A flood of memories
Area residents recall damage, loss brought by flooding of 1951
Perhaps when they founded De Soto on a rise overlooking the Kansas River in 1857, B.W. Woodward, James Ligate, James Findley and G.W. Hutchinson were heeding a warning from Native Americans who remembered a "monster flood" that occurred 13 years before.
Those with first-hand experience with the river aren't betrayed by its usual meandering demeanor.
"My grandfather told me when I was a kid that I'd live to see the day water would run from bluff to bluff," Frances Lawhead said of a man who witnessed the flood of 1903. "I thought he was pulling my leg."
Whatever the reason, the decision to build De Soto on the ridge between the East and West Bottoms paid dividends 50 years ago this summer when swollen Kansas rivers visited misery on less ideally situated communities from Hays to the Missouri line.
De Soto didn't escape the consequences of the great 1951 flood. Those who paid the greatest price were the truck farmers, who lived and worked in the river's rich bottomland, producing fruits and vegetables for metropolitan customers. They saw their fields washed out, equipment carried away or made useless and home and outbuildings destroyed.
"We lost everything," Lawhead said. "Watermelons and cantaloupe. Did you ever see watermelon and cantaloupes float?"
The 1951 flood was one of four "monster floods" that have visited the Kansas River basin in recorded history, said Charles Perry, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Lawrence.
Localized flooding followed numerous storms in the spring and early summer of 1951. But the real trouble started after the skies opened up from July 8 through July 12. During that period, a large swath of east-central Kansas received from eight to 16 inches of rain.
At the time, Lawhead lived on a farm south of town. Her grandparents, however, lived in a house on 83rd Street that is now her home. The family took action as the river inched toward the house in mid-July.
"We moved all the animals except one pig we couldn't catch," she said. "The next morning, my grandmother came out the front door to see how high the water was, and the pig had made its way to the front porch. The water was lapping at the door.
"Howard Caldwell laughed at us while we were moving out. He said.,'I just put my fertilizer in the top of the barn.' We heard a loud crash. I said, 'There goes your barn.'"
Those living on the river knew when to take action by watching it rise. Others weren't so fortunate.
Mary Bichelmeyer and her young family were living in the Amourdale area of Kansas City, Kan. The U.S. Corps of Engineers had assured residents they were safe. Then on Friday, July 13, the Corps realized levees would not contain the swollen Kansas River.
"We had just won a new television set," Bichelmeyer remembered. "There were a lot of family members watching because we were the only ones with a television. We were watching Howdy Dowdy when Leo called and said we'd better move.
Bichelmeyer left her home with her two children. She and her husband returned to retrieve the television and a bedroom set before joining the mass exodus from the Armourdale neighborhood.
"That was all we got out," she said. "Water came up clear over our house. They were going over our house with boats."
At the flood's peak on July 14, about 510,000 cubic feet of water per second flowed by De Soto, Perry said. That is enough water to fill 385 Olympic-sized swimming pools every second. The river normally flows at 7,511 cubic feet per second.
As the July 1951 rains drained out of the state, the Kansas, Neosho and Marais des Cygnes rivers were flowing at 1.1 million cubic feet per second, Perry said. In the flood year of 1993, the Mississippi River at St. Louis (below the confluence with the Missouri River) was flowing at 1 million cubic feet per second.
As the water rose, De Soto became isolated. Leon Coker said Kansas Highways 7 and 10 were closed. The only route in and out of town was through the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.
The plant's importance led to a speedy repair of one transportation link after floodwater washed out a section of track east of the Kill Creek railroad bridge, Coker said. The federal government had a contractor shove seven box cars loaded with limestone into the gap.
"They laid the track on top of the cars," he said. "If you dug down, those cars would still be there."
Bill Lafferty worked at Sunflower in 1951 and was pressed into a duty common to many.
"I remember making up a lot sandbags to sandbag the intake down by the river," he said of Sunflower's surface water intake facility. "We saved it. The flood didn't take it out."
Twenty-three Kansas communities saw their water treatment plants engulfed during the flood. In Topeka, as many as 5,000 men at a time struggled to maintain a floodwall protecting the water works.
The efforts went on as evacuees searched for a place to stay. Max Atwell said his family was forced to abandon its home in the West Bottoms. They found refuge in an apartment owned by James and Merle Bradley.
"The West Bottoms was one big lake," Atwell said. "They were launching boats from a spot between the Sunflower railroad spur and the railroad."
The flood affected those who lived safely above the rising water.
"I was milking 36 dairy cows," Lawhead said. "The milk man couldn't get to me. I skimmed the cream and threw out the milk."
Bichelmeyer said her family stayed with relatives near Eudora before locating an apartment above a storefront in Kansas City, Kan. She found humans weren't the only creatures looking for new homes.
"The flood drove the rats from their nests near the river," she said. "Rats were coming into the apartment so bad we had to knock them in the head with a baseball bat. You would be giving the kids a bath, and you'd see a rat's head come up from the toilet."
Lawhead said the flood also displaced snakes and fish. She remembers a game warden asking if people were taking fish stranded in pools as the floodwater receded. The fish didn't tempt her family, she said.
"There was so much debris in the river dead cattle, outhouses. A lot of people had outhouses, particularly out west," she said. "That was coming down the river. I don't think we ever ate anything out of the river again, and we used to before."
When the truck farmers returned to their fields, they found them buried under "sand, sand, sand," Lawhead said.
"The government brought in plows taller than I am," she said. "They pulled them with dozers and turned all that over. It was fascinating to watch, because I suppose they turned 10 feet at a time."
Lawhead estimates it took the truck farmers seven to 10 years to recoup their losses from the flood.
With their crops gone, the truck farmers took jobs cleaning up flood damage in Kansas City, Lawhead said. Her husband, Chuck, was a heavy equipment operator. Unable to find work locally, he was working in Wyoming before the flood.
"When he heard how bad it was, he said he better come home," she said. "He found work in Kansas City when he got back."
There was a lot of work to do, Bichelmeyer said. Her husband and his brothers worked for days to dig out the Bichelmeyer Brothers Meat Market from under the sand and silt left by the flood.
The smell of rotting cattle in the Kansas City stockyards was horrible, Bichelmeyer said. Trucks removing the dead animals frequently dropped a corpse on the road, where it would foul the air for days, she said.
Water never made it into the living area of his family's home, Atwell said. They did find their basement filled with water and muck.
"My 13-year-old legs made a lot of trips up those stairs carrying all that stuff out of there in buckets," he said.
Others had no home to return to, Atwell said. The West Bottoms home of Bill Tripkos washed away during the flood.
History shows the river will run from bluff to bluff again, Perry said. The floods of 1844 and 1951 would have caused severe flooding in Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City despite the presence of upstream dams. Researchers have found evidence of an even worse flood in 1785, which was recorded by early settlers of St. Louis, he said.
Floods and droughts occur on roughly 11-year cycles that correspond with peaks and valleys in the sun's energy output. Five years after the sun's peak energy year, we can expect a wet year, Perry said. Droughts follow the low energy years.
The river is no longer in view from Lawhead's front porch. Learning from her family's long association with the river, she and her husband brought in truckloads of fill to build up the land around the house.
Others have forgotten or ignored the river's history, and Lawhead fears the next big flood will bring more drastic consequences to De Soto.
"The area that is now the Meadows was all under water in 1951," she said. "A lot of people are going to be surprised next time."