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KCKS Public School System, 1819-1961
by Nellie McGuinn
Copyright USD 500, Feb 1966

Return to Previous Section 1950


On Friday, July 13, "Black Friday," flood waters of the Kansas River burst through the dikes in the Armourdale and Industrial Districts, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.  Two schools, Clara Barton and Phillips, were destroyed.  In Argentine - Emerson, Lincoln and the library were badly damaged.  Three buildings, John Fiske, John J Ingalls, and Morse also were under water for days.  Relief centers were set up at Prescott, Louisa Mae Alcott, and Argentine High School, under the direction of Lewis H. Brotherson, business manager.

Kansas City Star, July 13, 2003

"KC changed as tales of misery, valor live on

Five years ago, members of Central United Methodist Church in the Armourdale district of Kansas City, Kan., needed a cool space to store food for their hot meal program.

They went to the church basement and opened an old closet door. Then another.

"Caked mud was on the floor," said the Rev. Gary Roellchen. "Flood mud. From 1951."

The 1951 flood arrived 50 years ago today - Friday, July 13. But in some corners of Kansas City, reminders of the high water are never far away.

Today and Saturday, Kansas City will remember the flood, the misery it brought and the collective cleanup that followed.

Today a reception at the American Royal Arena honors those who ignored city and state lines to dig each other out of the muck.

"What Kansas City today calls bi-state cooperation we took for granted back then," said John Dillingham, a Kansas City area businessman who helped organize today's event.

The celebration continues Saturday in Armourdale, where a parade begins at 11 a.m.

"We are saluting the strength and courage of the people of Armourdale," said Patty Dysart, executive director of the Armourdale Renewal Association. "We lost our meat packing industry in the flood, but today our business owners and residents are working together to maintain our community."

It rained for days

The 1951 flood was Kansas City's biblical disaster. Published accounts described how the rain fell for 40 days.

But in out-state Kansas, it was closer to 90 days. Over much of the Kansas River basin, the rainfall from May 1 to July 31 exceeded amounts usually seen over an entire year.

The water had one way to go: down the Kansas River valley to Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence - and Kansas City.

Once here, water stood for several days in the Argentine, Armourdale and Fairfax districts of Kansas City, Kan., and the Central Industrial District of Kansas City.

In Armourdale, the water stood waist-high on the second stories of retail stores in the 600 block of Kansas Avenue. In Fairfax, it was 9 feet high inside the Owens-Corning fiberglass plant.

For today's event at the American Royal, markers will be placed 14 feet above the floor - suggesting the height of the water then standing in the Central Industrial District.

At least five persons died in the Kansas City area. Across the Kansas River basin, the deaths of 28 to 36 people were attributed to the flood.

Kansas City's Turkey Creek pumping station, which supplied some two-thirds of the city's drinking water, shut down after high water in the West Bottoms disabled it. Water pressure plummeted across Kansas City.

About the same time, a fire ignited on Southwest Boulevard. Sparked in part by floating fuel tanks that had been improperly anchored, it burned for days. Firefighters, working without sufficient water pressure, drafted flood water through their hoses.

On the Missouri River, barges tore loose from their moorings and raced downstream, slamming into the Hannibal Bridge and disabling it for several days.

National Guard units, meanwhile, took up positions to discourage looting. To better maintain order, Kansas City closed taverns and package liquor stores. City crews, desperate to save the Municipal Air Terminal, dumped junked cars onto the embattled levees to fight the surging water. The airport stayed dry.

But elsewhere, the high water remained. Some residents couldn't process the information their eyes conveyed. For several days, Armourdale barber Eugene E. Scott rode a boat to his shop near 10th Street and Kansas Avenue.

"He had a hard time accepting that his business was gone," said Dysart, Scott's daughter. "In this way I watched him become disoriented, like a man without a country."

Then the water went down.

A fierce July sun replaced the unceasing rain. The stink, caused by mud and hundreds of dead animals near the Kansas City stockyards, was frightful. Kansas City emergency planners assured residents that the smell carried no disease.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives committee who toured Kansas City called the smell "sickening."

"In this catastrophe, our wealth was automatically dissipated to the extent of a billion or more dollars within a period of a few days," read a U.S. House subcommittee report submitted on Aug. 1, 1951.

"We cannot afford to continue to have floods such as this."

Another federal official compared the land to the bombed-out cities of Europe in World War II.

