Folsom Area History

Folsom has an incredibly rich history which is preserved in the buildings, people, and the wonderful museum.

Originally, a town named Madison was established where the Granada to Fort Union Military Route crossed the Dry Cimarron river.  When the railroad track was laid through the area, it bypassed Madison.  The townspeople threw together a tent city where the tracks met the river -- it was called Rag Town because of all the canvas structures.

Some time later the bride-elect of President Grover Cleveland, Francis Folsom, stepped off the train to explore the little town during a whistle stop.  The townspeople were smitten by her charms and chose her maiden name with which to christen the little village by the river.

The little town eventually grew to be 1,000 strong and once vied to be the county seat.  In its heyday, Folsom boasted the largest stockyards west of Fort Worth.  At the time, the countryside was filled with homesteaders who relied on the town for supplies and a taste of civilization.  Slowly, the homesteaders gave up as the weather turned drier.  The remaining farmers accumulated the abandoned land into larger plots; eventually those holdouts gave up as well.  The farmland all returned to pasture and was once again used mainly for ranching.  The resulting decrease in population eventually strangled the small railroad towns of Folsom, Des Moines, Capulin, Grenville, and Mount Dora -- all are mere wisps of their former selves.

Through its time, the town had several businesses: hotels, restaurants, supply stores, doctors, newspapers, and, of course, more than its fair share of bars.

Three school houses have been built in Folsom, the first two having burned to the ground.  The last school closed in 1958 and the students were transferred to Des Moines.  The school still stands and is used today for community events.

Several newspapers called Folsom home at one time or another.  They poked fun at other towns, especially Clayton.  One editor spent the night there and complained about the gunfire piercing his sleep, and expressed thanks that Folsom was not such a lawless place.  The editor in Clayton complained equally about Folsom.  At one point, the editors sold their respective papers to each other and switched towns.  They then began attacking the towns they had just left!

One of New Mexico's most notorious bandits, Black Jack Ketchum, robbed his last train just outside Folsom.  He was captured and hanged in Clayton, during which hanging he was decapitated.  He is the only man to be hanged for train robbery in the United States.  >>click here to read more

In 188?, two Dallas investors put together nearly $50,000, a huge sum in those days, to build a majestic hotel just east of town.  They were hoping to make it into a mineral springs resort, much like Hot Springs, NM.  The hotel was built on the edge of a gorge, and they planned to build a dam to create a small lake for fishing and canoeing.  The building was absolutely incredible and would have been an eye catcher even in the biggest of cities.  Two weeks from completion, the investors began to feud with each other and dropped the project altogether. 

They never sent another dime nor did they visit the town again.  People held parties in the abandoned structure, newcomers lived in it while their houses were being finished, and vagrants called it home.  To add to the indignation, bits and pieces were stolen for use on houses in the area.  The hotel was slowly deconstructed in this manner and fell victim to the occasional fire.  The flood of 1908 finally washed away what was left.  If the hotel had survived to the present day, Folsom might be an entirely different town altogether.

Folsom was built in a valley next to the Dry Cimarron.  Except after a rain, the river is usually dry but for isolated spots fed by underground springs.  Near Folsom, the river is more of a trench -- 10 to 15 feet across and 10 feet or so deep.  The town was periodically victimized by flooding, filling the main street three to four feet deep with water.  The head waters of the Dry Cimarron start eight miles west of Folsom at the edge of the Johnson Mesa, providing the drainage for a large area of that mesa and the surrounding lowlands.

In 1908, the hay had been cut and the leftover stalks littered the fields.  A cloudburst settled above the river's headwaters and dumped an unusually large amount of rain.  The waters collected the hay stalks and other debris and carried them along until they began to block the small railroad bridges.  When these impromptu dams gave way, the resulting surge added to the already swelling river.

 Residents up the river realized that the town was in danger and called ahead to warn them.  Sarah J. "Sally" Rooke, the Folsom telephone operator, stayed at her station to call as many residents as possible to alert them to the impending flood.  Ms. Rooke was washed away and died along with 17 other people.

Most of the buildings which were not built on foundations were washed away.  The displaced residents never returned to rebuild.  From that point on, the town dwindled away to its present population of about eighty souls.  The last store closed in the seventies.  The infamous Folsom Inn & Bar was opened around that time and operated until 2007.

