Republican River Flood of May 30, 1935

 This website is dedicated to preserving the history of the Republican River Flood of 1935.

 

Excerpts from the books

Bluff-to-Bluff and Bluff-to-Bluff Too!

by Marlene Harvery Wilmot

All over the Republican River Valley stories of the tragedies the flood waters inflicted were recorded. In each story there were remarkable similarities in the way lives were lost, and in the heroic efforts friends and neighbors gave to save others. The stories that follow are some of the better documented stories and serve to represent all who witnessed the events of that tragic time.

Few homes in the rural areas had electricity or running water. Every drop came by carrying it from the rivers and creeks, or pumping the water with windmill or hand pump. 
 
At the time of the 1935 flood Lloyd Harvey was driving a semi-truck for Johnson Fruit Company hauling freight between McCook and Hastings. A native of the area, Lloyd had grown up along the river. He learned to swim in the river and had spent many hours working and playing along its banks.  Like others in his community he was living through what would come to be called the Great Depression. He had lived through dust storms, droughts, and floods. Memorial Day, Thursday, May 30, 1935 had been a beautiful day. People had gathered in cemeteries throughout the Republican River Valley to pay their respects to their friends and loved ones buried in the prairie soil. As the evening approached the air became heavy with an approaching rain. Clouds dipped so low that it seemed that it would be no trouble to stand on tip toe and touch them. After years of drought, the rain was not unwelcome and most people in the valley retired at their usual times with no apprehension of the coming storm.
 
The Republican River wound through Lloyd’s childhood like a vine wrapped through a lattice fence.   The two became inseparable. Lloyd learned to love the river spending months on his uncles’ farms, playing with his cousins. During the spring and summer the sound of the river could be heard wherever you were on the farm. In the early spring the water would change from a rippling sound to the roar of spring floods.   Like other boys up and down the river he hunted and trapped along the banks. In the summer he would see the river dry up until he could walk out on sandbars where the river had flowed only months earlier. In the winter the river was quiet, frozen so solid that the ice would hold horses and wagons. Men and boys would cut ice to be stored for summer use in the ice houses along the shores. Children would ice skate and play games there.
 
When the river was high it would cut deep holes in the river bottom. The water would be so swift that if a child took off from a bridge, clinging to a small log or fence post, they could ride for two miles down the river racing each other to see who could go the farthest. Often during spring floods Lloyd would swim the 150 yard channels of swiftly running water.   The water was always icy cold and usually full of trash and debris which had to be avoided. Additionally the river banks were cut by the raging water and were often steep towering as much as 20 to 25 feet high, with no place to climb out of the water. Often the banks were unreliable and would collapse under the weight of anyone attempting to reach safety.
 
Lloyd lived with his wife, Freda, and their two year old daughter, Marlene, on the west edge of McCook. In recent months he had driven his truck through recent dust storms that had drifted like snow through the fences lining the highways.   The storms would come with little warning, and stores and schools would close early, so no one would be caught in the breath robbing dust storms. 
 
Lloyd’s home had a good view of the river valley several miles in both directions. A few days before the flood they had experienced torrential rains. The ground was saturated and the streams were full and running over. On the evening of May 30, 1935 the final blow was a cloud-burst that moved across the area from the southwest. It crossed the South Fork of the Republican River, the Arikaree and the main stream of the Republican near Benkelman, Nebraska. The rain continued across Frenchman Creek where it emptied into the Republican near Culbertson. All small streams were flooded. As it moved east from the Colorado line it gained in volume and momentum until it created a giant wall of water that rolling down the river consuming everything in its path. It was reported later by the Stratton News that Parks Nebraska was “Wiped Off the Map.” Almost every building was moved by the flood waters and all but the school house and the community hall were filled with water and slimy mud often as high as the door knobs. Chickens who wandered into the muck would become stuck and would have to be pulled to safety.
 
