In August 1959, at the height of the monsoon season, a torrential downpour in the barren Sacramento Mountains west of Needles, California became a disaster of epic proportions. As often happens with monsoon storms, the deluge in the mountains transformed dry stream beds in the desert into raging rivers. Then, as the storm swept into the Colorado River Valley, the roaring waters overflowed banks and the normally dry desert plains were transformed into small lakes.
There was extensive flooding with property damage in Needles. But the real disaster unfolded west of town between Essex and the junction of Route 66 and U.S. 95. The waters undercut the road bed and washed out trestles of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad causing suspension of rail service.
Sections of Route 66 were erased or inundated by flood waters. Bridges were damaged. The highway was closed at Needles and at Essex. Traffic backed up into Arizona, and as far west as Ludlow.
The trucks of an eight member Santa Fe Railroad track crew sent to evaluate conditions west of Needles were swept from the road. Two were never found. Two survived. Eight passenger vehicles and two tractor trailers were swept from Route 66 but miraculously there were no fatalities.
It was not only transportation infrastructure that was severely damaged. More than 100 telephone poles were washed away crippling communication in the area for weeks.
Route 66 was closed for more than 12 hours. This was at a time when state highway department estimates were that more than 2,800 vehicles per day were counted at state line agricultural inspection stations.
The construction of detours created traffic bottlenecks and rerouting traffic of detours of more than 100 miles. It would be more than six months before normalcy returned to Route 66.
Monsoon storms are as much a part of life in the Colorado River communities as triple digit heat. They offer respite from drought and provide life giving water in the desert. And they provide opportunity for stunning photographs when storms build over the Hualapai, Black, Cerbat and Castle Mountains.
The summer of 2021 marks the return of what is shaping up to be a rather dramatic monsoon season in the Colorado River Valley. There is a possibility that an active monsoon season can provide some respite to the current southwest drought.
But the monsoon season also poses very serious risks. The episode in August 1959 was an example of monsoon power. Destruction of the Mohave Milltown Railroad line near Topock in 1904 is another. Seldom, however, do monsoons cause such damage.
The primary risk from monsoon storms is flooded roadways. But today we have advisory systems in place. We have response teams as well as a proactive Mohave County Road Department and well engineered roads.
If you would like more information about monsoon season in Bullhead City, or are planning to relocate to the area and have questions about the weather, available amenities, and the city’s business friendly climate contact the Bullhead Area Chamber of Commerce.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America