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FLOOD OF '51: '51 flood never to be forgotten

Staff writer

Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Meier Sr., both in their upper 70s at the time, were asleep in their home at 309 N. Walnut St. when they were awakened by the sound of water seeping into their bedroom 70 years ago this week.

They climbed up on two big chests to get out of the water. Just a two-foot space separated them from the water and the ceiling as they waited for six hours to be rescued.

The initial flood of July 11, 1951, arrived in Marion at 3 a.m. but the water receded by evening. Additional rain fell that night, however. Eventually, the river crested at 7 a.m. Thursday at more than six feet over flood stage. The water stayed at crest for six hours, flooding homes and businesses in the valley.

The Meiers had packed things the night before and placed them high enough to keep them out of the water — or so they thought. Previous floods in June had brought several inches into town. But this was much worse.

Their son finally sent a motorboat to his parents’ house, where Mrs. Meier was screaming for help. Rescuers had to break down a door in six feet of water to get the couple out.

The Wichita Eagle later reported that C.B. Wheeler, 84, tired of waiting for the flood to come, had fallen asleep on a mattress. As the water rose, the mattress floated until it was spotted by a motorboat carrying the sleeping man away.

Many other residents were rescued from tops of tables, out of second-story windows, and even out of trees. Some business owners were stranded on rooftops after spending the night trying to save their stock. They walked out later, chin deep in water, by hanging onto heavy ropes strung across the swiftly moving water by the National Guard.

Jennifer Broadstreet Hess’s late father, Lane Broadstreet, was 10 years old in 1951 and lived in the valley with his parents, Bernard and Jenevieve. He spoke often with her about the flood.

His family waited on their home’s roof for a boat, he said, and were taken to the courthouse. He remembered sitting on the steps and watching loaves of bread and bags of marshmallows from Beaston’s Market float by.

During clean-up afterwards, Jenevieve helped other people re-wallpaper their houses. Jennifer owns an old antique buffet, the only piece of the Broadstreets’ furniture to survive.

Rails and ties were washed away on the Rock Island and Santa Fe Railroads. The city power plant was flooded out, and emergency generators were installed at Red Cross headquarters in the high school, Marion hospital, and the city telephone office. A National Guard unit helped police guard against looting, but not much was reported. Airplanes flew in emergency supplies.

In a 1979 review of the event, Bill Meyer, editor of the Marion County Record, called the 1951 flood, “the great-granddaddy of all floods.” Mud Creek, Clear Creek, and the Cottonwood River all had overflowed their banks.

People who were in the flood water were taken to higher ground — the courthouse, First Baptist Church (now Marion Historical Museum), and eventually the high school, where everyone was vaccinated against tetanus and typhoid and received penicillin shots. Residents on the hill housed the refugees.

Much the same effort was made at Florence, where flooding was just as bad. Peabody’s businesses, located on high ground, didn’t suffer as much damage, but residents in low-lying areas had considerable losses.

The week after the flood was sunny, and a massive effort involving hundreds of volunteers from throughout the area was made to help flood victims.

At least 300 came from Hillsboro, bringing food and clothing, shovels and brooms. People from Herington, Lincolnville, Pilsen, and other nearby towns also helped. A Red Cross kitchen at the high school served thousands of meals.

The city was sprayed with DDT to control flies and mosquitos.

The July 26 issue of the Record was devoted to advertisements of flood sales. At least 13,000 copies were printed and mailed to boxholders throughout central Kansas.

“Operation Bootstrap,” as it was called, brought hundreds of people to buy flood-damaged items at steep discounts. The newspaper reported the sale as a huge success. It cleared the stores of flood-damaged merchandise.

Flood damage was estimated at nearly $1 million dollars — the equivalent of $10.4 million today.

At least 40 houses in the valley were moved to lots on the hill.

The 1951 flood gave impetus to a movement to establish a Corps of Engineers dam on the Cottonwood River northwest of Marion. It was completed in 1968, but the final salvation for Marion was the creation of a diversion around Marion of Mud and Clear Creeks and the Cottonwood River in 1979.

“Now, with the floodway completed and to be dedicated this Saturday on Old Settlers Day, confidence has been restored in the valley portion of town,” Meyer wrote at the time.

Last modified July 7, 2021

 

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