In 2009, the state of New Mexico honored Sarah Rooke as one of the Heroines of New Mexico and erected a monument in her honor next to the Folsom Museum.  Not much is known about Ms. Rooke other than she arrived in Folsom later in life and was unmarried at the time of her death.  She arrived in the little town probably expecting to live out her life and die in obscurity, only to be immortalized on that terrible night.

Mike Schoonover, November 2010

Below are newspaper and personal accounts of the 1908 and 1890 flood -- click on any title to jump to the corresponding story:

Folsom Museum News That Was
Folsom Flood of August 27, 1908

La Epoca
August 31, 1908

The Folsom Metropolitan
August 15, 1890

The Flood as Experienced by Ella Stringfellow

The Flood as Experienced by Alcutt McNaghten

A Narrow Escape for Tom Honey

In Memory of the 17 Lives Lost August 2, 1908


Folsom Stock Yards Horse Shoe Bend
image courtesy of Noah Schoonover

Folsom Museum News That Was
Folsom Flood of August 27, 1908

More information about the 1908 Flood is on display at the Folsom Museum

The Folsom community flourished with a population of about 800 until the disastrous midnight flood of August 27, 1908, which swept away most of the town's business buildings and various residences. In all, a total of 17 lives were tragically lost.

Old timers have stated that empty washtubs standing out in that heavy rain filled to overflowing during the cloudburst along the Dry Cimarron River headwaters at Johnson Mesa, eight to ten miles west of Folsom.

Sarah J. Rooke, telephone operator at Folsom, received a frenzied call from Mrs. Ben F. Owen, eight miles upriver, telling of the cloudburst and the onrushing torrent. The water was held off for some time by trees and debris at the railroad bridge just west of Folsom. When the bridge gave way, it allowed over a five-foot wall of water to sweep through the town.

Mrs. Rooke called as many persons as possible, warning them to leave their homes for higher ground at once. Her pleas were ignored; the Dry Cimarron, even during heavy rains, had never really endangered the town. Choosing to remain at her switchboard, she lost her own life. Her body was recovered the following spring about eight miles downriver. A monument and plaque, honoring her heroic deed, was placed in Folsom Cemetery by the Telephone Company.

Folsom never regained its business status after this terrible experience. Today, the Village of Folsom has a population of about 65.

La Epoca
August 31, 1908

(The issue of August 29, 1908 was delayed until August 31, 1908 because of flood damage to the press).

The most destructive flood ever witnessed by the people at Folsom struck the town about midnight of August 27. It was caused by a cloudburst west of town on the headwaters of the Dry Cimarron River.

Just after a beautiful rain in the evening, the sun set upon a happy and prosperous little town of 800 inhabitants. The next morning, it arose in a clear sky upon a scene of destruction, death, desolation and horror. After sunset a strong southeast wind began to blow and clouds began forming and collecting among the mountain peaks. Vivid and continuous lightning soon developed and the unbroken background of solid gray cloud underneath a black and rolling mass of upper lining revealed the evolution of a most extraordinary and terrific battle of the elements. The near approach of this most terrific battle of elements and downpour of torrential waters was heralded by the lowing of cattle, the barking and howling of dogs, and the fluttering chirp of birds from their roosts among the willows.

Down came the torrents of water amid the continuous flashing of lightning and crashing of deafening peals of thunder that were echoing back and forth from peak to peak, the continuous roar sending terror to the heart of man, bird and beast. Yet amidst all this there were those who did not dream of the scene which was to awaken them.

Mrs. Owen, who lives 8 miles up the river, telephoned Mrs. S. J. Rooke at the Central Office that the most terrible flood that had ever been known here was advancing upon the town. Mrs. Rooke faithfully warned all that she could warn of the impending danger. Her office was a small building which turned over as the flood struck it, extinguishing the light and carrying this brave and faithful lady to her death. Mrs. Rooke was a member in high standing of the Eastern Star. Her body has not been recovered to date.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas W. Wheeler and their two children, Walter and Vera; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wheeler, with their four days old baby boy; Mrs. Cox, the mother of the Mesdames Wheeler, with her youngest daughter, Theler, aged 13, were swept away. The frame building which they occupied floated like an eggshell. The Wheeler brothers married sisters and the two families were exceedingly affectionate and kind to each other. The mother was visiting here from Sterling, Oklahoma. The bodies of this entire family (a total of nine family members), have been interred side-by-side in our beautiful little cemetery here, except Mrs. Cox and Theler, whose bodies were shipped to Sterling, Oklahoma Sunday evening.

