Flooding the Phones

The town of Folsom, New Mexico isn’t named after the prison made famous by the Johnny Cash song. It isn’t much of a town at all — its population, per the 2000 census, was only 75 people, and by 2010, that number had fallen below 60. Its Wikipedia entry notes that it is often seen as a ghost town with no high school — children are bused to another town’s, eight miles away — and a downtown which barely has any businesses in use. The only notable one is the Folsom Museum which is open seven days a week, but only from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

But about 100 years ago, Folsom was a much more significant town with a population nearing 1,000, as land was plentiful, allowing for the development of a farming and later a ranching community. That all changed in the summer of 1908. One event set Folsom down the path toward its ultimate demise — and it turned a woman named Sally Rooke into an unsung hero.

In 1905, Rooke, then in her early 60s and living in Iowa, came to New Mexico to visit a friend. She decided that the temperate climate was better for her needs and lifestyle, so she ended up moving there. She settled down in Folsom where she soon found work as the local telephone operator. Folsom’s growth as a town had just about stunted, as droughts had made the area unsuitable for farming, but many of the locals turned toward ranching and remained in the area.

On August 27, 1908, that changed. A freak storm struck the town with only a few hours warning, leading to tragic results. According to the Folsom Museum’s website, a woman named Mrs. Owen living eight miles north of Folsom called the telephone switchboard to warn of the upcoming storm. Two hours later, Folsom was overcome by lightning and rain. The streets and buildings in the village flooded. Eighteen people died in the storm.

It would have been more but for Ms. Rooke. Once Mrs. Owen’s message came through, Rooke, stationed at the switchboard, began ringing the households who subscribed to the phone service to warn them of the impending danger. Many took her at her word and made for higher ground, climbing into lofts, perching themselves on the rafters, or seeking shelter in the attics of nearby barns. Throughout the storm, Rooke kept calling townspeople, passing on her message of warning and connecting them with loved ones. She didn’t give up until the decision to do so was taken from her. As the storm passed overhead, lightning struck the telephone system, taking Sally Rooke’s life with it.

Ms. Rooke was buried in an unmarked grave but 18 years after the events, the village honored her with a monument to her heroic efforts, staying by the phones to save the lives of others.

Bonus Fact: The Folsom flood led to tragedy, but it also led to one of the greatest archeological discoveries in American history. After the waters receded, a man named George McJunkin discovered the remains of a giant bison — a long extinct species — in a nearby cave. Within the fossil’s ribs was a stone tool, one clearly made by humans. The discovery was the first piece of evidence that humans lived in North America at the same time as the giant bison — 7,000 years earlier than previously believed.

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RelatedJohnny Cash live at the totally unrelated Folsom Prison.