Doomsday KC

Lowland flood left legacy in highlands, too

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

Burdered by heavy rains, the Kansas River rose rapidly on May 29, 1903, and within a week covered the industrial bottomland from Kansas City’s West Bluffs to the bluffs of Kansas City, Kan. Tens of thousands of people — most of them poor — were made homeless, and churches, ethnic societies and other volunteers raised money and donated food and clothing.
Burdered by heavy rains, the Kansas River rose rapidly on May 29, 1903, and within a week covered the industrial bottomland from Kansas City’s West Bluffs to the bluffs of Kansas City, Kan. Tens of thousands of people — most of them poor — were made homeless, and churches, ethnic societies and other volunteers raised money and donated food and clothing.

Overland Park is named so for a reason. Developer William B. Strang thought it wise to advertise high ground after a flood tore apart Kansas City’s industrial center.

In the late spring of 1903, Strang traveled from his New York home to visit his mother in a city under water. He couldn’t make it all the way into the gothic Union Depot in the West Bottoms because the Kansas River had climbed to the tops of the station’s doorways.

The 1903 flood convinced Strang to relocate his mother to a new community that he envisioned to be flood-free. Soon he would be building on plats named Overland View, Overland Heights, Overland Summit, all connected to Kansas City by an interurban rail line of his design.

Meanwhile, Kansas Citians figured it was high time to move their train station — one other lesson of a disaster that shifted the city’s eyes to places away from water.

Days of heavy rains across Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska had produced on May 31, 1903, a nightmarish scene of bridges rocking against the rising currents of the Kaw.

One bridge near Armourdale broke loose and slammed into another downstream, and the domino effect had begun. Along four miles of river, 16 bridges were carried away in two hours time.

The national trade journal Engineering News concluded later in the year: “The flood which swept down the valley of the Kaw … will rank as one of the greatest disasters in respect to property loss that has ever visited this country.”

Replacing the bridges alone would cost as much as $1.5 million, experts at the time concluded.

Converted to today’s money, that equals about $40 billion — or roughly half the total property damage that Hurricane Katrina delivered to the Gulf coast in 2005.

And that’s just to fix bridges.

The flood had also wiped out the Turkey Creek pumping station, ripped apart roads and rail lines, and put industries below the bluffs under several feet of water that carried away thousands of carcasses from the stockyards. Twenty people died, hundreds of homes were lost and refugees by the thousands took shelter in churches.

For more than a week, much of the area was without tap water, railroad service, electricity and fire protection. Looters willing to move around the dead livestock prowled the Central Industrial District’s many saloons and warehouses, promping police to deputize streetcar operators.

Their orders were to shoot on sight.

By one estimate, the flood left homeless 10 percent of the combined population of Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas City, Kan. The displaced largely were poor immigrants and African-Americans who had lived and worked in the lowlands of the Kaw.

To help them, ethnic societies and other volunteers raised in a matter of days more than $30,000 to fill wagons with food and clothing.

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By one estimate, the flood left homeless 10 percent of the combined population of Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas City, Kan. The displaced largely were poor immigrants and African-Americans who had lived and worked in the lowlands of the Kaw. File photo

The West Bottoms eventually dried out, industries recovered and levees were constructed.

But the place flooded again in 1909. By then, city leaders and railroaders were deep into plans for vacating Union Depot — a soot-caked, Victorian monstrosity of a station — and moving the railroad terminal to higher land.

“Make a monument,” a Kansas City Terminal Railway board leader instructed Jarvis Hunt, architect of Union Station. It arose in the 1910s at what then was the outskirts of the city, around Main and 23rd streets.

Union Station is still there, of course.

And Overland Park? With about 185,000 people, it’s the second-largest city in Kansas.

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