The water soon began to spread over town in high rolling waves. The railroad bridge west of town held it in check for a while then it broke and let loose a mighty volume of water that swept everything along with it. The stream was now nearly half a mile wide and was at least five feet deep in the streets and rushing along with a mad, torrential velocity that picked up houses and floated them off like chips.

John Young's stable, in which were tied three fine horses, was picked up like chaff, torn to pieces, the horses killed and the debris was piled up in front of Baker's saloon, while was a stone building and withstood the torrent.

We are sorry that we cannot give more details this week but, lack of time and the condition in which our office was left by the flood, prevents. We will give every detail in Saturday's issue with a full report of loss. Quite a number of strangers have visited our city and assistance offered and rendered, a full account of which we will publish Saturday.

The Folsom Metropolitan
August 15, 1890

Cloud Burst In Upper Dry Cimarron Canyon
Floods the City of Folsom With Water
Trains Delayed in the City Since Friday

Morning (August 15) - The Passengers Well Pleased With Folsom

The people of our city were startled Thursday evening about 5:30 by a rider who informed them that the Dry Cimarron was raising at a remarkable rate and that the water was coming down the canyon several deep. Everybody immediately commenced making preparations to save everything that was in danger of being carried away, and in less than one half hour the Cimarron was out of her banks and spreading over the city. There was not much damage done in the city, only the carrying off of loose articles that were thoughtlessly left out of doors.

While the rain in the city could not have been called anything more than a shower, a short ways above the Hereford Park Ranch, about 6 miles west of the city, it seemed to be a steady downpour for over two hours. Parties in from that neighborhood yesterday say they have never witnessed such a rain before in their life. It had more the appearance of a cloudburst than a rain.

Thursday evenings train had not arrived up to the time of going to press. Yesterday mornings 6:20 train could not get any further north and returned to Texline to wait until the roads are again repaired. The passengers were left at this place until a train can be started north.

The flood had hardly spread itself over town until the water commenced falling, and in less than three hours the water was off the streets. Among the damages done, so far as could be ascertained under the facilities to learn the news along the river on so short a notice, are the following:

We understand a number of railroad bridges between Trinidad and this place, also the one across the Cimarron west of this place, were washed away, besides two or three hundred yards of track at Emery Gap. One report is that nearly three miles of track was washed out near the above place.

The bridge at Fisher Peak was washed out and will have to e replaced with a new one.

About 200 yards of fence was washed away for Dr. T. E. Owen on the Hereford Park Ranch.

William H. Jack has less fence by several rods today than was around his ranch Thursday morning.

Fairchild B. Drew lost a number of panels from his fence at his ranch west of town, also about five tons of new mown hay and most of his garden.

Robinson & LaBelle's cellar, under their store building, was filled and workmen were repairing the damage yesterday. The damages sustained will be about $50.00.

A horse was drowned. The animal was staked near the river, and being unable to reach high land, perished in the flood. The water reached the floor of the land office.

Jackson Tabor's house, on Grand Avenue, had a narrow escape from being carried down the canyon.

We understand that one of our townsmen started for Capulin when the flood was first reported, so as to be on dry land. C. George Myers, who lives a few miles east of the city, experienced the loss of several tons of alfalfa and lots of fence. He estimates the damage to be about $400.00.

The bridge near J. S. Daugherty's ranch, across Trinchera was washed away.

Maxwell G. Records lost some fence, a part of his garden and a number of fruit trees at his ranch in Oak Canyon.

D. C. Young, of Oak Canyon, lost considerable fence and his oat crop is damaged considerably.

William Cronk had to use the pump on his cellar yesterday morning to relieve it of an abundance of water.

The residence of Mr. E. L. Mosely was flooded and most everything was ruined.

