The Devastating Topeka Flood of 1951

By Tom Rodriguez

In May and June of 1951, rain fell frequently in central and northeast Kansas.  It was in early June, however, that torrential rains poured down almost daily on Topeka, Kansas.  As the rains fell, the Kansas, or Kaw, River began to rise rapidly and reached record high levels.  During the week before the 4th of July, my friends and I walked along the river road that connected the Bottoms neighborhood where we lived to the Oakland neighborhood.   We made that walk every year to buy firecrackers at the firework stand located on the river road in the Oakland community.  In those days, there were only a few fireworks stands in the City of Topeka and even though the one on the river road was far away it was still the closest one to where we lived.

The paved river road we walked on dipped sharply as it traveled underneath the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge as you approached the bridge from the south side.  The Santa Fe Bridge was a long black iron bridge owned by the Santa Fe Railroad that spanned the Kaw River.  During the 1950’s the Bottoms boys frequently used the bridge to get across the rive to play on the sandpits located on the north bank.  We always had a lot of fun playing “King of the Hill” and sometimes pretending that we were marines fighting the Japanese on the sandy beach area near the edge of the river.

That July, during our trips out to the fireworks stand we saw the river getting higher and higher.  It was frightening but fascinating seeing the river almost as high as the road and huge logs, trees, tires, and other junk floating swiftly past us.  We usually stopped and threw cans and bottles into the river to watch them get swept away by the fast-moving current.

By July 8, 1951, water had completely filled in the dip on the river road and the road was closed to foot and automobile traffic.  At the time, the water level was fast approaching the underside of the Melan Bridge on Kansas Avenue.  Because we lived only a few blocks away, my friends, brothers and I walked daily to either Kansas Avenue or to the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge to look at the river.  Standing on the south side of the river on Kansas Avenue, or sometimes sitting on the high, ten foot concrete wall that ran east about six city blocks, from the Melon Bridge on Kansas Avenue to the horse corrals of the Hills Dog Food Company, we watched with awe as large trees, large branches, furniture, lumber, pieces of barns, and houses, and sometimes dead animals, floated down the river.  A few times while we were watching, huge logs got caught on the large piles of debris that had gotten trapped on the concrete pillars that held up the bridge and we cheered as the logs broke free and floated down the river.  

During the second week in July there were intense thunderstorms almost every day, sometimes two or three inches of rain fell.  It was amazing and it seemed like the rains would never stop.  I remember hearing on the radio that Soldier Creek in North Topeka and the Shunganunga Creek in East Topeka were at record high levels and that they had suspended swimming at the Garfield Park and Ripley Park public swimming pools.

On July 9, 1951, a Monday, three inches of rain fell in Topeka and the city braced itself for a thirty foot crest of the Kaw River. On Wednesday, July 11, 1951, officials in North Topeka warned residents that the dikes might not hold, and Mayor Kenneth Wilke made plans for the evacuation of the threatened areas. The Mayor also warned sightseers to stay away from those areas.  On the afternoon of July 11th, Mayor Wilke issued an evacuation order for people living in North Topeka.  To make matters even worse, that day another 2.34 inches of rain fell in Topeka.  

In the early morning hours of Thursday, July 12, 1951, the dikes protecting North Topeka broke and sent the Kaw River flowing into the business district and surrounding residential areas.  That same morning, my friend, Richard Rocha, whose family lived across the street from our house, told us that the Hills Packing Company had set their horses free and that they were seen running down First Street.  My brothers and I, and Richard Rocha, then quickly set out to see if we could find the horses but after walking all the way to Kansas Avenue, which was three blocks from our home, we saw nothing and returned home.  

