Cover photo : Men on a makeshift raft in Armourdale, Courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections
The Great Flood of 1951
By Diane Euston
Friday the 13th has an ominous representation due to superstitions, and that feeling of dread was perfectly clear on that date in 1951. As cars drove over the bridges of Kansas City, little children such as my own father, Larry Euston, were forever imprinted with what they saw. Just four years old, my father vividly remembers looking down upon a disaster as they crossed over the inner city viaduct into downtown. The bridge overlooking the West Bottoms gave a view of the devastation flooding below. The 1951 flood, to this day, is the worst flood in our city’s history.
A City Built Upon River Traffic
Kansas City was founded because of its river location, and its history includes multiple floods in its past. The Chouteau Trading Post–the first settlement of people in the area- was forced to move in 1826 due to flooding.
After the Hannibal Bridge was constructed in 1869, railroad tracks went in and out of the West Bottoms due to the stockyards and meatpacking plants. A devastating flood in 1903 set business back, but industry was quick to return to the bottoms to conduct business.
The Storms Surge into the City
May, June and July of 1951 saw flooding of the Kansas, Neosho, Osage, Verdigris and Missouri Rivers. In May, eastern Kansas saw 200 percent more rain than the average. In June around 300 percent.
Between July 9 and July 12, about 17 to 19 inches of rain fell.
By Friday the 13th–nicknamed “Black Friday”– the Kansas River crested from Manhattan to Bonner Springs, Ks. The next morning, the Kansas River reached flood stage at Kansas City where it was 14 feet above flood stage. As the Kansas River spilled into the Mighty Mo, the water was moving 10 times the normal speed, crashing into barges and levees. Shortly thereafter, the levees protecting the Argentine district poured over and 15,000 people evacuated their homes. Flood waters came within four blocks of hitting Union Station. The Hannibal Bridge had runaway barges smash into its support system, further alerting anxious Kansas Citians to the impending doom.
The West Bottoms
Many people weren’t too concerned about the West Bottoms, at first. A 33-foot floodwall had been built to protect precious cargo, businesses, the stockyards and meatpacking plants. But this flood was too strong; a 40-foot wave of water tumbled the wall over, and the Kansas River gushed in.
The Kansas City Star reported, “Virtually none of the approximate 450 business enterprises in the Central Industrial District have escaped extensive damage, and few are free of trouble in the other areas.”
At the Union Pacific building at 12th and Liberty, the 1951 flood went five feet two inches above the high watermark from the 1903 flood. Those rains in July were 400 percent more than the average rainfall expected.
As my father had looked down from the car on the bridge overlooking the West Bottoms, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing in front of him. “I remember seeing at least one cow on top of a railroad car just standing there stranded!” he recalled. The lone cow on top of that railroad car had gotten loose likely from his stockyard pen.
Stories in Kansas City
In the Amourdale area of town, soap companies Colgate-Palmolive-Peet and Proctor & Gamble suffered great losses as water 16-feet deep plunged into their warehouses. Cliff J. Kaney, an official with the nearby Kansas City Livestock Exchange building, couldn’t even begin to estimate the damages and commented to the Kansas City Star, “[Water] is in my office on the second floor of the exchange building.”
Businesses in the Bottoms claimed to not be given sufficient warning, so when an evacuation was ordered, people rushed to save what they could. People focused first on getting records and currency out of their buildings and then rummaged to save the rest. Owners of Ambrose Wine Company and Weber Paper Company went into their places of business on foot and had to leave by boat.
Husband and wife team Mr. and Mrs. Fink, owners of Miller Cafeteria at 1301 Union Ave., dashed into their store. Fink told his wife to leave so he could turn off the electricity and equipment. Before he could get to safety himself, he was knee-deep in water. The power of the current wouldn’t allow him to leave through the front door, so Fink resorted to climbing out onto the roof of his business and jumped into six feet of water below.
Fink told the Kansas City Star, “I swam to ninth street. A hog was swimming my way, too. First, I’d be ahead, then it would be ahead.”
H.T. Brace, an 85 year-old man who had a men’s furnishings company in the West Bottoms for 68 years, was there as he suffered his fourth flood in that location. This flood, unfortunately, was much worse than the others. “I wanted to take home 500 pairs of shoes . . . They are so blamed expensive. But I didn’t have time.”
Homes, railroad yards, packing plants, warehouses and manufacturing plants were all damaged and destroyed in the Great Flood of 1951. More than 30 inches of rain fell in the early spring and summer that year. A total of 150 communities were devastated, including both state capitals in Missouri and Kansas. The most expensive losses were in Kansas City, Mo. with a total of over $425 million.
There were major fires from oil tanks, and hogs and cattle that were washed out of the stockyards. The American Royal building was under 15 feet of water.
Thomas Hart Benton returned to Kansas City in October and witnessed the wreckage that was left in the flood’s path. He wrote, “In moldy underlying crevices and corners, appeared the ruined enamel of stoves, washing machines, bath tubs and the remains of chairs, couches, beds and children’s playthings. Here and there in the paling autumn sun men and women pecked at mountains of disaster with shingle hatchets and garden shovels.”
1951 Lives on in the Record Books
Today as we rush into our basements and pray our sump pumps don’t fail us, nothing compares to the flooding that occurred in 1951. The total damage in today’s money is $8 billion from this intense natural disaster. A total of 28 lives were lost, including a nine-year-old boy in Halstead, Ks. who drowned after his horse slipped and fell into the gushing water nearby.
Even the flood in 1993 does not match in the power and destruction of what this event had just shy of 68 years ago. Regardless, communities such as Kansas City were quick to band together, rebuild and overcome this natural disaster that flooded throughout the city.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com. Also you can hear Diane on her monthly podcast with host Bob Fescoe of Sports Radio 610.