Local History: The joke used to be ‘Lawrence isn’t worth a dam’

Water from a rain-swollen Kansas River flow over the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence, Kan. Thursday, May 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Today as you drive south down Tennessee Street near the Sigma Chi fraternity at 1439 Tennessee on the west side, there is a Gower Place street sign. Take note of that sign, because it is a reminder of one of Lawrence’s most historically important residents. At one time this site was the residence of Justin DeWitt Bowersock and Mary Gower Bowersock.

I have frequently made the comment that in the 19th and early 20th century there is no one of more importance in the history of Lawrence and Douglas County than Justin D. Bowersock.

Joseph E. Youngkamp, in a 1964 thesis on Justin Bowersock’s career as a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, tells us about his life. Youngkamp notes that he was born at New Alexander, Ohio, on Sept. 19, 1842. “In 1860, Bowersock moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he engaged in the merchandizing and produce business. Bowersock married Mary C. Gower in 1866. . . Bowersock came to Lawrence in 1877 from Iowa City, Iowa.”

His arrival here was to look after the interests of his father-in-law, James H. Gower. A 1982 booklet titled The First Century: Lawrence Paper Company explains that it was under odd circumstances that the Gower family ever ended up in Lawrence: “It was 1872 when a Pawnee raiding party killed a man named Gower, stole the string of horses he hoped to sell in Texas. . . Gower’s family hadn’t heard anything about him in two years when James H. Gower, a wealthy merchant and banker from Iowa City, Iowa, went looking for his missing brother. Crossing the prairie by horse-and-buggy, the search led Gower to Lawrence where he learned that his brother was dead. His quest ended, Gower took a close look at the dilapidated town in the rich Kaw River Valley.”

Indeed, the book characterizes Lawrence in the 1870s in less than flattering terms: “Both city and county governments were deeply in debt, property values were plunging, four of the community’s five banks were failing, every scheme designed to lure industry to the town — from installing boardwalks to subsidizing railroads — was failing.

“But the town’s biggest problem was that Orlando Darling had failed for two years to build a dam across the Kaw which would hold up for more than a few months at a time. ‘We always notice that it cheers up the laborers when there is dam building going on. They are the only class as yet that have got much out of the dam and some of them have made a pretty good thing out of it,” the Weekly Tribune later remarked.

“Promoters of rival towns, like Topeka, joked pointedly that Lawrence wasn’t worth a dam. . . .Gower obtained control of the dam and adjacent land by purchasing the Lawrence Land and Water Power Company on July 16, 1874, from Darling who fled to California after creditors rioted in the street near his office. . . .

“Gower and the Bowersock family arrived in Lawrence on Friday, May 18, 1877. Five days later, the worst flood since 1844 swept away most of Gower’s dam across the Kaw. [In 1879,] Bowersock personally supervised the rebuilding of the dam — 600 feet long and eight feet high — during the spring and summer . . .

“Except for breaks in 1885 and 1888, Bowersock’s dam stood until the flood of 1903 and much of Bowersock’s industrial empire on the south banks of the Kaw. Shortly after they arrived in Lawrence, Gower and Bowersock took control of a failing bank and turned it into a leading financial institution. . . Lawrence National Bank (which lasted until 1992) . . .

“James H. Gower died in November of 1879. Bowersock was appointed to close the Gower estates, . . . The result was that as 1880 dawned, Bowersock and his wife together owned and he controlled, the dam, the flour mill, a bank, and sufficient capital to make Bowersock the ranking industrialist in Lawrence for four decades.”

In 1870, Lawrence’s population was 8,320 and 10 years later had grown by less than two hundred people to 8,510 in 1880. From 1880 to 1920, the city’s numbers grew by less than 4,000 to 12,456. By post World War II standards this population growth in Lawrence of slightly more than 800 a decade is a slow pace indeed. But Bowersock’s investment provided a critical support of stability and without it Lawrence might not have grown but rather dwindled.

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