Archive for Monday, July 2, 2001

Memories of the 1951 Flood

July 2, 2001


Swimming lessons

By Betty Garrison York

Olathe, Kan.

During World War II, my husband, Frank, endured 36-mile forced marches, crossed a sub-infested Pacific, stalked Japanese soldiers in Philippine jungles, was almost smashed by Air Force ration drops, was transported to Japan during a typhoon and survived an ammo dump explosion.

And then he came back (home) to a peaceful, safe job at the Lawrence post office. But that job didn't turn out to be safe or peaceful. It was here he almost drowned in, of all places, a Kansas cornfield.

The Lawrence post office had as superintendent of mail one heck of a man, Sam Moyer. He took the post office motto seriously. Lawrence mail went through sleet, snow, storms, etc., and time was of the essence.

When the trains could not get through during the Flood of '51, Sam would see that the mail "would" get through. My husband and Martin Henry would drive to Kansas City and get it.

And so they did 20 bags of first-class mail.

When the Eudora post office called with the message, "The road is flooded. We can't get through," Sam managed to line up two small fishing boats with drivers and motors, and the mail went through once more.

My husband was feeling satisfied mission accomplished! And then Martin's boat sped past him leaving such a huge wake that Frank's boat filled with water, and it just about sunk. Frank said, "I wish I had learned to swim."

By Beverly (Alexander) Springer

Lawrence, Kan.

In 1951, I lived at 780 Elm St. I hate to admit this but I was 15 years old during the 1951 flood, but the memories of the flood do not cease! 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.

I remember people calling my mother, (my mother, brother and I stayed in West Lawrence with an aunt), to ask her to ask my dad to let the pet goat loose that was tied to the second floor of their house, hopefully to keep it safe from the water!

I remember Mrs. Anna Davenport, who refused to leave her home on Eighth and Oak streets, and the Navy guys picking her up like a sack of potatoes throwing her over their shoulder carrying her to the boat she hit and kicked all the way!

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. He stayed with Mr. and Mrs. John Taylor, an older couple that lived on the 700 block of Locust street, and their house sat high on the street. The Navy boats brought them an ice block to put in their wooden ice box to keep things cold. For a while, they drank water from the hot water heater, as it was the only thing that was sanitary. After a day or two, the boat brought them a supply of water too.

Our folks had just put new hardwood floors down in the living and bedrooms of our house. Water got high enough to come into the house and cover the new floors with about 3 inches to 4 inches of water. When we returned to the house after the water had receded, the new floors were buckled in the middle. My dad took a chainsaw to them, splitting them so they would dry out.

For years there was evidence of the flood mainly in the form of mud. Of course everything that we had put up on picnic tables and high places in the basement in hopes of dodging the water was also ruined.

It was about two weeks after the water had receded before we could go back over to North Lawrence. To go back into the flood area, we all had to have tetanus and diphtheria shots.

The Navy boat would leave from the ATSF Railway Depot and that is where we would get to see my dad as he came back with them to get supplies.

I was standing on the southwest side of the bridge one day when the lady beside me said, "Oh my goodness!" When I looked up, there came her house down the river under the bridge. She said they had told her to put her valuables in a safe place and leave the house for higher ground. She said, "That's exactly what I did and my valuables are in a cedar chest inside the house. I have to follow the house." When she got to the house, which landed in the Eudora area, it had already been ransacked.

Springer and other former and current North Lawrence residents recently gathered for the 6th "Sandrat Reunion" at Woodlawn School. The group got together "to talk about the times past."

By Cletis Converse


During the Flood of 1951, we experienced a down pour of rain. My former husband, Glen Miller, and I lived 4 miles south and two miles east of Eudora. I was employed at the Lawrence Laundry and Dry Cleaners in Lawrence.

That morning, I was driving our 1934 Ford to work. I went to cross the Wakarusa River bridge, west of Eudora on Highway 10. A semi trailer truck driver was in front of me. I followed him into the water that had crossed Highway 10. The water had covered the highway all the way from the Wakarusa River bridge clear to the Tin Tavern hill (or now below Noria Road).

The driver of the semi truck stopped and told me not to follow him that I would never make it in the car. I backed out of it. But between him and I, a slab of concrete from the highway washed out and flipped up right in front of me. The truck driver made it to the Tin Tavern hill. I went back home.

Glen and I took our boat to the bridge. People from the Sunflower Ammunition Army Plant at DeSoto needed to go across the water to get home to Lawrence. Glen sent me to get life jackets for the people to wear while crossing the flood water to get back to their homes. He brought people back from Tin Tavern hill to go to work at the Sunflower Plant. He also brought the mail from Lawrence to Eudora by boat. A farmer that lived in the Eudora bottoms had hogs and cattle in the hay (loft) of his barn. The bottom half of the barn was submerged in the water. The farmer and Glen took feed to the animals by boat.

