Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Kansas City Flood of 1903


In early May of 1903, a steady rain began to fall across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri.  For days the rain fell which included severe storms, hail and tornadoes.  By the end of the month, rivers and streams throughout Kansas were flowing to overflowing.  And where did all this water go?  The Kansas water went into the Kansas River while the Nebraska water went into the Missouri River - both of which meet in Kansas City. 

On May 20, 1903, the Missouri River near the West Bottoms in KC was 12 feet, nine inches deep.  Eight days later, a weather forecast printed in the Kansas City Star newspaper predicted "another spell of bad weather" that would "test the patience of the people of Kansas City and its vicinity." A weather observer predicted thunderstorms and stated, "Of course there will be high winds, but not of the kind that wreck towns and kill people."



Keep in mind the West Bottoms at that time was largely an industrial area - home of the rail and stockyards, packing plants, factories, warehouses, and mills.  Hundreds of less wealthy immigrant families lived there.  The Union depot also stood in the Bottoms, and restaurants, cafes, and saloons serviced the entire area.


Well, the forecast rains did come.  Both rivers, already high, continued to rise.  By May 30, the Missouri was 25 feet deep.  The next day it was 35 feet deep.  The Kansas River was between three and five miles wide along its eastern Kansas course.  In the West Bottoms, the rivers ceased to exist altogether and instead formed more of an inland sea.

Union Avenue in Kansas City, with Johnston's cafe at far right
Work ceased at factories and mills.  Livestock were decimated - either drowned or swept away with the currents.  Trains could not access the city and all but one bridge over the Missouri were gone.  Seven feet of water flowed into the Union depot.  Streetcars were inoperable.  Public utilities such as gas, water, and electricity were out.  Most of the residents did not evacuate for various reasons - some had no place to go, others couldn't bear to leave their homes and the rest were confident that this flood would be no worse than others they had experienced.

As one reporter put it, "The river front population has a way of adapting itself to the temporary inconveniences that arise from the irregularities of the Missouri."  This flood, however, proved to be more than an irregularity.  Many were stranded on rooftops - their only hope of rescue from friends' and neighbors' boats. 

A week later the water receded and clean-up began by the building owners.  J.A. Johnston was one of those intrepid owners whose café (right across the street from the old Union depot) was getting its post-flood attention .  He reported that the water in the cafe reached a depth of seven feet, two inches.  He was lucky enough to find his business' clock, still hanging on the wall, which was stopped on Tuesday, June 3, 1903, at 9:22 A.M.  He had the water line marked on the clock casement to memorialize the incident, and in 1906 donated the clock to the Kansas Historical Society where it remains today.

Now you know a bit more about the great 1903 Kansas City Flood.  What I find incredible was that only 19 people died.  Amazing.  Of course, since the clock has been removed from the wall, the significance of its elevation datum has been lost, but I wouldn't be surprised if each new generation of the Johnstons lay claim to the fact that the clock hung on a higher story than the previous generation.  That'd be embellishment - KC style!

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