A cloudburst washes away a town and kills eleven.

 

BY CORY MUNSON

At a little before 5 o’clock on July 19, 1912, storm clouds formed over the mountains of the Seven Troughs Range. In the small mining towns below—Vernon, Seven Troughs, and Mazuma—a sudden gale whipped up eddies of dust followed by a light sprinkling of rain. Hot summer air rushed up the canyon toward the mountain peaks, and the clouds grew into a looming, dark column.

Then the black tower of water broke, and a violent downpour fell onto the parched desert hills. The narrow canyons snaking along the range carried the floodwaters downhill. The storm’s first victim, Julia Foncannon, likely saw the torrent from her home in Burnt Canyon, but there was no time for escape.

The smaller canyons then all converged, emptying into Seven Troughs Canyon, where sat the bustling town of the same name. A wave crashed down main street, immediately uprooting structures in the lower district.


Ed Kalenbauch watched the approaching destruction from the Seven Troughs mine headquarters. His mind immediately went to the smaller town of Mazuma, 1 mile further down the canyon. He rushed to the phone to warn the vulnerable camp, but lightning had knocked the line out.

The flood passed through Seven Troughs, carrying away the business district with no loss of life. But now the canyon narrowed, and as the flood began its final descent toward the sagebrush flats below, it grew into a raging wall of water 20 feet high.

Main Street of Mazuma, circa 1910. Credit: Nevada Historical Society
 

THE STORM UNLEASHED

Sybil Huntington was halfway to the bakery on Mazuma’s main street when a gust of wind enveloped the town in dust. She thought of the windows in her hillside home, open to let in some cool evening air. She decided to head back and had just reached her gate when a roaring sound come from the canyon. She turned in time to watch a wave of destruction enter Mazuma. In an interview years later, she would recall that it was as if the entire town were made of cardboard.


Houses on the canyon floor were washed away, their rubble strewn over a mile-long path. The great dance hall was carried off and turned completely around before buckling into a heap of rubble. The Coalition Mining Plant—a cyanide manufactory—was torn off its concrete base, and its vault containing $20,000 in bullion was swept into the stream of wreckage, its treasure emptying out into the plains.

Percy Gillespie, the superintendent’s son, was playing with the George and Jimmy Kehoe when the wall hit. Nearby, Mrs. Reese was swept up in the water, as was Mrs. Kehoe who held her 19-month-old son Ronnie. Hearing the tumult, Mike Whalen stepped out of his cabin to see young Ronnie being carried away. He jumped in to attempt a rescue, but neither resurfaced.

Mrs. McClean and Maud Ruddel—the Canadian-born postmistress—were in the post office when it collapsed. Maud was later found 2 miles downstream, nails and wreckage tangled in her hair.

Mr. and Mrs. Trenchard were swept away and wouldn’t be discovered until the next day. Mr. Trenchard would later succumb to his injuries, but his wife survived.


In total, at least 11 lives—one tenth of the population—were lost with Mazuma, and when the waters receded, all that remained of the town was the two-story hotel and the general store. The Tonopah Daily Bonanza called it the worst disaster Nevada had faced in many years.

Mazuma after the flood. Credit: Nevada Historical Society


THE RECOVERY

As soon as word of the flood arrived in Lovelock—25 miles south—recovery workers were sent by automobile. Doctors and nurses came along with three undertakers from Reno and a host of aid supplies and provisions.

The road to Mazuma, now washed away, proved a slow, muddy course, and vehicles were forced to make a wide detour through the camp at Vernon. Night descended over the town as help arrived, and lanterns were brought out to help the rescuers search through the wreckage.

As cleanup began and burials commenced, relief workers reported a different kind of tragedy: looters. The instances of theft became so numerous that locals requested state police officers be sent to keep the public from running off with what remained of the town.

Later that week, Governor Oddie issued a statement: “The catastrophe is so great and the needs of relief so urgent that, as president of the Red Cross of Nevada, I urge upon the people of the state the duty of generous and immediate action.”

Donations poured in, towns held charity dances, and papers from around the state competed to see which towns had contributed the most to aid the displaced residents.

 

NOTHING BESIDE REMAINS

“It is difficult to picture such a scene in Nevada, with its equitable and salubrious climate and freedom from meteorological and seismic disturbances common in other portions of the country,” said the “White Pine News.” They added that Mazuma’s location made for an inevitable disaster, “encompassed as it was by high mountain walls, resulted in its annihilation … when the confided waters rushed down the canyon.”

On August 2, less than a month after the storm, another cloudburst appeared over the range. Five feet of water flew down the canyon, inundating Seven Troughs even as it recovered and again emptied out into the remains of Mazuma.

The residents had seen enough. The survivors collected their remaining possessions and left Mazuma forever.

By 1955, the Nevada State Journal reported that nothing was left of the town save for rubble and strewn debris: Mazuma had returned to the desert. There was, they wrote, only one remaining relic of the town’s past. Above, in a cemetery overlooking the barren plains, three hardly legible stones were etched with the names George, Jimmy, and Ronnie Kehoe.

Washed out road at site of Mazuma. Credit: Eric Cachinero

Author’s note: The official death toll at Mazuma ranges from 7 to 12. Listed here are all the official deaths stated in contemporary newspapers, including Mrs. Kehoe and Mr. Trenchard who died later of their injuries. Another part of the inconsistency is that it is not known whether there were three or four Kehoe children. Newspapers report both numbers, including one story where the owner of the hotel—Mr. Preston—grabbed one of the Kehoe children from his 2nd floor window. However, this article appears to be hearsay.
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