The job facing the Kansas City area was huge. Fifty years later, some residents believe their predecessors met the task, which included raising local levees and expanding a network of federal water impoundment reservoirs in the Kansas River valley.

"We want to thank the Corps of Engineers," said Dillingham.

"Because the corps did its job over the last 50 years, Butler Manufacturing is today building its world headquarters in the Central Industrial District, which back then would have been called a flood plain." A challenge answered

The 1951 flood endures in Kansas City's collective memory as a forbidding test. The disaster was similar to the one faced in 1900, when Convention Hall burned down three months before the Democratic National Convention.

But just as Kansas City leaders answered that challenge by quickly rebuilding the Convention Hall in 1900, others did in 1951. City leaders made a point of renovating American Royal facilities for the show, which opened on time that fall.

"It was important to show that Kansas City was back in business," said Jay Dillingham, father of John and president of the Kansas City Stock Yards Co. from 1948 through 1975.

During the initial cleanup, contractors and labor representatives formed a nonprofit collective called Disaster Corps Inc. Over several days the organization donated some 16,000 man-hours and the use of 375 pieces of equipment.

The country marveled at the collective Kansas City character. Illustrator Norman Rockwell arrived to inspect the cleanup. A few months later he completed his canvas, "The Kansas City Spirit." Joyce Hall, Hallmark Cards Inc. founder, reproduced the painting - featuring the familiar worker rolling up his sleeves while holding a blueprint - on 20,000 brochures distributed across the country.

The achievement of 1951 speaks for itself. Area officials, fearing an outbreak of typhus, ordered a huge immunization program, which consisted of three, shoulder-aching shots over several days.

No typhus outbreak occurred. The only known instance of widespread illness was a case of sore throat among 43 utility workers who used a common drinking cup. Some bad decisions

Yet not everything about the flood and the recovery was uplifting.

Some Kansas City merchants sold essentials at inflated prices.

National Guard units and local police occasionally apprehended looters. Police caught three men leaving Bichelmeyer meats in Armourdale with a live pig.

A few persons seemed oblivious to the disaster. Kansas City police found residents who - in the midst of a citywide water emergency - watered yards or washed cars.

Others regarded the flood as mere diversion. At some intersections rubberneckers proved so thick that they impeded the progress of families trying to escape low-lying districts.

The disaster's consequences were not evenly distributed, said Daniel Serda, a historian and former Armourdale resident. For many, the flood meant only inconvenience.

"For the nearly 20,000 industrial workers and their families living in the river valleys," Serda said, "the flood meant destruction of their homes and loss of work for months at a time."

During the cleanup, some ill-considered decisions were made. Frightened by the prospect of hundreds of dead animals in the West Bottoms under a July sun, cleanup crews at first dumped some animals into the Missouri River.

That stopped when carcasses washed up near Jefferson City.

"To this day I can't tell you whose idea it was," said Bill Weeks, a retired Kansas City area contractor then in charge of the dead animal detail.

"It wasn't mine; I was told what to do. It wasn't a wise decision. But they were desperate to get them out of there. They were scared to death of an epidemic."

Weeks' crew went to Plan B: sanitary landfills. Heavy equipment operators dug long pits on city property close to the Municipal Farm, near Kansas City's Leeds district, and Weeks' crews buried the dead animals there. Profound consequences

The flood's effect on Kansas City remains profound 50 years later.

Without the flood, perhaps Kansas City International Airport would not be where it is. In 1953, partly in response to the flood, Kansas City began purchasing 4,950 acres of Platte County prairie. The new airport, better equipped to handle the country's expanding air travel industry, would be far from any river.

Without the flood, the meat packing industry might have lasted longer. Today Kansas City bears little resemblance to the meat packing center that once stood second only to Chicago. The Cudahy plant never reopened after the flood, and the other big plants were gone within two decades.

Without the 1951 flood perhaps the Central Industrial District, home to the stockyards, might not have struggled for years.

Finally, a series of 18 dams and water impoundment reservoirs might never have been built across the Kansas River basin.

After the flood, lawmakers who had been hesitant to commit to such construction changed their minds. Tuttle Creek Lake, six miles north of Manhattan, Kan., and often considered the basin's most effective single flood-control unit, had been authorized in 1938.

But its initial appropriation was not approved until 1952 - just after the flood.

Before the disaster, there had been a spirited public debate about the best method of flood control. Some believed dams and reservoirs were needed. Others deemed a comprehensive soil conservation program, combined with smaller detention dams, a viable alternative.

