah records from 1957, but confirms recent 24 hour records upwards of 17”- 31”.
With no radio to contact the Red Cross, there was no way to relay the emergency, nor consult with doctors. The only way Jess Downey’s life would be saved would be through the immediate actions of Beulah friends, and the heroic actions of one man in particular, Robert (Bob) Purvis.
Bob, an electrician known for his ingenuity and common sense became aware of the problem, and assisted getting Mrs. Wheeler to Jess’s bedside, according to his wife, Faye. He started plowing snow early, trying to keep up ahead of it. The chimney in their own home began to list from the weight, but Bob had his priorities.
An April 4, 1957 Pueblo Chieftain article conveys the efforts and the challenges for approx. 30 residents of Beulah attempting to evacuate Jess. “Purvis hitched his tractor, equipped with a snow plow, to Downey's car and they reached Beulah proper after more than an hour. But, there they discovered neither the tractor, nor the car had sufficient gasoline to reach Pueblo. Electric power being out, it was impossible to operate the gasoline pumps, so 'Mae' McClure, operator of the M & R Garage, volunteered the use of his car, which had a full tank.”
With Purvis’ tractor breaking the path , McClure set off with Mr. and Mrs. Downey, Jess, and his two sisters, but were once again thwarted by the heavy snow. “Not only was the road buried beneath about 17 inches of snow, but it was blowing so badly that McClure was able to follow the tractor only with extreme difficulty. The party held a consultation while the chilled Purvis warmed himself in the shelter of the McClure's car, and they decided to return to Beulah. Thirty minutes were consumed in the effort to turn the two vehicles around.” They even tried putting Jess alone on a sled, but the tractor still bogged down, ultimately the exhausted rescue party had to turn back.
Day 3: Continued Effort & Rescue
The following day, there was a renewed effort, and power to plow the road to Pueblo. “Bob Purvis, Emmett Klipfel and Ray Traeber volunteered their assistance and equipment —two trucks and a tractor equipped with a bulldozer.” They stubbornly set out to get the word of their growing emergency, according to the paper.
Other Beulah ranchers and residents formed a shovel brigade and the party started once again for Pueblo. With the shovel brigade, digging out mechanical equipment when it encountered drifts too deep to push through, they made steady progress.When they arrived at Muldoon, Purvis headed out to the Allee Ranch on snowshoes.
“Meanwhile, the Beulah telephone operator frantically cranked the magneto line, whose ringing was finally answered at the Allee Ranch at the bottom of Rock Creek Hill. At about that time, a Mountain States Telephone Co. service truck stopped at the ranch, and the information was relayed. The truck turned around and the workers relayed the information to the Red Cross, and chapter chairman, Harold Reed. Reed radioed Ft Carson.” for an Army helicopter, which just happened to be in the area surveying the big snow, Capt. Jack R. Phillips was piloting the bird, and re-routed to Beulah.
With help finally on the way, longtime Beulah resident, and then teenager, Art Traeber remembers springing into action, once the landing site was determined. He and “four or five others”, including Amman stomped out a giant S.O.S. in the snow to help guide the helicopter to land in the field south of Grand Avenue.
Wright recalls seeing the helicopter begin to land in the field right behind her family home. “The helicopter hovered just inches above the deep snow, and then a passenger jumped out. I was shocked to see he landed up to his waist.” The spot wasn’t feasible, and they lifted up again to consider a second location before again aborting because of the location of a power line. The same boys headed to a third location in the field in the center of Beulah Valley (south of the new fire station), and stomped a second S.O.S. to mark the location. The helicopter landed at the site, setting down on the highway.
Per the newspaper article “As the ‘copter dipped through massing snow clouds, Beulah residents spotted it and waved it on in the direction of the waiting party. After three landing attempts in soft snow, the ‘copter sat down’
The car with young Downey was then towed the final distance to the helicopter. In the back of the Downey station wagon, Nurse Wheeler gave Jess a shot of morphine in order to tolerate sitting up. He noted, “I had never taken a ride on any aircraft, and I was no longer in pain. It was wonderful, the best trip of my life!”
The helicopter arrived at Pueblo Memorial Airport at 4:30pm, where an ambulance rushed him to Parkview Episcopal Hospital. Shortly thereafter he had a 40-minute surgery to remove his appendix.
With a huge sigh of relief, the Beulah community could now turn their efforts to digging out, restoring power and sorting out telephone lines.
Day 4: Digging Out
An April 6 Pueblo Chieftain article headline declares ‘Snowplows Open Highway to Beulah’, and the article declaring “Residents still have no electric power and telephone service. Furnaces and fireplaces provide heat. Contact has been made with the outside world. Most residents still can’t go anywhere, because their cars are blocked in driveways and garages by snowdrifts.”
Bob Purvis, now 93 years old recalls going to work on Thursday after the road was cleared—he was an electrician for coke plant at Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp.—his colleagues took one look at him, and sent him back home for three days rest!
Carol Wright remembers two county bulldozers driving in tandem to clear the road, and right behind them was the postman who delivered 100 chicks to their door. The chicks had been at the Pueblo post office since Tuesday, and he kept them alive throughout the storm. All 100 survived the ordeal.
School was closed for five days and power was out for the same amount of time. The break gave Jess, and the entire community time to recover from the harrowing and dramatic events of the memorable snowstorm.