Lloyd drove home in heavy rain late that night. When he woke the next morning about noon he looked up and down the valley. It was a beautiful warm sunny day. But evidence of the previous night’s storm could be seen in the valley. Herds of livestock were stranded on high ground, and many roads were underwater. He would later learn that the flood waters had reached McCook at about 10:00 a.m. It would grow from its normal width of 225 feet to an estimated 8,500 feet in width.   He went back in to the house for lunch. When he went back outside he could see a neighbor, Mr. Hoffman, unloading hay from a rack on high ground for his stranded cattle. While he was unloading the water continued to rise and the horses began to swim. Hoffman unhitched them from the hayrack and they all started to swim toward the bluff. Hoffman made it out, but his horses became tangled in the barbwire of a fence and were lost. 
 
Meanwhile, Lloyd drove down to the Fruit Company, but they were closed. He then drove to the power plant. About thirty men were sandbagging around the plant to keep out the water as the plant provided the only source of electricity to power the pumps that provided water for McCook. Suddenly, someone shouted and pointed up river. A huge wall of water was coming down the river, sweeping away everything in its path.   The workmen climbed onto the roof of the plant where they thought they would be safe. When the wall of water hit the plant, it took out part of the south wall, and the men hurriedly moved to the north part of the roof. While they scrambled to safety their wives, mothers, fathers and friends watched from the safety of higher ground about 400 feet away. The power for the city failed, and with it all electrical power for homes and businesses ceased. At the same time livestock, buildings, and floating trees, some cottonwoods more than 100 years old, were going by. There were people riding on the roofs of the buildings, and anything else that would float. People on high ground began to scream and cry as they realized that the people they were seeing go by were relatives and friends. Screams could be heard coming from inside some of the buildings, but those on shore were helpless. The buildings would remain intact until they hit a tree or something solid. Then they would break apart and the people riding on the waves would be thrown in to the water. The smell of death coming from the water was revolting unlike anything ever experienced before by those on shore. It would permeate the area until the first hard freeze in fall provided relief from the sickening sweet stench.
 
Lloyd became worried about his wife’s parents, Frank and Anna Voight, in Republican City. They lived very close to the river, and he knew if they didn’t get out of the valley they wouldn’t have a chance.  While the Voights had a telephone, many rural families did not, nor did they have radios to get the news of the impending flood.  He tried to get through by telephone for hours. Finally by routing a call through North Platte, and then Omaha he was able to reach them. Freda’s father started to tell him how many floods they had been through with no difficulty. Lloyd simply said that this flood was different than any ever seen in the valley before and that he should take the family and get out of the valley immediately! 
 
After he telephoned, Freda was still worried that they wouldn’t leave the valley. She couldn’t sleep all that night, so in the morning Lloyd promised to do what he could to get to there home. As a precaution he put his bathing suit on under his clothes.   He first stopped by his office to tell them he was going to try to get to his in-laws home. A boy named Eddie Kotinick was at the office, and asked if he could ride along. They started from the Fruit Company not knowing how far they would be able to go. After driving about six miles east of McCook they found the highway bridge crossing Red Willow Creek was washed out. There was no use to turn north as they knew all the bridges in that direction would be washed out too. Lloyd knew the area well and struck out south where he knew a small wooden bridge crossed the Willow about ½ mile below the highway bridge. It was still there, but covered with 18 inches of water.
 
Lloyd took off his shoes and socks and waded into the water to see if the road and the structure of the bridge were still sound. There were no longer any guard rails on the bridge, but the road still felt firm and the bridge planks were firm, so he got back in the car and drove across the bridge toward Indianola. East of Indianola there were so many dead animals on the highway they could hardly find a path along the highway large enough to go around them. They discovered that the highway bridges here were also washed out, so they left the main highway and followed an old highway following the north bluff to Cambridge. There they also found that the highway and railroad bridges had also been washed out.   
 