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.

When the water went down, fish were found in the fields that had washed out of the Wakarusa River.

By Clyde Thierry


The oldest kids took the baby

Out upon the flood,

The only boat they had to use,

Was Mama's big wash tub.

Ma came out and called them in

Said supper's on the table,

They all ran in through waist deep water

As fast as they were able.

The girls sat in their usual place

Trying to act A Lady,

Then Ma cam in with sharp eyes

And asked "Where is my baby?"

They all said "OH"

Pandemonium hit the door,

They quickly swam out to the tub

Like they had never swum before.

I was that baby and lucky to be a live from that Boat RIDE! And I reached 92 years of age, too.

By Gailen Murray


Back in 1951, I was 11 years old, standing at the south end of the Kaw River bridge in the little part that had the cannon mounted; pointed at an imaginary foe. From my safe vantage point, I was watching the flood at its crest when I saw a large, two-story house appear from around the bend up river.

Slowly, it floated in the middle of the torrent. I watched it with wonder. Then it came up against the pier of the Kaw bridge and stopped.

For a moment, it lodged there. Then it shuttered and slowly began to roll with the crunching and cracking of timbers as the old bridge chewed up that huge house and spit out kindling on the other side. In a matter of a few seconds, the house was reduced to splinters and sent on down stream.

I was amazed. I wondered where the house came from and about the family that once lived in it. No more will laughter echo from the walls of that once noble and proud home. I often thing about the great flood back in 1951.

By Lee Miller


During the summer of 1951, my parents, sister and I returned from Japan. We were in Japan, where my father served as an economic advisor for the United States Department of Army to the Japanese Economic Development Project.

My parents and sister stayed in Tacoma, Wash., while I anxious to see my girlfriend boarded a train for Bonner Springs. Everything was fine on the trip until we arrived at Topeka. We saw some indications of the flooding we had heard about through the various conversations during the trip. The flood in and around Topeka caused no problem to us, but the threat was obvious.

When we arrived in Lawrence, we realized the impact of the flood. It looked as if we had arrived at the ocean shore. Water is all we could see on both sides of the train and as far as our vision allowed. As a result of the water level our trip into Kansas City was interrupted by varied stops for periods, sometimes of an hour or more. These stops, I understand, were made while section gangs repaired washed out tracks on our route.

I made it into Union Station and obtained transportation to Bonner Springs. As I traveled back to Bonner Springs, I was amazed at the amount of water covering the whole area.

I had the rest of the summer before I started school at KU, so I got a job to help pay my tuition. What job did I get? A friend of mine and I became members of a section gang. Our job was to repair rail lines and other post-flood responsibilities. We would help repair damage to the Santa Fe Railroad, upon which I had just traveled. We helped clean and repair everything from section hand houses to bridges.

One bridge was heavily damaged and took time and much engineering by several engineers. After about a month of repair we completed the job. The brand new bridge looked as good as new. This was our greatest achievement of the summer. We were so proud, as we saw the test train engine approach. As the engine started across slowly we saw the tracks give a little. This was only natural, we thought. As the engine proceeded it seemed to sink lower and lower. As it reached the middle it began to sink at a rapid rate. It tried to back up, but it was too late. The train, the track and our project sank before our eyes.

As the days accumulated on the section hand job, we wondered about the fate of the engine. We heard it had been pulled out and the bridge was again repaired with the necessary changes made.

My job was a great experience with great amount of excitement and boredom.

As I rode the train back to Lawrence and KU each weekend, I couldn't help thinking about my summer of 1951 and the BIG FLOOD.

Editor's note: The following is an account of the 1951 flood as seen through the eyes of the late Mary Hayden, a North Lawrence land owner and farmer, who was married to Will H. Hayden. They have five daughters: Martha Milleret, Lucille Hansen, Pauline Nunemaker, Della Hadley and Vera Witherspoon (Sehon-Dellwig). The Haydens lived on the north side of U.S. 24-40-59, one mile north of Lawrence.

Friday, July 13, 1951

Dear Mary,

The thing to do is to write this to myself for probably in a few years even I will hardly be able to believe the massiveness of the flood water. The highest water ever to be known in the Kaw Valley. 30.17 fee is the last river reading I have heard over the radio, and they said it had been at that for some while. I can get the correct reading out of the papers when I am able to see some paper again. What I really want to write down are how the actual picture of the situation is around here. I am so very very sorry I haven't got my camera, Vera and Gordon have the car and the camera was left in the car. Thank goodness they have the car in south Lawrence. Makes one less thing to worry about.

