(This is the third chapter in the life and times of Blanche Russell. This story is a fictional account of a real-life woman who traveled to Northern Arizona and made a life for herself, and her husband, in a rugged land of high cliffs, endless sky, and wide open spaces.)
Days ran into weeks, and weeks marched into months, and the months slowly piled up in anticipation of the coming years. What began as a small home nestled against the Vermillion Cliffs soon became a community that rivaled nearby Lee’s Ferry.
Blanche and Bill Russell had stopped next to Soap Creek, where they were forced to spend the night after their car broke down on the way to Cedar City, UT. Blanche was so overcome by the beauty of the area that one night led to many, many more.
What started out as a small home for the couple became a gathering place for the people that called the area home. Blanche’s home cooked meals drew many a cowboy off the range and into her kitchen. At Blanche’s insistence, Bill erected small buildings on the land surrounding their home. These outbuildings they rented out by the night, week, or month. Their home grew to become a lodge. The small community would not stay small long.
The nearby Honeymoon Trail lay a scant 50 yards from Blanche’s front door. Many couples were traveling along the trail on their way to St. George, so they could visit the Mormon Temple and legitimize their marriage. Several of those newlyweds made their way back to the small community and erected their own homes. Their thoughts were to settle down in a country that could have only been created by the hands of God. It would be a great place to start a family.
The year 1926 began as all the ones that came before it. The small community was in the grasp of winter. The end of one year and the beginning of another saw a large crowd gathered at the small lodge in the community that the area residents named Cliff Dwellers. It was joyous occasion, and one for celebration. The year before was a bountiful one. The coming year would be even better. What the people of the area did not realize was that fate would soon deal them a crippling blow.
On the third day of February a cold wind blew down off the Vermilion Cliffs. Dark clouds hung low over the valley spread out before the small cluster of buildings. Early in the afternoon large snowflakes began to fall gently from the sky. The temperature continued to drop and the snow began to accumulate. By nightfall the residents of the community were all safely tucked into their homes. Midnight arrived and everyone knew they were in for a long night. The wind howled as it raced down the cliffs, and the snow continued to pile up.
When daylight began to brighten the area Blanche chanced a look out her kitchen window. Her gaze fell upon a scene that was more nightmare than reality. Due to the falling snow she could see but just a scant 10 feet or so beyond their home, and the drifting snow had gathered in a pile just inches below the windowsill. She walked back into the bedroom to wake Bill.
Bill Russell had not had an easy night. The tuberculosis bacteria that called his body home had taken this occasion to rear its ugly head and strike with a debilitating strength. Blanche found Bill covered with perspiration and his body shivering with fever. When she gently shook him he woke with a racking cough. It had been years since he had been this ill. Blanche feared for Bill. What would she do if something were to happen to the man she loved so?
Three days after the storm began, the sun peaked over the Echo Cliffs and rose brightly into the sky, illuminating a whiteness that old-timers in the area said they had never seen in their lifetimes. The snow lay three feet deep across the valley, and in places where the drifts gathered it was measured at 15 feet and more. The sun’s brightness could not overcome the cold that had gripped the area. It was another two weeks before the temperature rose above freezing. By then the small community was running very low on food and heating fuel. The only thing they had in abundance was the snow that covered the land, and the ice that held Soap Creek captive.
Meanwhile, Bill tossed and turned in bed, at times close to death. Blanche concerned herself with one thing—keeping Bill alive. She fed him what soup she could get down him, changed his bedding twice a day, and slowly nursed him back from death’s doorstep. She was not going to lose her man.
Spring slowly descended upon the small community. The abundant snow of just a short six weeks earlier left its mark on the surrounding land. The desert was covered with the orange, purple, and red blooms of wildflowers, and new grass grew where none had grown before. The ranchers in the area looked to the future with hope. Their herds of grazing cattle would grow fat on the grasses that sprouted from the sand and rock. This would be the year that many of them got out of debt.
Bill Russell did not fare as well. He was slow to recover from the reoccurrence of the disease that invaded his body. Blanche was concerned for his health—both physical and mental. He was losing his optimism for the future. The man she lived with was nowhere near the man she married. The tuberculosis bacteria was slowly sapping his health. The disease had hit her husband hard this past winter. He was in as bad, or worse, shape than when they had left New York, however she was not about to give up hope for the man she loved. She continued to nurse him back to health.
When summer arrived the snow and cold of the winter was forgotten. Life had returned to normal, and the residents of the small community nestled in the shadows of the towering cliffs saw nothing but hope for the future. Then the monsoons rushed in.
The first thunderstorm of 1926 hit the area on July 5th. The day before had been a joyous one as the people in the area gathered around Bill and Blanche’s home, celebrating the birth of the nation. The small lodge and surrounding buildings were filled to overflowing. The people gathered at Cliff Dwellers enjoyed a great day. They had no forewarning of the storm that would disrupt their lives.
At three minutes to five the first thunderbolt struck the ledge above the cluster of buildings, dislodging several large boulders. These rocks clogged Soap Creek, stopping the flow of water that the community depended upon. Because of the rains that fell from the sky for the next two hours the residents were unaware that their precious, free flowing water had dried up. Behind the dam of boulders and dirt a small lake began to form. Once the rains stopped several men, led by a weak Bill Russell, surveyed the filling reservoir and came to a quick decision. Instead of dynamiting the dam they would construct a piping system that would allow the water to flow around the dam, and once again fill the creek bed, eventually laying pipe to all of the houses gathered around the lodge.
For the next month the men worked on the project. They were almost completed with the first faze when August 2nd arrived. That day the clouds gathered earlier than normal and the men called an end to their work as the first raindrops fell. Within a matter of minutes the water falling from the sky was so heavy that a person could not see 20 feet. The rain was accompanied by lightning that struck all around the small community. The thunder was deafening.
Without warning the earth and rock dam that held back a growing lake of precious water gave way. The resulting tidal wave rushed down through the small canyon, filling the creek bed to overflowing in a matter of seconds. The destruction was instantaneous. Death was quick.
Four homes built on the bank of Soap Creek disappeared without a trace, the buildings and their residents swept into Marble Canyon, miles away. Blanche and Bill lost six outbuildings to the flood, but their home, and lodge, stood unscathed. They were two of the fortunate. In total, nine people lost their lives—only three bodies were recovered, the other half dozen thought to be washed into the Colorado River, and swept downstream with the tons of red dirt that clogged the river.
Ranchers who had, for years, called the area home said that the storm was the worst they had ever seen. It was a 100 year event, and would probably not happen again in their lifetimes. The neighboring Navajo claimed it was the work of a god who was upset over the way the growing community had disrespected the land. If the people could not live in harmony with nature, then nature would exact a price.
Bill and Blanche Russell discussed leaving the area. Bill, however, was still too weak to travel long distances. They would wait for a better time.
(Thus ends the third chapter in the life and times of Blanche Russell.)