They stopped to visit with a group of people with cars on the east side of Medicine Creek. Like the Red Willow, bridges along the Medicine were also washed out, so there was no way to proceed. The rails of the railroad at that crossing were still hanging just above the water and a few ties still clung to them. Lloyd called to the people on the east side of the creek and asked if anyone had tried to cross over the rails. Someone called back that they were afraid to try. He then walked over to the rails, and stepped up on them. After jumping up and down on them a few times to test their strength, he determined they were solid and started to crawl across the rails. He looked back as he reached the other side, and was surprised to see Eddie right behind him. 
 
Two men on the east side of the creek were from McCook. They were frantic to get home and check on their families.   Both men worked for an auto parts dealer and had driven to the washed out creek in a light panel truck. Lloyd struck a deal with the men that he would take their truck to check on his in-laws while they took his car to go home to find out how their families were fairing. They promised to return to pick up Lloyd and Eddie at 8:00 p.m. that evening so that they could also return home.   Lloyd gave the men instructions on how to avoid the washed out bridges on their trip home, and he and Eddie struck out along the river again. 
 
They found the Voights staying a short distance just above the river bridge in a vacant house in Republican City .   They had worked through the night using a wagon and team of horses to bring canned food and farm animals onto higher ground from their farm home in the valley.  In the early morning hours Frank decided to walk back and return with the family car. He had just crossed the river bridge when he looked upstream and saw a wall of water coming and hastened back up the road. He missed being caught on the valley side of the bridge by only minutes. A neighbor, my brother Leslie Harvey, was working on the south side of the river at the time and he saw the wall of water hit the Voight home. He said the force of the water was so strong that the barn and the farm house exploded and the resulting debris was swept away. 

Lost in the flood was their home, all of their personal belongings and the family car. Later the heavy iron family cook stove was found ¼ mile away from where the house had stood. The car was found several miles down river. No other belongings were ever recovered.    Cooking pans, quilts, and clothing were found as high as 25 feet above the ground in the surviving trees. A live hog was even found 20 feet above the ground down river from the farm.   Unfortunately, despite warnings from local law enforcement , looters often took anything usable found along the riverbanks or stuck in tree tops.  
 
After determining the family was safe, Eddie and Lloyd drove into Holdrege to report the disaster to the head company office in Hastings. Then they headed back to meet their ride across the Medicine to McCook.   Heavy rain slowed their trip. Although they arrived at 8:30 p.m. the men were waiting afraid to try to go back to McCook in the downpour. Lloyd was confident he could get them safely back, and they started out. It took them 3 ½ hours to make the trip, but they pulled into McCook at midnight, driving in heavy rain during the entire trip.

Following the storm Lloyd drove all over the area delivering freight in his truck. He heard many tales of the harrowing ordeals people went through.   One family told of water that came up so fast it rushed in the house and as they dashed up the stairs to the second floor, the water followed them reaching the second story before they did! Some people had to break out the windows of their single story homes to escape when the water rushed in and trapped them with water almost as high as the ceiling. Others told of the long hours they spent in trees , some for as much as 72 hours awaiting rescue.

At first very little news of even local tragedies was available, as people struggled to help only their nearest neighbors. He went as far west as Colorado, as far south as Oberlin and St. Francis, Kansas and as far east as Oxford, Nebraska. All of the roads along his route had suffered heavy damage and detours were necessary for many months. Where once the banks of the river had been lined with trees there were now only treeless sandbanks. The land was stripped of all vegetation and only white sand remained, turning the valley into a veritable desert, complete with sandstorms. Never had the valley looked so hopeless. 
 
The search for those lost in the flood began immediately. Up and down the river banks the search continued day after day.   Airplanes flew over the area attempting to spot stranded residents. After a time, no more survivors could be found and the grim task of identifying bodies began. Often the force of the waters had stripped all clothing from the victim’s bodies making them even harder to identify. In some places entire families just disappeared, sucked under the crush of sand and debris never to be found.  Others bodies were recovered, often as many as 75 miles from their homes.  Funeral homes were lined with coffins of those who had perished. One farm woman went out to work in her flooded garden and discovered a shoe sticking up out of the mud. When she pulled on the shoe she found that a body was attached, buried in the mud of her vegetable garden. Hampered by the remaining flood water some people were not able to get to town from their farms for over 6 weeks. 
 
