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by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Sally Rook & the Great Folsom Flood

Certainly one of the biggest news stories in New Mexico during the first decade of the 20th century was the great Folsom flood of 1908. It was a disaster of the first order, but the loss of life might have been much greater had it not been for the heroic acts of a single person: Mrs. Sarah “Sally” Rooke.

It rained a little in the late afternoon of August 27, 1908, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for a summer shower. The wind kicked up a bit after sunset and dark clouds formed to the northwest. Then it began to rain hard on Johnson Mesa and at the headwaters of the so-called Dry Cimarron River. The sheer volume of the downpour exceeded anything in memory and it became obvious that the downstream community of Foslom was in grave danger of flooding.

Mrs. Ben Owen, the wife of a rancher, had seen earlier floods and she said later that this was the worst she had ever seen.  She telephoned the central switchboard at Folsom.  Sally Rooke answered the phone.

“It’s raining so hard up here the wash tubs are running over with water. You better get out before you’re swept away!” Mrs. Owen reported. She also asked Mrs. Rooke to warn her sister, Lucy Creighton, who lived in Folsom, of the impending peril.

Mrs. Rooke didn’t run. She knew how devastating a major flood might be. She had about a half hour before the flood would crest and she began cranking the telephone and warning those who lived in the path of the deluge. “Pack up and leave at once. A flood is coming down the valley,” she said time and time again.

She reached more than 40 families before a wall of water, carrying boulders, uprooted trees and other debris, struck the small cottage that housed the telephone facility. Mrs. Rooke was engaged in a three-way conversation with the local telegraph operator, Allcutt McNaghten, and his mother, when “a terrific crash of lightening was heard and Sally’s voice ceased.”1

No one will ever know how many lives Mrs. Rooke saved that night, but it is certain that the number of fatalities would have been much greater than the 17 who are known to have perished. Twelve of those who died were from two related families, the Wheelers and the Wengers, all substantial members of the community, who were in their respective homes when the water hit. Bystanders heard their screams of terror and supplications for help. One of those who died was Lucy Creighton who had been visiting at the Wenger home. Others who perished either could not, or would not, move out of the flood’s path.

And that path was considerable. One source reported that the wall of water was 13 feet high and a mile wide before it spent itself. Another says that when it hit the town it was a half-mile wide and five feet deep with “high, rolling waves . . . and rushing along with a mad torrential velocity that picked up houses and floated them off like chips.”

One witness south of town said, “The houses that came down, seemed to drag on the ground until they got about a mile out of Folsom. Near the Dan Dorherty home, there was a fall, and they were torn to pieces there—the Wenger home, the Wheeler home, telephone office, lumber yard, that I recall.” Indeed, nothing of the Wenger house was ever found except for half of a door.

Recovery of the victims was a grim business. Survivors found many of them partially buried in the silt the water left behind. Many of the bodies had been stripped bare by jagged rocks and many of the women had been virtually scalped when their long tresses were caught up in tree branches as their bodies tumbled along on the flood. Clothing was found in tree limbs as high as 30 feet above the ground in the aftermath of the tragedy.

But among the recovered bodies, Sally Rooke’s was not to be found. It wasn’t until February of the following year that her remains were discovered.2 A rancher found them some 16 miles south of town in a drift of debris left by the flood.3

And what of the heroine of this story?  Sarah Rooke was something of an enigma.  She had lived in Folsom for about three years at the time of her death. Believed to have been a native of Preston, Jackson County, Iowa, she’d arrived in New Mexico to visit a friend, Virginia Morgan, and so liked the area that she stayed. She may have taken up a homestead, but it is unlikely that she worked it. She was in her mid-sixties at the time, and crippled with severe curvature of the spine.4 No husband or children ever resided with her in Folsom, and no one came forward to claim kinship after her death.

Mrs. Rooke’s story of heroism made national headlines at the time, but was soon forgotten. It was not until the mid 1920s that interest in her was rekindled when telephone workers began donating small amounts of money—actually nickels and dimes—to construct a monument to her memory. A granite marker was installed at her gravesite in Folsom on May 15, 1926.  It reads:

In Honored Memory of

SARAH J. ROOKE

Telephone Operator

WHO PERISHED IN THE FLOOD WATERS OF THE DRY CIMARRON AT FOLSOM, N. M., AUGUST 27, 1908, WHILE AT HER SWITCHBOARD

WARNING OTHERS OF THEIR

DANGER WITH HEROIC DEVOTION SHE GLORIFIED HER CALLING BY

SACRIFICING HER OWN LIFE THAT OTHERS MIGHT LIVE

“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This”

ERECTED BY HER FELLOW-WORKERS

Endnotes:

1  Quoted from Folsom, 1888-1988: Then and Now, prepared by the Centennial Book Committee, 1988. Thanks to the Grazier family of Rio Rancho for making this book available.

2  One reporter claimed that Mrs. Rooke’s body was recovered the following Saturday, 12 miles       down the canyon, her headset still in place and the telephone cord broken.  This was     patently untrue, and there was no real reason to artificially enhance the true tale of her            heroism.

3  Some bodies were found as far as 20 miles downstream.

4  It was this unfortunate characteristic that allowed searchers to identify her body.

Sources:

Don Bullis, Rio Rancho Observer, October 23, 2002

Francis & Roberta Fugate, Roadside History of New Mexico

Las Vegas Daily Optic, August 31, 1908

Nita Leierer, Ed. Us Nesters in the Land of Enchantment (This book cites an item from La Epoca, Folsom’s weekly newspaper. Publication was delayed by two days because the flood damaged the printing plant.)

Jacqueline Meketa. From Martyrs to Murderers, The Old Southwest’s Saints, Sinners & Scalawags

Santa Fe New Mexican, August 28, 1908