Accounts of the 1951 Kansas River Flood
There have been numerous floods in the state of Kansas. Some of the biggest and most devastating are known to have happened in 1826, 1827, 1844 and 1903, just to name a few. One of the most well documented of those came when the Kansas River spilled over its banks in July of 1951. The flooding started above Manhattan on the Big Blue River. Downstream flooding continued in Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City. In Topeka alone 7,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The rising river waters caused transportation throughout the river basin to cease. The damage at that time exceeded $935 million in an area covering eastern Kansas and Missouri. The flood resulted in the loss of 17 lives and displaced 518,000 people.
Houses and buildings collapsed or floated away. People stood on rooftops stranded and waiting for rescue while the structures beneath them filled with sand and mud from the roaring waters of the Kaw. The residents living in cities near the river hadn’t seen devastation such as this since 1903. This disaster however, surpassed anything that had come before, and was foretold by old Indian prophecy as far as the eye can see and from "hill to hill."
In Manhattan a total of 21.38 inches of rain had fallen in the months of May and June. On July 9 torrential rainfall added to these totals. By noon on July 11, the water was at a high point and it just kept coming. The Manhattan, Kansas, business district (Poyntz), was now a water-filled canal resembling the gondolas of Italy as boatmen rowed from place to place searching for victims.
In residential areas some were able to wade through the waters carrying belongings and searching for a dry place to collapse. Many were evacuated from rooftops and brought to Kansas State University where the Student Center was used to deliver dry clothes, hot food, and bedding.
It wasn’t long before the Coast Guard came in with anti-typhoid vaccine from St. Louis. Disease is always a concern when flood waters come and this catastrophe meant drowning victims, rotting livestock, and spoiled foods. Albert Horlings, editor for the Manhattan Tribune News, described the air as having an "unimaginable stench." He described one particular scene at a downtown bakery as having racks of bread dough ready to bake, but covered with "a thick layer of mud frosting."
Flooding in northeast Topeka, 1951.
Journalist Jan Landon of the Capital Journal wrote in a 2001, fifty year article:
"This raging mess must have come straight from hell. No place on Earth could send this much unholy horror—this much stinking, swirling, dirty river water into the lives of so many good Kansans. Water topped and toppled dikes, bowed and broke bridges, sending them like matchsticks down the river that swallowed homes and businesses and lives forever."
She further went on to describe the only flood-related death in Topeka as that of 73-year-old Mary Klamm, who was electrocuted at her home at 417 Lime. Officials said she had gone down to her flooded basement carrying an electric extension cord plugged into an upstairs socket. There were no lights in the basement, which still had water on the floor.
Past Manhattan and out into the rural farmlands where there were once rows of green vegetation, now stood large lakes that seemed to go on and on. Lawrence, Kansas, remembers that summer like no other with North Lawrence being hit hard. Numerous Lawrence residents from that time vividly described their memories in a 2001 Journal World newspaper article:
"I can remember the sand bagging and helping my folks as they went down to Cole's IGA to put items up on the shelves hopefully out of high water range. My father worked for Kansas Public Gas Service during the time of the flood. He was the foreman for the pipeline and he stayed over in North Lawrence during the flood and turned off gas mains." (Beverly Alexander)
"When the water went down, I went to work and we had tubs and boxes of muddy clothes that people brought from their flooded homes in North Lawrence. They just lined them up down the street in front of the Lawrence Laundry and Dry Cleaners office." (Cletis Converse)
"I was 11 years old at the time the flood hit. My parents (P.J. and Anna Spooner) had been keeping a watchful eye on the river along with the rest of the North Lawrence residents. Each evening my father would load up the whole family and go to the Union Pacific Depot to watch the river rising and talk with the other residents gathered there. Everyone was saying the levy would hold it wasn't as bad as the 1931 Flood.
On the evening of July 13, 1951, my parents, three sisters, a nephew and I were at the depot when one of the railroad workers came running up the street yelling that the dike at Second and Lyon had broken through. Our house was at 611 Lyon. Dad piled all of us in the car and took off south across the river bridge. I can remember the water on the street was over the running boards of our car and lapping at our feet." (Wray Spooner)
Further downstream Eudora, Kansas, experienced its own hell. Many of those personal accounts can today be found in historical records. Jack McCabria, living west of Eudora at the time, said the rain began when it was time to combine the fields. The McCabria’s knew they were in trouble so when the water got higher, they moved their milk cows and 1,000 turkeys to a relative’s home.
Farmer, Edwin Ott, wasn't quite as lucky. He lost 70 cows, hogs, and horses to the flood waters just because he couldn't get his truck to start. Nearby, Harry Schmidt lost about 1,250 turkeys. The big lake of swirling, muddy water forced most families to evacuate leaving behind an unspeakable mess.
These are but a few of the towns and communities affected by the raging flood waters of the Kansas River in 1951. For those who were around during that time, it is still something that puts fear into their hearts. For those who weren’t born yet, these stories provide good examples of the toughness of Kansans and their will to survive even the greatest of floods.
Sources: Topeka Capital Journal, Lawrence Journal World, Eudora Historical Society, A Picture Book: The Great Flood of 1951