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May 31, 1935 | The Republican River Flood

One of the most destructive floods in Nebraska state history
Posted at 2:10 AM, May 29, 2023

Like blizzards and tornadoes, Nebraska is also a state prone to flooding, as the floods of 2019 have painfully reminded us. There are some floods which have attained historic status, like 2019, the Omaha floods of 1952, or the Missouri River floods of 1881.

While these were all destructive, none surpassed the Republican River flood of May 31, 1935 in terms of human impact. In just 36 hours, the Republican River went from a gentle river to a torrent of roaring waters as it wiped town after town out. By the time the floodwaters receded, the flood became the deadliest in Nebraska state history with 91 deaths, 110 in total. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, let's discuss one of the largest floods in the state's history.

BACKGROUND

The Republican River is one of the major rivers which flow through the state of Nebraska. Of the many rivers in Nebraska, the Republican is the 5th longest at 453 miles. It begins in the higher elevations of eastern Colorado, flowing first northeastward into northwest Kansas, then southwest Nebraska, where it makes an arch shape over the southern part of the state. Bending southeast, it flows into northern Kansas where it eventually ends into the Kansas River.

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Map of the current Republican River basin. The Republican River runs well southwest of Omaha over southwest and southern Nebraska.

The Republican River gains its name from the Pawnee Indians, known as the Republicans. Named by the French, the Republican River was a bastion for natives living in the Plains for thousands of years. When white settlers began moving into the region in the 19th century, several settlements popped up along the river, where cities like McCook began to thrive.

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A closer look at the Republican River with cities overlaid, many of these would experience major flooding in 1935.

The relatively good environmental and economic times in the late 19th into the 20th century ended by the 1930s, when the worst of the Dust Bowl years began to set in. For more background on the Dust Bowl era,read this article. 1934 would prove to be one of the worst droughts in Nebraska history, leaving those living along the Republican River desperate for resources.

By 1935, the drought had improved somewhat. Early May was dry, but by the middle part of the month the rains came to southwest Nebraska. McCook received 2" of rain between May 10-May 20. Then the rains really came beginning May 28...

THE DELUGE

It started raining in eastern Colorado to western Nebraska on May 29, but they really came on May 30. It was likely thunderstorms developed over the same area for several hours, what meteorologists refer to as "training storms". Although we do not have any particular recordings of rainfall, as much of it fell between stations, estimates range from 10" at the lowest to around 18" at the highest. The bulls eye of over 12" fell in eastern Colorado, right on top of the tributaries that flow into the Republican River.

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Rough area where rainfall over 6" and upwards of 15" inches fell, the bulls eye being over eastern Colorado.

Anytime 15" of rain falls in a short time will cause flooding, but the drought of 1934 made it worse. Much like how the frozen ground of 2019 did not allow the rain to soak in, causing it to run off into the rivers, a similar situation happened in 1935. The ground was so dry, it was unable to absorb so much water in such a short time, so all of the water flowed into the tributaries. This wall of water began its rush down the Republican River, catching towns by surprise.

THE FLOOD

The floods began at around 3:00am in eastern Colorado. The first community impacted by the floods was Cope, CO. Within a few hours, 1 1/2 feet of water flooded Main St by 3am. This was the first significant sign of what was to come in eastern Nebraska. Slowly, the water began accumulating and growing as it pushed into the river. At its peak near the Colorado/Nebraska border, the crest reached around 10' high, and topped both bluffs on either side of the river. This wall of water rushed down over the next 24 hours, stopping at nothing as it crossed through.

Haigler, NE
The first town in Nebraska impacted by the floods was Haigler, in southwest Dundy County. The town sat on relatively high ground, and thus was largely spared. However, the roads south of town were not. The river crested twice in Haigler, once around 4am, the other close to 8am on May 31st. During the first crest, one truck driver got caught in the flood waters, managing to escape before the truck was covered in water.

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A section of railroad washed out near Haigler in far southwest Nebraska

Parks, NE
Merle Standish was asleep around 2am on May 31st when he awoke to the sound of rushing water. Quickly realizing a flood was imminent, he gathered his family and set out to warn the nearby town of Parks of what was coming. Gathering a group of people, they arrived in Parks by boat as the town was becoming ininduated with water. Nearly shoulder-high water by the time the men arrived, they went from door to door rescuing families who were trapped in their homes, bringing them onto a boat which the men dragged around the town. Much to the efforts of Merle and others, everyone in Parks survived, albeit the town was basically wiped off the map with homes literally moved off their foundation and floated away.

In the Parks vicinity, the floods likely took its first life. A family was attempting to escape, when 4-year-old Lois Burke was swept from her fathers arms away. An infant the mother held onto survived the floods.

