The story of 20th-century Kansas City is told in two parts: before and after the Great Flood of 1951.
Before, Trans World Airlines overhauled aircraft in its Fairfax hangars. After, the carrier announced plans for a new maintenance base in Platte County.
Before, the Armourdale district in Kansas City, Kan., was home to 10,000 people, many of them working in nearby packinghouses. Today, maybe half that number live among buildings that have basements still tattooed with the musty imprimpts of floodwaters.
Before the flood, the Cudahy Packing Co. provided 1,800 jobs within a livestock and meatpacking center that once was the second largest in the world, behind Chicago. After the flood, Cudahy shut down and those stockyard gates never swung properly.
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The three remaining packing giants would be gone by the mid-1970s.
In short, the Great Flood marked the beginning of the end of old-time Kansas City, which was born in that flood plain.
“The demise would be slow but inevitable,” said Kansas City lawyer Edward T. Matheny Jr., author of the 2014 book “Cowtown: Cattle Trails and West Bottom Tales.”
Matheny was just out of Harvard Law School and launching his practice when the Kansas River gushed over the dikes that July morning, Friday the 13th. He had no time to gawk with the crowds that lined the bluffs above the vast inland sea that the West Bottoms had become.
Oftentimes, witnesses to a disaster don’t foresee its impact on a city until many years later.
One reason the event tops our list of Kansas City’s most significant disasters is that many residents who weren’t alive in 1951 are aware it happened.
At public spaces around town, they see Norman Rockwell’s tribute to the flood, “The Kansas City Spirit,” and have at least a vague understanding of what the man rolling up his sleeves represents — even if the cattle pens and TWA Constellation soaring in the background no longer represent Kansas City.
On the 50th anniversary of the flood, The Star’s Brian Burnes called it “the Kansas City area’s most biblical disaster.”
“There was high water. Fire. Thousands of animals scattering in retreat from the Kansas City stockyards,” he wrote in “High & Rising,” published by Kansas City Star Books. “Rats heading for higher ground. Stifling heat, compounded by a lingering stench. And death.”
Across the Kansas River basin, up to 36 people died. The casualties included at least five deaths in the Kansas City area.
The threat was clear. Eastern Kansas had been soaking all spring, with monthly rainfall three times the average. But even after the Kansas River washed into the Argentine district, prompting troops to evacuate 15,000 people, an Army Corps of Engineers official declared the West Bottoms “safe.”
A few hours later, an engineer in the bottoms scribbled in his logbook: “The Army has pulled its men out … as they couldn’t get the sandbags in fast enough. …
“Everybody is running right now. It will start pouring in within 15 minutes. … Somebody just told me to get out of here.”
What followed was the first local disaster captured by TV cameras.
In one dramatic scene, an oil tank floating from the Phillips Petroleum Co. hit a power line and erupted. Elsewhere, rescuers in rowboats reached workers stranded on Southwest Boulevard rooftops or the upper floors of factories.
When the oily waters receded, an executive of the Gustin Bacon Manufacturing Co. found atop his desk a dead hog, one of thousands of livestock carcasses that would be bulldozed into the ground.
The flood of ’51 was soon confirmed in a Senate report to be “the greatest single catastrophe in the history of this country” when measured in dollars. Damage reached several billion dollars when converted into today’s values.
It offered lessons, like every disaster. “Never Again!” The Star declared in a headline of a front-page editorial calling for new measures in flood control. In time, the Army Corps mitigated the risks to Kansas City by building a series of dams and reservoirs upstream in Kansas.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson is that we did it again: Kansas City was slapped down and rose back up.
The 1900s had begun that way, when the city rebuilt Convention Hall 90 days after fire destroyed it. In both cases, people invoked this notion of the Kansas City spirit.
Spirit works as the the city’s moniker. And it’s a good way to go about life.
As a former Armourdale resident, Bill Hawver, told author Burnes in recalling the flood five decades later:
“One encounters difficulties with life, but one continues. It’s one thing my parents instilled in me, and that was from the flood.”