Thompson's Restaurant was filled with water and a number of articles soiled.

The Flood as Experienced by Ella Stringfellow

August 27, 1908 was the date of the Great Folsom Flood and on that particular day my parents, Dan and Kate Harvey, had overnight guests, which was not an unusual custom in the horse and buggy days. The guests were the McMinamin family and had consisted of the parents: John and Myrtle and a baby girl. I was seven years old at the time. The baby, who was ill, cried off and on all night, much to my distress. My mother looked out of the window and saw our horses trying to get into the area we called the horse pasture. Almost instantly, they disappeared. We later learned that they had been swept down stream some 6 or 7 miles by the swift tide of flood water. They all survived with the exception of one small colt which drowned.

After the flood waters subsided, the body of Irvin Cox's mother was found on Dad's dam, and his sister's body was on the horse trail in the horse pasture. It was close to this area that my Dad found the body of Sally Rooke several months after the flood and when he was burning debris on what we called the "corn patch." My Dad, Bud Sumpter, and Sam David also found the body of Mr. Dan Wenger buried in a sand bar with only his hand visible. My Dad often told of the sun reflecting from a Masonic ring on his finger.

The Flood as Experienced by Alcutt McNaghten (spelling?)

In the spring of 1907, I was sent to Folsom to work the second shift (telegrapher on the railroad). Mother came to keep house for me. We lived in the old stone house east of town (east of the Doherty store), which mother had purchased some time previous. The following year on August 27, 1908 Folsom was inundated by the worst flood in its history. I think there were about 250 people living there at the time, and 17 of them lost their lives in the flood. As near as I can remember, this is an account of the flood.

My hours were from 3:00 p.m. to midnight. At around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., I had cleaned up my work and was just waiting for my relief. I noticed that the telephone repeatedly jingled one ring. As our ring was two rings, I initially paid no attention. After the ringing persisted for some time, I decided to answer, thinking that someone needed assistance. The person on the line was Sally Rooke, the elderly telephone operator. She was in a very excited state. She did, however, manage to tell me that there was "an awful flood coming down the river" and to get out and notify everyone we could.

I tore out at once to tell anyone I could. My intentions were to go to our house and notify Mother first. When I got to the Doherty store I encountered Bob Penniwell, manager of Wenger's Store, who was on the same mission. I told Bob, "You go down one side of the street and I'll go down the other." The plan was to notify people, then come back to the wagon yard, hitch a team to a wagon and take people to higher ground. The school being our intended goal.

I notified Mother and told her that I would be back with a wagon to take her out. When we got back from notifying people, it was too late. The flood was too close. We didn't get any wagon out. I went back to the depot. My relief was there and I told him that I was going back to my home. The night was pitch black. The only way one could see was by the lightning flashes. I took a lantern and started toward home. It was raining hard. About half way to the house I slipped and fell. The water, which was running rather deep, put my lantern out. I decided to return to the depot because I knew the way back in the dark. As I returned to the depot, I could see a few lights burning here and there. When I arrived at the depot, I heard the flood coming. By the lightning flashes I could see the wall of water. It looked like it was about four feet high. By this time travel was impossible.

The Rope family who lived across the street from the old Folsom Hotel (the rock hotel not the wood hotel), came to the depot for safe refuge. Together we could only watch and hope. My concern was whether our house would stand the raging waters. As we watched, we saw a building near the end of the Folsom Hotel disintegrate like an egg crate. The water maintained the four foot wall for about 20 minutes or so and then rose higher. That rise brought the water just barely into the depot. It maintained this level until about 3:00 a.m., and then began to recede.

We tried to get over into town several times, but the depth of the water kept us out. Finally after sunup, we went up and around the church and then down Main Street. There was still quite a bit of water running in the street. The scene that greeted us was one of devastation; Sally Rooke's house was down in front of Doherty's Store on its side with the front completely gone. The saloon building had washed into our house, its patrons were safely perched in the attic.

Fry Wilson was in a building one door removed from the telephone office. Old Frye felt the house going so he jerked the doors open (allowing the water to flow through the building). The house settled and only moved slightly. John Young and his son were in a house that was nailed to a fence post. They said that the house moved all night but it never broke loose from that post.