Later that afternoon, the Oakland, East Topeka and Bottoms neighborhoods were added to the evacuation order.  Upon hearing the news, my father and mother, plus my brothers and I began to stack the mattresses from our three beds on top of each other in my parents bedroom, and my mother put glassware and other breakable things on top of tables and other furniture.  Mom and Dad also packed our suitcases and my brothers and I put what clothes Mom would let us take into large sacks.  When we had done all that we could do, we contacted the City and after a short wait, left our home and neighborhood in a large truck provided by the Forbes Air Force Base and moved into the Municipal Auditorium located at Eighth and Quincy Streets.  

To this day, I still remember the strange feeling I had at having to leave our home.  At the time, our neighborhood was bone dry and I questioned whether we really had to leave our home.  I also recall the mass exodus of families riding off on trucks or walking with suitcases in hand as they headed out of the Bottoms on their way to shelters throughout the city.

At the Municipal Auditorium, our family was assigned space on the first floor arena and we were issued blankets.  We were part of an estimated 1,500 people that were housed at the auditorium, which was the designated emergency relief center. The other main shelter was located at the Masonic Temple on Tenth and Jackson Streets, where several of our neighbors were housed.  

I remember that the cots at the auditorium were very narrow and uncomfortable and that my brothers and I decided to sleep on the floor because it was easier to sleep there than on the cots.  I also recall that it was very difficult to fall asleep because a lot of people on our floor and in the auditorium basement were constantly talking and moving about at all hours of the day and night.  During our stay at the Municipal Auditorium, my father and mother did not go to work since the Santa Fe Shops and the Seymour Packing Plant were located in the flood area.

On Friday, July 13, 1951, we heard on the radio that the Kaw River had reached the 37 foot level and that the river earlier that morning had breached the south dikes and flooded the entire Bottoms neighborhood and the Santa Fe yards, plus part of East Topeka and Oakland.  On that historic day, two bridges, the Brickyard and Sardou bridges fell into the Kaw River.  The next day, Saturday, July 14, 1951, the Santa Fe Railroad and Rock Island bridges also collapsed into the river.   When the Santa Fe bridge fell, it took with it four locomotives that had been parked on the bridge to help fight the pressure from the raging river.  

When we learned that the Bottoms had been flooded, our family walked with our parents to Fifth and Madison Streets and looked north at the water line that reached to four or five houses past 4th Street and Madison.  Our home was located at 2nd and Madison Streets so we knew that our home was flooded.  It was estimated in the afternoon newspaper that the water level in the vicinity of the John Morrell Company was 18 feet deep.  It was a remarkable, unforgettable sight seeing the Kaw River filling up the streets of our neighborhood.

On Sunday, July 15th, three of my friends, my brother Richard, and I went to check out the water line, which had receded almost to the corner of Third and Madison Streets.  When we reached the water line, my cousin, Phillip Gutierrez, who was the oldest and whose two story house was closest to the edge of the water line, decided that he was going to check on their home.  Richard Rocha and Joe Mendez also decided to check out their homes.  That, of course, meant that the Rodriguez boys couldn’t chicken out and so my brother Richard and I went along.

We decided that the best way to stay safe was to travel down the middle of the street to avoid getting anywhere near the sewers which were situated on the four corners of each block.  The water was calm but we didn’t know how deep it was further down the block.  I remember that we worked our way single file down the middle of the street and that the water soon reached above our knees but did not get much deeper before we reached my cousin Phillip’s house.  At that point, Phillip headed west toward his house.  As he approached what must have been the curb, he tripped and fell into the water.  That scared the rest of us but he got up quickly and told us that he was okay and proceeded up the stairs to his porch.  He took out his key and went inside.  After a few minutes, he came to the door and yelled that everything looked pretty good and that he was going upstairs to look around. 

