The 1976 Flood
On the last weekend of July 1976, a 500-year flood occurred in the canyon that destroyed all of the filling stations, including the one at the Inn, and damaged nearly every lodging structure. All the bridges were destroyed or badly damaged.
Two hundred and fifty two homes were damaged or destroyed and 144 people were killed. The estimated damage from the one Saturday night flood was over 20 million dollars. The road was totally destroyed in most areas of the canyon. People were stranded, cars were washed away, debris was littered everywhere along the river.
One of the few commercial structures left standing with little damage was the Forks Stage Stop, although the Hayden house, located across the highway, was totally destroyed. The day after the flood, rescue helicopters were used to pluck the lucky survivors from the steep hillsides and transport them to Drake in front of Gilleland’s house, where the Red Cross had set up an aid station handing out sandwiches and drinks.
An article printed later in the Johnstown Newspaper stated: “Many Drake citizens tell of the heroic efforts of Ray and Helen Hayden, the 68-year-old couple who heroically ran from house to house Saturday night, racing the onrushing waters of the Big Thompson to warn friends. ‘They must have saved a hundred lives,’ one man said.”
In Reflection on the River, The Big Thompson Canyon Flood, Joseph Applebaum, from St. Louis, related a story typical of many tourists who had crowded the Big Thompson canyon that weekend. His father and stepmother, with their travel trailer had made a trip to Colorado and were camped in the Hayden campground at the Stage Stop. He tried to call about them, but couldn’t get through. Joseph wrote, “Later I talked to Ray Hayden, the operator of the campground where my father had been camped… He told me that my father had gassed up his car and left the campground about five minutes before the wall of water hit at Drake. It seems he was trying to drive out of the canyon, but of course we know now the road was jammed with other cars trying to drive out. Most all of those drivers and passengers were lost. We were told that neither my father’s car nor his travel trailer were ever recovered.”
Helen Hayden later wrote, “Everything was so dark without electricity. But when it would lightning, which was often, we would see the debris and campers and small cabins going down the river. I remember one small camper riding the waves. A woman was in the window screaming for us. When propane tanks and bottles would hit a rock and break the gauge, we would get a terrible odor. We were all anxious for morning to come but were dreading what we would see. As we walked to the hotel, the hummingbirds were thick, flying around our heads, and all their feeders were gone. Fish were all over the ground, and what a sight to see— no houses, no nothing, not even a piece of a stone or icebox.”
Rebuilding After the 1976 Flood
The Forks Hotel sustained water damage and some remodeling was necessary on the ground floor. The gas pumps and storage tank were removed, as it would no longer be legal to have a gas station there. Before long, the Haydens sold the property to Lee Shirk who began a more extensive remodel of the west end of the building. Mr. Shirk died of a heart attack before the remodel was finished. His son Mike took over, but was tragically killed two years later. The west end of the building was constructed with a new two-story high log interior with a beautiful wooden bar and professional rock-work. A fireplace was built on the main level and also in a new lounge on the second floor level. The mason contractor was Dennis H. Gribble. His carved stone plaque can be seen today in the new part of the building.
Susan DeJesus purchased the property and tried to make a go of the business for a while. She had the property divided into two parts with the Campground on one part and the Forks Stage Stop and post office on the other. Despite her efforts, she couldn’t make the payments and the property went back to the Haydens. Eventually they sold both parts to the Joe Shaffer family: Joe and Doris Shaffer and their four sons, Joey, John, Jeff and Jerry. The boys worked hard improving the old building. Jerry Shaffer had a country band that played regularly for patrons of the restaurant and bar. Over the years, Jerry Shaffer developed a large following of fans. Because of his music the old Stage Stop became a lively entertainment spot in the early 1980s. Eventually, the Shaffers sold the part of the property with the Stage Stop and post office. The Shaffer family still lives on the beautiful park-like meadow just west of The River Forks Inn. It continues to be a popular camping site.
Jim and Annette Crill purchased the Stage Stop property, enlarging the kitchen to make it into a full service restaurant. The resaurant had never had the facilities to become a full-service restaurant. The new log structure offered the atmosphere that a successful restaurant demanded. The Crills hired an excellent chef and developed a menu that attracted people from as far away as Denver for an unforgettable evening out.
In order to develop the RV camping area along the North Fork of the Big Thompson that runs through the property, the Crills had an additional 200 amp power source put in the camping area— a separate campground from the one the Shaffers had kept. They also built a stage back of the restaurant for dancing on special occasions. The Crills lived on the property and also rented apartments in the old part of the building.
After a few years, the Crills retired and sold out to the partnership of Brad Lucero and Mehzud Haghighi (Max). Max was an excellent chef and wanted to make the business into something like a three-star restaurant. Brad was the money man, but he was not inclined to invest the additional money that was needed to make the business successful. The partnership eventually went sour, the restaurant was closed and the business was put up for sale.
The River Forks Inn
In 2004, William E. Jones (Bill) and his wife Ann, purchased the property. The old part of the building, upstairs and down, had been badly neglected over the years and it all needed complete renovation before it would be useful.
They spent two years remodeling the rooms upstairs with the aim of restoring the Inn to what it might have been in the early days. They also constructed a charming beer garden on the west side of the restaurant. Bill’s two Jones sons, Roy and Troy brought back the tradition that Jerry Shaffer started, by singing and hosting karaoke along with other musicians featured on weekends.
In September 2013, a slow moving cold front stalled over Colorado resulting in heavy rain and devastating flooding which killed 8 people and caused $2 billion in damages. Bill and Ann along with many others were trapped in the canyon with major portions of the road washed away. After several days of holding up in the Inn, helicopters lifted the stranded residents out of area. The Inn withheld the raged flood waters but the campground, outdoor stage and footbridge were gone. After several months volunteer clean up crews were able to get in and start removing the 8 inches of mud throughout the building.
In early 2015, Bill’s son Troy and his family took ownership of the Inn and continued the process of renovating. The Inn and campground reopened in May 2015 offering ten beautiful rooms and 9 campsites for nightly rentals. Progress is being made toward the opening of the Bar & Grill with an anticipated grand opening date of November 27, 2015. The owners are avid music lovers and plan to host music events both indoor and outdoors throughout the year.
To learn more about flood reconstruction at The River Forks near Estes Park, contact us today.