Republican River flood waters around McCook, Neb. (Video has no audio.)
The Great Republican River Flood
In May 1935, the middle of the Dust Bowl, at least 24 inches of rain in 24 hours crashed to the earth along the South Fork of the Republican in Eastern Colorado. Light rains fell in Northwest Kansas. Those rains, spawned by an unusual weather system that drew rain from the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, caused the greatest flood ever known in the Republican River Basin. Now, 80 years after the devastating flood, Goodland’s Joy Hayden has written a book, “The 1935 Republican River Flood“.
Book details the disaster
On May 30, 1935, Decoration Day, Republican River burst its banks. A two-mile-wide wall of water and debris plowed through the river valley all the way from Seibert, Colo., to St. Francis, Kan., across southern Nebraska, back into Kansas, and finally into the Missouri River in Kansas City.
No up-to-the-minute warning system existed as it does today. And the warnings that were issued were widely disbelieved. The normally placid Republican in flood? Unthinkable. Unbelievable.
“If you’d had no water for years, you probably wouldn’t believe [flood warnings] either,” Hayden said.
The flood left a devastated countryside. Topsoil was gone, replaced by sand. But the worst toll was the lives lost, over 110 of them. Many bodies were never recovered and some were recovered far from their homes. One man’s body had washed from Seibert to McCook, Neb., over 150 miles.
Caught between the twin perils of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, many desperate people were on the road searching for work and a better life. Some of those may have perished in the flood and their deaths unrecorded.
In scenes of disaster and sorrow, the population responded with unremitting courage and determination. Heroes stepped forward to save lives. The book recalls the disaster and the heroic people who fought it.
In 1936, Cambridge, Neb., monument maker D.F. Neiswanger marked the flood’s high water marks in eight places. Two have been lost. The others are placed from Haigler, Neb., in the west to Edison, Neb., in the east. Neiswanger wanted to memorialize the flood.
Others tried to prevent another one. After the 1944 Flood Control Act, the United States Bureau of Reclamation built several reservoirs along the river basin, including Enders Reservoir, Enders, Neb.; Swanson Reservoir, Trenton, Neb.; and Keith Sebelius Reservoir in Norton, Kan.
Learning the stories
Hayden discovered a 1937 report (PDF) about the flood from Robert Follansbee and J.B. Spiegel. She had always been interested in history and was fascinated to learn about this flood. “Why have I not heard about this flood? It was a major event.” On the 75th flood anniversary, she met flood survivors and talked with people about their experiences. Hayden was captivated by their stories.
But the memories of the flood were in danger of becoming lost. All the books that had been written about the flood had gone out of print.
“After 80 years, people’s memories get fuzzy,” she said. “I thought it was important to tell this story so people would know and not forget. Rivers repeat their cycles of flooding and there is no reason to think a flood won’t happen again.”
She and her husband, Dick, traveled through the Republican River Basin and gathered those stories. She wrote representative stories for each affected community. Two of her favorite stories are a ghost story and a story about a heroic dog who was stolen and returned home. Read the book to discover the details.
“The Republican River Flood of 1935” is published by The History Press. Book is available at the publisher’s website, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or message the author on the book’s Facebook page. Hayden posts her speaking schedule on the page.
In Goodland, book is available at Clark Crossing Co., 223 E. 10th.by