This is a Friday the 13th, 12:30 p.m. I'm going to try to describe the picture of things as I see them from the various directions from the house. To the South first. The lawn mower was put on the front porch this morning in anticipation if the water getting clear up in the yard but so far it hasn't. The water is about half way up on the mail box post or about 18-20 inches deep on the slab. There is about 6 inches of the bank still showing on the south side of the road. Gene & Pop are working on the motor for the boat which is drug up on this bank at the drive way. They have the motor on the end gate of the pick up that is parked with its front wheels up on the yard corner tree roots. They have the radio of the pick up flooded tuned in and it sounds like many people want to know where flooded people are. I'll tell something about the neighbors later. There are about a dozen rows of Wood's soybeans showing on the north side of the field and about a half dozen next to the north side of the Wood's shop.

The water is flowing quite fast on the highway. Just a guess, I would say 6 to 8 miles per hour. The water goes to the corner then heads southeast across Stiners field. The current in Wood's field is about at the same pace. There is quite a bit of drift and wheat straw on all the water. A half dozen fellows just came up in a boat and one is standing on the pavement and the water is just above his knees. There goes a box and a barrel over in the Woods field. On the other side of Woods house the wheat stubble and the soybeans show up pretty good clear to the slough bank. It looks as if there isn't much bank left there. Directly south there is no more land showing. To the southwest the corn field on the hog back of "The Forty" shows. ("The Forty refers to another parcel of land the family owned closed to town.) The young men left (Elmers) Wise's dog here. They rescued him from a roof. Palmateers place, the water is to the tops of the windows and just a bit of the green roof of the lean-to garage shows. The eves of the big barn are in the water. Can't see Silvers place from here but the water was high on the windows this morning. The barn of Elmers Wise has only roof showing and has water up to the small bathroom or pantry window. Just the very top of the pea vinery stack shows. The Grove story is another one for later and it is very sad. I haven't see it but Gene was there. From the upstairs window I can see there is water standing in practically all the field south of Wood's house but no current there.

To the west; the water comes up in the drive way almost even with the little house. The north west corner of the back yard over there is under water probably a foot deep at the corner.

Monday, July 16, 4 p.m.

We came home this morning. And before I forget just how things looked when we left here at about 2 p.m. Friday I am going to continue the above as if it were still Friday here at home. I walked over around the little house yard and water was inside the west fence a few feet except at the south end and there was a triangle of perhaps 6 feet that was high and dry. Water was up on the big sign board a little ways but it is up off the ground quite a bit. The hill side by the irrigation well has several feet probably 3 or 4 above water. Also the sandy ridge on this side has a small sliver out of water next to the highway. On west I can't be sure how it is across the slough. Water is pouring down into the slough through all the low draws. In fact from the west side of the one that drains the buffalo wallow to the north road, the hill side is all under water. And also to the north, well the north road is a water way as far as I can see probably to the school house hill. The water is even to my north row of tomatoes. The little house (back house) has several inches of water in it. The hen house is surrounded and water is almost to the droppings boards. I hope the hens have sense enough to stay up. The shed has about 8 or 10 inches at the south door ways and the current comes thru the road on the west of the shed. Pop moved a lot on down stream but he had to get in water to his arm pits at the north corner of the shed. The south roof of the hay shed is 10 or 12 inches out of water. No water in the barn but the barn lot has a few inches. The steel bin at the hay shed is about half way up set. The brome grass was stacked and moved from it to the high platform in the hay shed and it is OK.

To the east; the water goes down the road and the steel bins are dry yet. The east yard and Stiners corner are out of the water. There is a bit of dry pavement between the corner and Stiners. Stiners have water in their basement but the upper part is dry and also the yard and the little house across the road. At the corner here the water goes catty cornered across Stiners to the Zimmerman slough which is one big sea. The roofs of Heck barn show but none of the side walls. There is some one's hen house or barn down that way.

Now then I will jump around from this and that about what I have learned from the radio, and while I was on the outside. First the Heck place, since that was last mentioned. Water is in their basement but not in the house. I saw Mrs. Heck this morning at Tonganoxie. Carol Miller has a basement full of water but not in the house. Robbs house and yard are dry. Arthur Heck's had 4 inches of water, above the base board. The Houses went to the school house. Elmers Wise first went to Charlie Wise's then they all went to Dick's by boat. Palmateer moved out entirely. Elmers Wise's large brooder house moved away. Part of Fred Lewis's house had about 2 feet of water in it, but Junior Heck's had none. Westvaco had 2 feet in the office and some of their small buildings were washed away. It was 8 feet deep in some places of their plant.

