The Republican River, named for the Kitkehahki, or Republican band, of the Pawnee tribe, wanders south of Franklin, NE, the town where my grandparents and parents lived from the 1940s through the 1970s. Although I never heard them mention the deluge of 1935, now known as Nebraska’s Deadliest Flood, I learned of it as I researched that region for my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account. I mention the river in that book, but its role is tame in Bridget’s 1960s narrative. For a video glimpse of the Republican River’s calm waters, see that novel’s book trailer.
In 1935, in the Republican River Valley of southern Nebraska, many people were barely scraping by. The national economic depression, so intense as to be capitalized to the Depression, took its toll. Jobs were scarce and drifters knocked on doors, begging. Farmers couldn’t get a break; rain fell only sporadically, drought scorched crops, grasshopper plagues devastated what did grow and dust storms carried off topsoil. Few had the means or equipment to irrigate, in Nebraska.
In the midst of the Dust Bowl, who could imagine the vast quantity of water that would soon come their way, in Nebraska’s deadliest flood? Who could anticipate the devastation such an ordinarily peaceful river, the Republican, could bring?
The Republican River near Franklin, NE, 2014
And who could warn them? Public communication was limited in little river towns in the 1930s. While radio programming was a big deal in the cities, radios and telephones were considered luxuries, even a waste of money, for many rural Nebraskans. Many country homes weren’t yet tied to electrical service and relied on generators and battery power for lights, radios and telephones, if they had them. “Waste not, want not” applied to treasured electricity, as it did to other commodities and daily goods, during the Depression. Leaving a radio on to hear breaking news would have been almost unheard-of. Trains brought in newspapers for national news, and local presses did their best to keep up with world news.
Nebraska’s small communities came together, though, in ways we’ve almost forgotten. News could travel fast over back fences and on Main Streets. Church and social gatherings pulled people together, and gossip was a means of sharing and rehashing not only scandal, but also politics, national and international news. Newspapers ruled the information domain, in the 1930s. Rural customers with telephones usually had party lines, where the customer would listen for his or her number of rings, to answer . . . or to listen in on the other customers’ calls. In emergencies, the operator could ring through to these fortunate few, and telephone switchboard operators proved themselves heroes in Nebraska, 1935, warning many of the oncoming disaster.
1930s telephone switchboard, common in small towns, photo from telephonearchive.com
Yet, weather information was scarce, and forecasting still in its infancy. The Weather Bureau in the early 1930s began to replace its weather-tracking kites with airplanes, to gather weather data, particularly in tracking cold- and warm-air masses. For the average person on the Great Plains, the impending weather was rarely forecast with any real accuracy. What was known or could be guessed at from widely-spaced weather stations and basic weather maps, was only sporadically communicated to the average citizen. While today we can track oncoming weather with radar, tune in to special weather television broadcasts, receive alerts on our mobile phones, and even send instant messages to those in the weather’s way, in 1935, most people were at the mercy of the elements.
May of 1935 was a wet month along the Front Range in Colorado. Over that Memorial Day, then commonly known as Decoration Day and celebrated on Thursday, May 30, the rainfall increased dramatically. What became Colorado Spring’s catastrophe, its own Memorial Day Flood, seems now to have been not only a tragedy there, but also a herald of an unfolding disaster on the Great Plains. Those heavy thunderstorm systems moved east across the high desert, down into Nebraska and Kansas. (You may read a brief intro to that Colorado Springs flood here.)
Kansas Department of Agriculture Republican flood basin map
The Republican River tributaries and river basin span parts of eastern Colorado, southern Nebraska and northern Kansas. The catastrophic storm that moved east on Decoration Day, 1935, dumped 24 inches of rain in one day and followed a nearly-perfect course for disaster, flooding those tributaries—the Arikaree, Frenchman, Blackwood, Beaver, Buffalo, Red Willow and Sappa Creeks, to name several. As the water gushed into the North and South Forks of the Republican, it created a wave of destruction that spanned three states and took weeks to ebb, defying prediction or belief. Given the forecasting and communication limitations of the day, and no flood control established along the river course, tragedy ensued.
For a back-in-the-day newspaper account of the concurrent flood and tornado events, you may find it interesting to read this special edition published by the Omaha World-Herald in June, 1935, scanned and offered online, courtesy of the NOAA. The photos are fascinating.
A glimpse of the Omaha World Herald souvenir Flood Edition, from weather.gov
It was eighty years ago, this week, that the skies ripped open and the Republican River broke free of its banks, as the Pawnee had tried to warn the early settlers it had previously done. In their oral history, they recalled that tame-looking water source to have risen so high, it spread from bluff to bluff. They camped on high ground and warned the first settlers away from the river bottom, but the water seemed so peaceful, and the soil so fertile there . . .
Alma, NE Webber bridge devastation, photo from weather.gov
History, as it proves it will, repeated itself. In the last days of May and into June, 1935, the Republican raged, cresting twice in a few days. It took 113 human lives, killed tens of thousands of cattle and other livestock, destroyed homes, farms, businesses and crops, and coiled railroad iron like barbed wire. It washed out over 300 miles of roads and over 300 bridges, effectively isolating whole towns from the outside world for weeks, even months. The river in some places spread between one and two miles wide.
McCook, NE power plant rescue boat, photo from weather.gov
The Republican River Valley flood of 1935 precipitates a crisis in my novels-in-process. I’ve heavily researched the flood, delving into personal accounts, newspapers, local histories and weather analyses. I’ve driven and walked along much of the river’s course, from Kansas to Colorado, and it’s hard to believe, standing beside its gentle current, that it could have ever had such destructive power. It’s easy to see why the settlers were skeptical, and today it’s even easier to underestimate that river. There’s a reservoir in Harlan County, begun in 1946 and completed in the 1950s, that’s meant to tame the Republican. That dam is designed to hold back the water, to keep it in our grasp.
I have my doubts about that, doubts steeped in history and Native wisdom. The land under us, its rivers and the weather that swirls overhead, these are beyond our measurement, reckoning and control. We do our best to predict and direct our activities in line with the environment, but the earth holds us, not the other way around.
It’s something worth remembering, during this Memorial Day week, how small we are here on our planet, and how deep are the places we inhabit. To survive, we do well to walk humbly and embrace the history, stories, wisdom and community that preceded, surround and root us.
credit-opening photo: Burlington RR Track at Naponee photo from weather.gov