The rest of us then moved on to our respective homes.  Richard Rocha and Joe Mendez homes were first and they started toward their houses.  My brother Richard and I kept going since our house was the farthest down the street.  As we went forward, the water got a little deeper and rose almost to our waists so that we had to wade in order to reach our front gate.  We pushed open the gate and walked through almost waist high water up to our front porch of our single story home.  Richard took out his key and we went inside and saw that the water line had reached about four feet up our living room walls.  That was pretty high since our porch stood about three feet high.  We estimated that the water in our area must have reached at least six or seven feet deep at its highest point.  Upon further examination, we saw that a lot of things in our house had been ruined and that there was extensive water damage everywhere.  We checked on the mattresses that we had piled on top of Mom and Dad’s bed and saw that two of them were water logged.  Thankfully, other things higher up were undamaged and dry.  We went into the kitchen and looked out the back door window and saw that the entire back yard was still covered in water.  

After about five minutes, we left the house and waded back to the street where we rejoined the guys.  All of them also reported some damage to their homes but since they all lived in two story houses, they said that everything they had put upstairs was dry and undamaged.  

Wet and tired, we made our way back up to Third Street and tried to dry ourselves by taking off our jeans and shirts and wringing them out.  We then walked back to the Municipal Auditorium and they walked on to the Masonic Temple.  When we got back, my Mother saw that our clothes were still damp and she got very angry that we had visited our house without permission and scolded us that we could have drowned.  We did our best to assure her that the water was not very deep and that the other boys had done the same thing.  Later, when my father showed up, he also chewed us out.  Dad, however, asked us questions about the condition of the house and we proudly told him everything that we had seen.  The next day, Dad and some of our neighbors walked down to the water line and proceeded to also wade through the water to check on their houses.  By Monday afternoon, the water line had receded even more and Dad told us that we were going back in two days to start cleaning up.  

On Wednesday, July 18, 1951, almost everyone in the Municipal Auditorium, including our family, left for the day to start the long and difficult task of cleaning up their flood ravaged homes.  When Dad and us boys got to our house we saw that  our entire front and back yards were covered with inches of thick black mud.  Inside the house, the floors were also covered with inches of mud and a water mark was visible a third of the way up the walls.  Our basement was still filled with water and eventually had to be pumped out.  It was quite a mess but at least we still had our home.  Other people, particularly in North Topeka, had lost everything.  

On Thursday, July 19th, we packed up our few belongings and moved out of the auditorium and back into our home.  For a few days, we had no lights, no gas, and no water.  Instead, we bought bottled water and sodas and used candles and flashlights.  Mom washed clothes by hand and hung them out to dry on the clotheslines in our backyard.  For a toilet, we used nearby outdoor toilets, or the outdoor toilets of my grandparents Rodriguez and Gomez who lived only a block away.  

The smell in our home from the water and mud was still strong and water still filled our basement.  After about a week, Dad rented a pump and with some of my uncles, got all of the water out of the basement.  Later, my brothers and I, plus Dad had to go down to the cellar and shovel out the mud that was at least a foot deep.  Unfortunately, no one, including our family, had flood insurance to cover the damage.  That was too bad because we ended up having to replace our front room floor and part of the dining room floor.  I don’t know where Mom and Dad got the money to make those repairs, but I always assumed that they had borrowed it from a bank.

It was a long time before our family got over the devastating flood.  In fact, years later, my father told me that the 1951 flood put our family in debt for several years.  At the time, however, our priority was getting our house back in living order.  As it turned out, we spent weeks shoveling, scraping, sanding, painting, and cleaning up our house and yard.  It was a long hard time but as the weeks turned into months our lives got back to normal. 

Months after we moved back to our house, we read in the newspaper that estimates of the damage in the State of Kansas were close to $1 billion and that 41 people in Kansas and Missouri had lost their lives.  At the end of the year, we also learned that an amazing 48.6 inches of rain had fallen in Topeka during 1951.  Thankfully, following the devastating 1951 flood a massive flood control project was begun that many years later protected the City of Topeka from ever again being flooded by the Kaw River.  

As I finish writing this remembrance of the devastating Topeka flood of 1951, it has been 69 years since that traumatic event, a catastrophe that changed the lives of my family, friends and many thousands of residents of North Topeka, Oakland, East Topeka and the Bottoms neighborhoods.  It is something I have never forgotten and thankfully, have never experienced again.  

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