The 20th Century in Review
by Mike Akulow and Larry Schultz

Although the weather affects the Topeka community everyday, there have been several notable weather events over the past century. The effects have been many, whether it be the number of deaths or injuries, or the effects on travel and commerce. Some of these events are notable because of their severity or the amount of area which was covered.

With the close of the 20th Century, let's take a look at some of the significant weather events that have occurred in Topeka over the last 100 years. These weather events are listed chronologically and not in their order of importance, amount of damage, deaths, etc. Data from the early half of the century are rather sparse, while a data "explosion" in the last 25 years allows for more specific information with recent events.

Following these events, included are various weather extremes take across the city since 1900.

The May 1903 Flood
The worst flooding in Topeka's young history forced 4000 people from their homes and killed 38. The second highest river crest in Topeka occurred on May 30th at 38.5 feet, after a monthly rainfall of nearly 9 inches.  All of North Topeka was under water, in places to a depth of 10 feet. Three bridges over the Kansas River were knocked out as the river reached 2 to 3 miles wide.

The Winter of 1911-1912
Beginning in late 1911 and continuing through March 1912, frequent bouts of snow and very cold temperatures pounded the area. Nearly 48 inches of snow fell during winter, setting the record for any winter season.  The March snowfall alone totaled 26.2 inches. The blizzard of February 25-26th left 10 foot tall snow drifts, paralyzed the city, cut rail traffic for days and killed many cattle

The 1930s Drought and Heat
Nearly every year in the 1930s was below normal on rainfall, especially during the growing season. Combined with record-setting heat, this produced what is known as the "Dust Bowl Days." Numerous high temperature records, many of which still stand, were set in the mid-1930s. The highest temperature ever recorded in Topeka of 114 degrees occurred on July 24, 1936. Also during that year, the maximum number of 100 degree or greater days, 59, also occurred. The drought and extreme unrelenting heat took its toll on both humans and animals.

The July 1951 Flood
This flood was the worst flooding since 1903, and produced the highest kansas River stage in Topeka history (41.3 feet on July 13th). Massive, widespread, and unprecedented damage occurred across North Topeka. The river was above flood stage for 10 straight days, breaking dikes and resulting in the evacuation of 24,000 people. Nearly 7000 Topeka buildings were damaged or destroyed. A railroad locomotive was washed down the river when a bridge collapsed. Very heavy spring rains continued into June and July, pushing all rivers to very high levels. The 1951 flooding contributed to the building of flood control reservoirs and improved levee systems.

The June 8, 1966 Tornado
This was the most destructive tornado in the city's history, and the 5th most devastating tornado in the 20th Century in Kansas. It produced damage totalling 100 million dollars, making it the costliest tornado at the time in American history. The tornado struck around 7 pm, cutting a half mile wide path from near Auburn, across residential areas of Southwest and Central Topeka, through downtown before dissipating northeast of Billard Airport. Although 16 people were killed and 400 injured, excellent public warning and preparedness prevented a much larger number of deaths and injuries. Nearly 2000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, some never to be rebuilt.

The Heat Wave and Drought of the 1980 Summer
Daily searing heat, accompanied by gusty winds and meager rainfall, began in June and continued into mid-August. Rainfall during June and July was about 15 percent of normal. Reminiscent of the mid-1930s heat wave and drought, temperatures in July 1980 hit 100 degrees or higher on 20 out of 31 days, with 12 consecutive days of 100 degrees or higher. On some days, morning lows remained above 80 degrees. Scattered thunderstorms brought some rainfall by mid- to late-August, but temperatures remained well above normal into September. It was the worst heat wave and drought since the 1930s.

The Extreme Cold of December 1983
An unprecedented cold spell set temperature records every morning from the 18th through 25th. A deep snow cover kept temperatures at or below zero for a record-setting 95 consecutive hours from December 21 to 25. The lowest temperature of 17 degrees below zero occurred on December 22. Very strong winds accompanied the cold, producing deadly wind chill readings. The cold spell broke on New Year's Day 1984 when the mercury finally rose above 32 degrees after 554 hours.

The March 18, 1984 Ice Storm
Freezing rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder, accumulated to around an inch thick on trees, power lines, roads, and all exposed surfaces. The heavy weight of the ice knocked out power to an estimated 100,000 people, or most of the city of Topeka. A large TV transmission tower collapsed under the weight of the ice, along with many trees and large tree branches. Destruction was widespread throughout the city, with Gage Park in Central Topeka especially hard hit. It was believed to be the most damaging ice storm in the city's history. Electricity was not restored in some areas for over a week.

The July 1993 Flood
After a very wet winter and spring, river flooding and flash flooding peaked in late July 1993. Nearly identical to the flooding of 1951, almost daily heavy rainfall in June and July pushed rivers out of their banks. The Kansas River at Topeka crested on July 25th at 34.8 feet, it's 4th highest stage ever and nearly 9 feet above flood stage. Improved levee systems and water control reservoirs worked as promised, limiting the extent and severity of the flood, when compared to 1951. However, much uncertainty existed within the community, as some levee leaks occurred and nearby reservoirs filled to capacity.

Some 20th Century Topeka Weather Extremes

Highest Temperature...114 F (7/24/1936)
Lowest Temperature...-26 F (12/23/1989)
Longest Stretch of 100 F or more...19 days (8/9-27/1936)
Most 100 F or hotter days per year...59 (1936)
Longest Stretch of 0 F or colder...95 hours (12/21-25/1983)

Wettest Year...1973 (60.89 in.)
Driest Year...1963 (19.07 in.)
Wettest Day...March 15, 1919 (5.23 in.)
Wettest Month...June 1967 (15.20 in.)

Most Snow in a Winter Season...47.9 in. (1911-1912)
Least Snow in a Winter Season...2.9 in. (1994-1995)
Most Snow in a Day...17.3 in. (2/27/1900)
Earliest Measurable Snowfall...October 9, 1970 (0.8 in.)
Latest Measurable Snowfall...May 3, 1907 (3.2 in.)

Highest Wind Gust...120 MPH (7/21/1904)


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