From Nebraska Life Magazine, May/June 2005
Surviving the Great Flood – How the Republican River turned deadly in the spring of 1935.
by Sheryl Schmeckpeper
It roared out of the mountains into the valley, chasing residents onto rooftops and into trees. It wiped out farm buildings, grain bins and cattle sheds, twisted railroad tracks and buried animals, tractors and people.
By the time it moved into Kansas, the Republican River flood of 1935 had killed more than 110 people and turned the once fertile valley into a wasteland. Old-timers say the valley never recovered from the disaster – and probably never will….
Though radio existed long before television or emergency broadcast systems, not all rural areas could receive a signal. That left the telephone as the only means of rapid communication. It worked – most of the time.
“The town had a central operator. Everyone would pick up when they heard the general ring,” remembers rural Orleans resident Marion Culver, who was 16 years old in 1935. “They were warning of high water.”
...This wasn’t the first time that area citizens had been warned of high water. Many …evacuated their homes and moved livestock to higher ground in 1905, 1915 and 1923. But the first may have come one year earlier. Legend has it that local Indians had told settlers to stay out of the Republican River Valley because they had seen the water run from “bluff to bluff.” Few settlers paid them any heed.
Still, it’s not surprising that many ignored the warnings that were issued that May day in 1935. After all, the Great Plains was in the middle of a drought. The Republican River Valley, like so many other areas in the Plains, had already experienced ferocious dirt storms that winter and spring…
Today, it’s hard to visualize water running bluff to bluff along the Republican River Valley. Fifteen years after the flood, the Bureau of Reclamation built a series of dams and lakes to prevent floods and to provide irrigation water to area farmers. Add to that five years of drought, and what’s left today is a dry riverbed – so dry that it is sometimes hard to tell where the river ever flowed. At times, the only clue is a bridge or railroad trestle traversing an empty gulch.
But here and there, the Republican Valley gives up buts of the past that have lain buried since the flood. In his 30 years of farming, Jim Dake…has plowed up baling wire, car bodies, frames and fenders, dump rakes, corn binders and miles of barbed wire. One day he was removing sand for fill when “I saw black lines in the sand that got wider and wider. They were the tops of corn rows.”
Twenty years after the flood, Jim’s older brother, Jerry uncovered a human skull while moving dirt. “Jerry saw it rolling down hill,” Jim said. “He just assumed it was a flood victim,” although authorities were never able to identify the remains…
It would be impossible to tell every story or name the names of every victim or hero (of) the Republican River flood. Some of those stories and names will be remembered thanks to Marlene Wilmot’s book, Bluff –to-Bluff, and to numerous newspaper stories written about the tragedy. But many other stories have been lost, either because the people have already dies, or because all these years later they still can’t talk about it. So the Republican River Valley clings to the ghosts of the dead and to the souls of the survivors, forever changed by the water that appeared so suddenly and with such great violence.
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