Bill and Gene took Clare Wood and I out by boat Friday afternoon. It was a nice boat ride anyway. We went south to the slough then to across from Rogers, where the road makes its turn. Water was coming out of Millers corn field at least 2 feet drop there and making quite a rapids by Rodgers. Bill and Gene portaged the boat around the very swift rapids which were on the highway. The water was just to the upper edge of the slab at its highest point on the curve. We got in the boat again, crossed the slab and went up the ditch and through the pasture on the West side of Mud Creek. Then about due east of House's place on the north road, we crossed Mud Creek. We went up that small creek west of Rays (Rays Truck Stop) and landed the boat on the sand road that goes north from Mrs. Van Neste's corner. There were quite a lot of sightseers and probably some were to meet refugees that were coming out by boat on the slab just a short distance down the road from Harry Miller's drive. Water was all over Rays and up K-32 to almost the corner of the Fairbirn place. We left our homes when the river was almost at its highest point, maybe it went up another inch or two, but not more than that; and the radio the next morning said the river got to 31.5 feet. I'll check with the papers when we get our mail once again. As we were going to our boat landing the catch on the lid of Mrs. Van Neste's mail box was just out of the water.

Duke Scott died last week and because Maple Grove cemetery is all under water his body is having to be held over.

All this time the electricity has been off and the telephone went out Thursday evening. I had a good supply of fresh meat on hand as well as a gallon and a half of ice cream. Gene brought most of it up to Martha's. Saturday morning when we got back the freezer and refrigerator were stinking messes. I went over to Clare's for water and then cleaned them and the dirty dishes up.

The hogs were all out, had went over the fence where the straw had lodged so badly. We have 5 old sows, a batch of weaned pigs and a half dozen of Les King's hogs here. Also in the round up of hogs is one stray, probably came down the river.

Tuesday, July 17

We came home yesterday after going to Tonganoxie and getting our second typhoid shots. It seemed good to get home even if we do have to do with out electricity and telephone and have to carry (by pickup) water from Woods because the wind won't blow and I go next door (to cook) because they have a butane gas stove. I asked them if I might use it. They won't be back for a while. This event the river stage is down to 23.85 feet. Just about 2 feet higher than in '35. There is sticky gooy gommy mud every where the water has been.

Pop got down in the back last Saturday morning when he stooped to pick up his shoes. He can do a better job of resting here at home than he would at Martha's. We got along very well at Martha's but it seemed a shame for us to crowd in on them when we had a high and dry home, and too we wanted to be here to watch after things. Pauline and babies will stay with Martha at least until we have electricity again. Gene has been coming over every day.

Today I went to the Grove with him. And that is such a pitiful desolate sight. Gene had told us how it was but one's mind couldn't paint such a bad picture as it was. All the small buildings are gone. Shop, hen house, oil house, brooder house, and office. The two box cars out by the tracks are still there just because they were loaded with a new car of protein feed, which now is a total loss. The inspection barn has all of its sides gone except for the east by the corn crib. The water still has quite a current through there and all the first cutting of hay was washed away. Looking west from the hackberry tree in the driveway just looks like one big river. The new Fergerson tractor only a week old, and the old pickup and some other things were put out where the picnic table used to be. The water got up over the engine of the tractor. All of Gene's shop tools will be gone or buried in the mud. The old barn by the tracks has the north boards all gone and the old grainery in the northeast corner is all topsy turvy. We weren't close to it. The sheep barn looks in pretty good shape except the east pen is caved in. A big elm tree north of the house went down while we were there. Box cars on the railroad track were on their sides. The new house seems to have stood the pressure pretty well. Water was up to the windows in it. Someone's big butain tank is out in the grove. The foundation is washed away under the southwest corner of the house and some boards are off of the east end. The mud was as high as the porch, at the back and inside of the house is almost too bad to be described. Mud is as much as 15 or 18 inches in places. The water had gotten as high as the door knobs clear over Pauline's buffet in the front part of the house. Gene had put the refrigerator up on chairs and the water got up to the handle. There was a 3-inch layer of mud on top of the stove. Both tables were about to fall to pieces. We couldn't get the drawers of the buffet open so just pulled off the top which was all warped anyway. Everything in it was covered with mud. Gene put the table cloths etc. in sacks and took them to Martha's then they will send them to the laundry in Tonganoxie. Maybe if they are washed before the mud dries they will be all right. The rug was put across the arms of the old davenport after it was raised up about 8 inches. The rug was completely soaked. The dresser was on its back and the mirror broken. The mattress had floated off the bed. Of the furniture there will be very few pieces worth keeping. The cedar chest was put on the bale and only the legs got wet, I think. Some of the chairs that were stacked clear on top of things will be all right but that is about all. Thank goodness we brought our record books and some of the very important papers up here. For no matter how high we put things they seemed not to be high enough.

