Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Flood of ‘51 gives rise to engineering project

September 3, 2006

Advertisement

If it weren't for Pearl, Clarence Anderson may have lost all of his cows to the Great Flood that half-century ago.

"Pearl was more of a pet dog than a cow. She knew her name and would come running when you called her," said Anderson, a retired farmer from Clinton. "Once she started to swim across the flood plain, all the other cows followed suit."

The year was 1951 and those high waters entered history as one of the worst floods to ever to hit the Lawrence area.

Water levels in Lawrence rose to about 12 feet above the flood stage, exceeding all existing U. S. Geological Survey records by 5 feet. The estimated flood damage between Kansas and Missouri came close to $1 billion.

While Anderson and his farm survived the flood, the high water eventually did - in a roundabout way- claim his land. It now lies six fathoms deep under the water of Clinton Reservoir.

Many families in Lawrence did not fare as well as Anderson in 1951.

The days following the flood were filled with tears and heartache as families tried to recover what few possessions the flood had spared. Many homes in Lawrence spent half of July buried in water and mud; crops were smothered in silt and sand.

While families spent these difficult first days putting their lives back together, politicians from the area began to realize the extent of the flood damage and called for a permanent solution.


Volunteers stack sandbags along the railroad during the flood of 1951. Property damage was estimated at $1 billion, based on financial levels in 1951, and more than 40 people died during the flood.

Volunteers stack sandbags along the railroad during the flood of 1951. Property damage was estimated at $1 billion, based on financial levels in 1951, and more than 40 people died during the flood.

"It was during a flight over Lawrence when U.S. Treasurer Georgia Neese Clark and Mayor Tom Gage of Kansas City both realized that there needed to be a dam," said Martha Parker, historian at the Clinton Museum. From that conversation, the idea of Clinton dam took hold.

Yet, the idea of damming the Wakarusa had been around for quite a while.

"My grandmother said there had always been talk about building a dam, ever since the turn of the century," Parker said. But, as USGS research hydrologist Charles Perry pointed out, the flood of '51 made the idea of building a dam a reality.

"Unfortunately, it usually takes a big flood to sell people on flood control," Perry said.

In the wake of the Great Flood, politicians bought the flood control concept and began legislating in that direction. In 1962, Congress passed a new flood control act that resulted in the construction of many reservoirs throughout Kansas, including Clinton.

After the flood control act of '62, the real work on Clinton Dam began. State officials began allocating funds and the Army Corps of Engineers started designing plans for the dam. In addition to building the dam, the Corps was also responsible for buying the land that would become Clinton Lake. From 1968 to 1972 the Corps visited the Douglas County farming communities of Richland, Clinton and Bloomington with offers in hand.

Video

Slideshow history of Clinton Reservoir. Enlarge video

The forced sales under eminent domain were especially hard on the farmers who had to give up their land. "My family's farm was the first farm bought by the Army Corps," Parker said. "I remember the day when they came to buy the land. My mother, playing the typical farm wife, was serving coffee and striking up usual conversation. She had no idea that these men were here to buy the land as cheaply possible."

Parker said that her family sold their farm for $200 an acre, which was far below the market price for similar land elsewhere. They ended up having only enough to move into a "house in town."

Even Clarence Anderson, who survived the flood in '51, had to sell his land to the Army Corps. According to the Clinton Historical Museum, more than 500 farmers were displaced because of Clinton Dam; many had lived on their farms their entire life.

By 1972, construction crews began their work on clearing out the flood plain as well as constructing the dam. "We had about 75 hands working on the dam day and night," said John Jepson, president of List and Clark Construction Co.

A younger Jepson was project manager for Clinton Dam. He remembers the hardships that came with the job. "We couldn't work in the rain; if it rained too hard, we would have to stop work for a whole week. The entire first construction season was pretty much lost to rain," Jepson said. Besides rain, Jepson and his team had to battle the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. "The construction industry is very fuel intensive and the embargo left us scrounging for fuel," he said. Apart from these set backs, Jepson said the work itself was completed without any major incident.

Before the Wakarusa River filled Clinton Lake, many farmers could not bear to see their land bulldozed away to a mud flat. Parker said that, once the land was cleared it was just that, cleared. "There were no trees left standing, no buildings, no landmarks of any kind. It was hard for people to see their communities just disappear," said Parker.

The Army Corps of Engineers, along with List and Clark Construction, completed the dam in 1977 and, by 1980, three years after they closed the dam gates, the lake was ready for recreational use.

The dedication ceremony was held in the following spring of 1981. "It was a very simple ceremony. State and county officials attended, as well as about 40 spectators," Parker said. "The ceremony was held on the spillway. There were a couple of speeches made and my nephew skydived onto the ceremony."

While many people were excited to see the lake completed, there was also animosity.

"A lot of farmers, especially those who sold their land first, felt cheated by the Army Corps." Parker said.

Parker said that the old farmers did not want to have any part of the lake. They felt like they were betraying their home. Still, Parker thinks that some good has come from Clinton Lake. "Because of Clinton Lake, a great deal of the history from the area has surfaced. So, while we might not have our land, we at least have documents and pictures to remember it by, " she said

Many of those documents and pictures can be viewed at the small museum in the federal park just beyond the town of Clinton. Supports are also trying to raise funds to build a new, bigger, museum, Parker said.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.