Dangers lurked in the areas were bodies were found, as rattlesnakes collected by the thousands, taking refuge in the bluffs among the uprooted trees. Others became ill with food poisoning as they ate from contaminated stored food. 
 
Some families drove hundreds of miles around the devastated area to reach the home of loved ones. Sometimes they found that nothing was left of a family home and other times they would find the water had only surrounded their loved one’s home. Days would turn into weeks as the hunt continued for the missing. The job of burying the dead animals was monumental.   Up and down the river bank large forces of men worked to spread quick lime and bury the animals to prevent the spread of disease. The odor of the rotting flesh and the swarming flies made the macabre job even more unpleasant.   The Red Cross urged everyone to boil their drinking water. It was announced that the milk was in sufficient supply, and groceries would last for three to tour weeks. Every person in the affected area was asked to boil their water until further notice. Gasoline was sold by permit only in McCook, according to the Tribune, as the supply was limited.
 
His sister Doris Harvey Shaver reported that the Beecher Island Memorial monument had toppled, demolished by the raging water. Parts of the monument were still visible after the flood, but most had been swept away in the raging water.   Grass growing along the river bank had been stripped from the ground and rolled like a carpet and deposited along the edges of the water.   A resident of McCook, peering across the river to the Sam Burchett home, could see a car resting on the roof of the family home.
 
Marlene would later discover when she gathered other stories of the flood that the river had grown from its normal course with a span of about 150 feet in width and a depth of 10 feet to a width of two miles and a depth the height of the bluffs on either side, 150 feet. Many families had been trapped in the normally tranquil valleys.
 
She received a description of what the relief workers saw in a letter Eglantine Rogers wrote to her son Roger, “I felt so sorry for them all and have done considerable besides cook for them …I see that someone feeds the 4 wee ones when they come to meals so the poor mother can get a few bites in peace—and what not else! They all seemed very grateful and I’m sure they are—I know I’d appreciate any kindness under such circumstances—and perhaps I’ll need it someday as much as these people do now. The first day was just terrible from start to finish—people came in looking like ghosts, people who couldn’t eat, people who no longer owned a change of clothing; people bare footed and with tear-stained faces and voices that trembled when they asked for “Just a cup of coffee, please!” You dared not offer sympathy and comfort for their hearts were full to bursting and they couldn’t stand it. Many were wet to the armpits from the rescue and when Mr. Barkland came to eat he fell asleep at table before he could drink his coffee. And worst of all were the ones who had people on the south side of river and got no word from them ‘til Sunday. Oh, you know how ’twould be-don’t you?”
 
The river had done so much damage that people demanded protection from future floods. At the time it was hard to believe that the land would ever recover. Covered with sand and debris, it became a veritable wasteland. The sand did not remain barren long. The plains winds carried seed that took root and flourished. Grasses and flowering plants sprang up. Trees began to grow where none had been before, until the river banks were lined with tall cottonwoods. Fields scoured by the flood were eventually felt the turn of the plow and yielded new harvests. 
 
Lloyd would later stand at the Harlan Dam and look back over the water where he had spent his childhood. All of the land where he had grown up had gone under water, held back by the dam that would prevent future floods. The river had changed the land with the flood of 1935, and men had changed the land again to prevent such a flood from ever raging again unchecked. The flood changed the channels of the river, and the lives of those along the river were also channeled in different ways. Many left, either from fear of another flood, or because they no longer had the resources to stay or could bear to remember what had happened those fateful days. Some rebuilt and some sold out. Few are left who remember the flood today…
 

USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.