All the cattle were hauled out Wednesday. All but the old milk cow and we intended to bring her up here but it got too late and she was left out in the railroad yards. We gave her up as lost but Monday Ronald Robb told us there was a three-titted guernsey cow down in his corn field. I sure hope it is our old cow. There were some pigs that were put out north on the high ground but again the highest was not high enough and they went down the river.

There hasn't been any loss of life due to this flood here at Lawrence and a great share of the credit for such a record must go to the radio station KLWN. They have done a wonderful job.

This diary was contributed courtesy of Mary's daughter, Pauline Nunemaker and her late husband, Eugene, who lived 1 1/2 miles south of her parents at Bismarck Grove.

The birth of 'Helen Highwater'

By Norma and Rusty Spurgeon

Columbia, Mo.

Early Thursday, July 12, 1951, we rose and turned on the Lawrence radio station while Rusty dressed for med school and I started breakfast. We thought the announcer said water was over Highway 10 between Lawrence and Sunflower, 10 miles east of where we lived in veterans' housing.

We'd driven down the night before to look at backwater on both sides of the highway. Neither of us thought it would rise over the road, though; I no longer recall why. We'd already found it pretty unreal standing on the bridge in Lawrence and watching big two-story houses float down the river.

Someone drove up across the lane and said water was over the highway, but people were still coming through.

Our first child was due July 15 and I'd had my bag packed for weeks.

Rusty grabbed clothes for himself as soon as we heard. It was 7:15 a.m. when we reached the water covering about a mile of highway, about 6 inches deep, and we started through. But a bus coming from the opposite direction flooded our engine. And there we sat, stalled in the middle of it. Rusty wanted me to get into one of the other cars and return to Sunflower, or go to a Kansas City hospital if necessary. I was fairly calm, and decided "I'm not in labor. I'll stay with him."

Instead he got into the other car and went to ask a nearby farmer to pull us out with his tractor. We were out of the water at 7:45. It had been announced at 7:30 that Highway 10 was closed.

We drove on to Lawrence, to the apartment of Faye and Jack Randle Jack was Rusty's lab partner and we had become good friends.

(We were recalling the story with them just over a year ago when they came from Tulsa to help us celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Rusty asked, "Didn't we telephone first?" I told him no, we didn't have a telephone. And Faye said, "None of us did. Phones cost money."

I went into labor Saturday morning, the 14th. Early Sunday 1:07 a.m. Christopher Lee was born at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, weighing 8 pounds, 2 ounces. We later told him if he'd been a girl he might have been named Helen Highwater. New mothers stayed in the hospital at least five days. It was on the sixth day Rusty came for me with my mother, who'd arrived the night before. She told us then, "Your grandmother had her first child during the 1903 flood at Hartsburg, Mo. They had to move to higher ground before she had the baby."

By this time the water had gone back down. We could go directly home without going around by Topeka as Rusty had to do when he made his first trip back. We didn't have to have typhoid shots. And we paid our hospital bill from the $90 dividend Rusty received in March from his G.I. insurance, and had money left over to buy groceries.

The Randles of course became Chris' godparents.

By Wray Spooner


The following is the "story" of my experience in the 1951 flood. While not especially dramatic, it was certainly dramatic to my family at the time.

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 pile 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.

Before we left we heard the Union Pacific telegraph operator tell the Kansas City operator that the dike had broken through and the water was over the tracks. He was abandoning the station.

Our house ended up with water to the ceiling. Us kids were in our "summer outfits" which, for me, was a pair of overalls. None of us kids had shoes on except my oldest sister. It was no shoes for the rest of the year until it got cold that fall. Then some men from the VA (of which my Dad was a member) gave him money to buy us all shoes.

We were fortunate to be able to stay at Haskell the rest of the summer until school started. We then had to move back home. My father worked construction in Kansas City. He would work 10-12 hours, drive home and work on restoring our house in the evenings and on weekends. Us kids and Mother helped as we could but Mother and my oldest sister also worked full-time jobs and the rest of us kids were not really old enough to do much. My oldest brother was grown and helped when he could, but his house north of town was damaged also.

So, when we moved back home in the fall, our house was still not back to normal and we were very, very cold that winter no Christmas that year either.

And will all this, I'm still in North Lawrence, just about 4 blocks from my old home on Lyon Street.

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