Benkelman, NE
The county seat of Dundy County, Benkelman was one of the first communities to be impacted by the floods. At first, the waters rose gradually, but by 9am the torrent came. The south side of town was flooded, almost up to the railroad yard. The Aristocrat, a train, was arriving in Benkelman just ahead of the floodwaters, but could not leave in time. the passengers were marooned in Benkelman for several weeks before finally being able to leave.

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A look from the train depot in Benkelman towards the floodwaters.

In Benkelman, perhaps the greatest single tragedy of the flood occurred. The Petitt family, two parents and six children, were in the attic of a nearby home when the floods came. At first, some help arrived, but the father refused to go as they feared the water would be too much for the children to swim in. Thus, the family of eight waited for help, which never arrived as the floods were too great. When rescuers arrived, the Petitt family had drowned. Two other people were killed in Benkelman, bringing the death toll in the town to 10.

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A plaque stands in Benkelman honoring the dead of May 31, 1935. Among the dead was a family of 8, who drowned in the attic of a home.

Trenton, NE
Past Benkelman, the floods continued through Dundy County and into Hitchcock County. The towns of Max and Stratton were affected next, both suffering significant losses. As the floods arrived in Trenton, the county seat, they continued to do damage. Many community members had little time to react as the floods grew. In Trenton, 12 people lost their lives in the floodwaters.

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McCook, NE
In McCook, three significant weather events compiled on May 31st to make it feel as if God Himself was smiting the community in the eyes of the locals. First came the floods, catching much of the town unaware as communications were cut off. Several dozen men began to attempt to protect the Power and Light plant on the west side of town. Unfortunately, the 37 men were trapped in the building as the floods came, forcing them all to the roof. Resucers used the powerlines running from the building as a tightrope/makeshift pulley to bring the men to safety, but eventually the poles gave way. All of them would be resuced in due time.

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37 men were stranded on the roof of the Power and Light building as they attempted to barricade the building from the floodwaters.
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The powerlines were used as a makeshift pulley system guiding the men off the roof of the building during the flooding of the Republican River on May 30, 1935.
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As the men were being rescued, the water tower collapsed, many feared it would knock over the power lines thus trapping the remaining men

While recovery efforts from the flood were underway, the second disaster struck west of McCook, a tornado. This tornado, an F-4 of 5 by the estimates, touched down west of McCook and moved north of town. The tornado took 5 lives and injured many more, homes were destroyed, farmsteads sweat away, and debris found several miles away.

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As the flood waters continued east of McCook, a tornado outbreak affected southern Nebraska at the same time. An F-4 (red line) moved just west of McCook.

By the mid part of the afternoon, a dust storm overlaid the flooded McCook, reducing visibilities of those attempting rescue efforts. Over a dozen people were killed in McCook as the flood waters continued their relentless march through southern Nebraska.

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A look at the dust storm as it crossed over northern Kansas into southern Nebraska.

Arapahoe/Edison/Alma/Republican City, NE
As the floods marched onward, the stories in the communities downstream are similar. Many were caught off guard by the torrent, trapped on homes and forced to their roofs, if they made it. Rescue efforts continued for hours to days as the flood waters continued downstream. The cities of Arapahoe, Edison, Alma, and Republican City were the next to face the river.

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Main street in Cambridge showing the turbulence of the floodwaters.

The river missed the majority of the towns with the exception of Republican City, where the south side was flooded. The town actually moved further north away from the river in the immediate aftermath of the floods.

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A group of people watch the floodwaters in Alma, NE.
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One of the many bridges washed away in the current. This one was from Alma.
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An ariel view of the floodwaters near Franklin, south of Hastings.

Eventually, the flood waters slowed both in pace and intensity as it continued towards Red Cloud and Superior, and eventually curved into Kansas before rushing into the Kansas River. In its wake, devastation reigned.

THE AFTERMATH

The numbers are staggering. 91 Nebraskans lost their lives in the flood waters. This places the Republican River flood as the 3rd deadliest natural disaster in Nebraska history, only topped by the Schoolchildrens Blizzard of 1888 (250+ deaths) and the Easter Sunday 1913 Omaha Tornado (103 deaths). Many of these were located in towns in southwest Nebraska, when the flood waters came earlier and with less warning than further east.

Infrastructure in southern Nebraska was decimated. 341 miles of highway was washed away, 307 highway bridges gone, and dozens of railroad bridges washed away. It would take years for Nebraska to fully recover from the effects of the Republican River flood, but they would eventually get around to it.

As a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, Nebraska was granted several government-funded programs and assistance to help communities get back on their feet. Today, six dams have been constructed along the Republican River to create reservoirs for three reasons: 1. Recreation; 2. Irrigation; 3. Prevent more flooding.

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Location of the 6 dams along the Republican River today, the most visible effect of the 1935 flood.