Only five federal reservoirs existed in the Kansas River basin in 1951, but the sheer scale of the flood changed the debate, said Dale Nimz, a doctoral student in environmental history at the University of Kansas.

"Large-scale engineering dams and reservoirs won out," Nimz said. "It was an immediate solution, and the people who supported it, like the Corps of Engineers, promised that it would be the most effective solution. Because of that, it was accepted, and our society chose to invest many millions of dollars in the system we have now."

For the Corps of Engineers, the flood created a new concept of what it would take to protect Kansas City. Designers studied rainfall amounts and generated large hypothetical peak runoffs, which provided guidance for planning the reservoirs.

"This was an integral part of the corps' education, to have a really whiz-bang flood that was more than anything they had ever seen in Kansas City," said Karl Peterson, a former reporter for The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times. He was the newspapers' water management specialist in the 1950s.

"Having taken a beating like that once, they were better prepared to go out and redesign their flood plan," Peterson said. "You have to be sick before the medicine works." On the Web

To reach Brian Burnes, history writer, call (816) 234-7804 or send e-mail to bburnes@kcstar.com .



The Wyandotte County chapter of the American Red Cross assisted about 8,000 families during the 1951 flood and 700 families during the 1993 flood. WATER FLOW

On July 14, 1951, an average of 558,000 cubic feet of water per second passed by the Hannibal Bridge in Kansas City. That was five times more than passed the bridge on an average day the preceding July.

On July 27, 1993, an average of 529,000 cubic feet per second passed by the Hannibal Bridge, less than the peak flow in 1951.


Kansas City's flood damage costs (in today's dollars):
1993: $21.5 million
1977: $290 million
1951: $3 billion"

Talks began in July of a truce in Korea.  Japan signed a peace treaty on September 8, and Germany on October 19.  The city added two new wards to the west and north, the Ninth and Tenth.  Transcontinental television service became a reality in September, 1951.  The new Town House Hotel was formally dedicated at a dinner in the ballroom for stockholders on August 25.  It opened for business on August 27.

With money from the state and high school funds from the county, the board planned a decrease in the levy.  After the disastrous flood, funds were needed for rehabilitation and rebuilding.  Property losses lowered the valuation and the board faced serious financial problems.  The KSTA went on record asking for increased salaries for career teachers.  Board members were face with a lawsuit in December, as nine utilities protested against the levy for high schools.  They wanted the four schools considered as a unit.  Attorney General Harold R. Fatzer had previously ruled that the board was within its rights in levying for the schools separately.

Of the 26 buildings on the Grant site, most had been moved.  On July 9, remaining houses were offered for sale.  Emerson and Lincoln were reconditioned.  As Lincoln portables had been destroyed, a three-room annex was planned by Architect Radotinsky and the contract awarded to William S. Rawlings.  In the meantime, two portables were moved from Noble Prentis and served as temporary housing.  At John Fiske, sixteen rooms were prepared for children living in Trailer City on the Old Homestead Golf Course and for those returning to their Armourdale homes.  Mose and Ingalls could wait.

When school began in September, Central Junior's enrollment had dropped 200 below 1950 figures.  Teachers were assigned temporarily to other buildings.  The old Irving site between Ninth and Tenth on Riverview, abandoned in 1940, was sold to R. McCulley who planned to use the ground for a flood housing project.

The final step bringing Fairfax, District #46, into the KCKs school district was a writ of attachment signed by County Superintendent George Bell on August 20.  About $225,000 in increased revenue would result from the move.

Six long-time board members filed as a unit in February for the April election.  Their combined years of service was almost 100 years.  On October 14, O. T. Claflin died, having been on the board since 1929.  He was succeeded by Joseph Vaughan.  Representatives from the Kansas Central Labor Union praised the board for taking action to go under the Workmen's Compensation Act.

Honors came to two members of the school system.  Mr. F. L. Schlagle was named State Chairman of the March of Dimes Campaign.  Mrs. Clara Lamb, principal of Stanley School, was elected president of the Kansas State Teachers Association, her term of office beginning in March, 1952.

For the fourth consecutive year, "Family Life" groups were organized in the schools by Miss Florence Palmer, director of home economics.  The state and federal vocational departments financed the classes.  Kansas City children enjoyed an exhibit of twenty pictures prepared by Ashiskago, Japan, pupils of grades one to six.  The drawings were on display September 14 to October 1 at the library.

Next Section   1952

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History Site created on December 02, 2002
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