When my mother saw the water begin to come up, she and a woman who was working for her got up on a table. When the water got a little higher the situation became uncomfortable, so they got on top of the piano. There they remained until the flood was over. There was about 2 inches of mud in the house, and evidence that the water reached the depth of three and a half feet in the house.

There were 17 people killed in the flood. Nine members of the Wheeler family died. Mr. and Mrs. Dan B. Wenger and their daughter, Daisy, were lost, plus Lucy Creighton, who kept books for Wenger's store. The Wenger house and its four occupants was seen with the lights still burning floating down Grand Avenue and the screams of the occupants for help could be heard above the roar of the waters. About two miles below town the flood waters created a whirlpool which caught the Wenger house and spun it around and around until it hit the river bank. After the flood, the largest piece of the house that could be found was half of a door. The Wengers were interred at the Masonic Cemetery, Trinidad, Colorado.

Antonio Salas' concern for his livestock (and his favorite horse), cost him his life. He went to the corral to see about the stock, and the oncoming flood caught him before he could return to the house. He lived west of the railroad bridge, one mile, west of town. Demetrio Guerin and his wife, living near the pump house, were swept away by the current. (Father Dumarest interred Antonio Salas and the Guerins at the Catholic Cemetery).

Bodies were found lying down river as far as the John's Ranch. We saddled horses and rode down the river. The first thing that we encountered was a group of people on the north side of the river about a mile from town. They had discovered some of the Wheeler bodies. My saddle, which washed away, was also there. A little further on up the rocks, on the north side where it begins to form a short canyon, was Antonio Salas lying on a flat rock as though he were asleep. The next recovery was Mrs. Wenger and a girl from the Wheelers. We only went as far as the John's Ranch and returned to town. All the bodies were recovered except Mrs. Rooke. Her body wasn't recovered until the following spring, when it was discovered by Dan Harvey as he was burning a windrow of driftwood. He found a shoe and upon further examination discovered it to be the body of the heroine of the flood. Having no family, the Masonic Lodge arranged the funeral service for Sally, an Eastern Star Member.

The flood of August 27, 1908 was caused by a cloudburst on the Trinchera Pass. Part of the water went Trinchera way and part Folsom way. If by chance all of the water had gone either way, it would have completely wiped out the town.

The Owens Ranch was where the alarm was first sounded. The Owens were some of the first settlers in this part of the country and had seen many floods go down the river. They told Sally Rooke that this was one of the worst that they had ever seen. It was the worst that anyone had seen.

The river path through town prior to the flood of 1908 meandered. Later a straight channel was dug and it carries water quite nicely to this day.

A Narrow Escape for Tom Honey

Tom Honey was out with Sheriff Tabor and got into Folsom late. It looked like a bad storm was coming up. Dan Wenger asked him to stay the night with them. Tom thanked him and said he had better get home. His horse made it home in fifteen minutes without striking up a gallop.

Tom got home just before the flood. He told Mrs. Honey to call Folsom and tell them to go to higher ground. It was too late; the storm had already broken the telephone lines. Tom went to Folsom the next day because he knew there was trouble. Mr. Wenger and family and many others were washed away. Tom spent days helping to find the bodies.

In Memory of the 17 Lives Lost August 2, 1908

Sarah J. "Sally" Rooke, Telephone Switchboard Operator

Thomas W. Wheeler, Husband of Lula; brother of Charles Wheeler

Lula Cox Wheeler, Wife of Thomas; sister of Willie

Willie Cox Wheeler, Wife of Charles; sister of Lula

Infant Son Wheeler, 4 day old son of Charles and Willie Wheeler

Mrs. Cox, Mother of Lula, Willie and Theler

Theler Cox, Age 13 years; sister of Lula and Willie Wheeler

Walter Wheeler, Age 8 years; Son of Thomas and Lula Wheeler

Vera Wheeler, Daughter of Thomas and Lula Wheeler

Charles Wheeler, Brother of Thomas Wheeler; husband of Willie Cox

Dan B. Wenger, Husband and Father

Mrs. Dan B. Wenger, Wife and Mother

Daisy Wenger, Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dan B. Wenger

Lucy Creighton

Antonio Salas

Demetrio Guerin

Mrs. Demetrio Guerin