On May 30, 1935, torrential rains fell in eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska; by early morning of the 31st, the usually peaceful Republican River was running bluff-to-bluff along its upper reaches. When the waters subsided two days later, over 100 lives had been lost and many millions of dollars of damage had been done.
After the prolonged drought of the early 1930s, the wet spring of 1935 had brought welcome relief to the region. By the end of May, however, the soil was nearing the saturation point. The rains of May 30, concentrated in the basin of the South Fork and extending into the valleys of the Arikaree, Frenchman, Red Willow, and Medicine, poured into the main stream–normally 300 to 400 feet wide, turning it into a raging torrent one to four miles wide.
The flood water came as a wall, variously estimated at from three to eight feet in height. The advance of the crest was more rapid in the upper valley, reported at ten miles an hour above Trenton, at five between there and Oxford, and slowing to 2 1/2 miles an hour upon crossing over into Kansas.
To prevent the repetition of such a tragedy the federal government has built a series of six dams, five in Nebraska, across the Republican or its tributaries, serving not only as flood protection, but providing recreation and irrigation facilities as well.
In 1936, eyewitness Bernice Haskins Post wrote her memories of the flood. Her account is posted at the Nebraska Gen Web site. Here’s an excerpt:
Looking west, we could see a rolling wall of water about four feet high, from bluff to bluff. We saw it hit the railroad grade and twist those rails off as if they were paper. But look. What are people saying and pointing at? A car on the highway in the water. They didn’t get back across in time. It’s sweeping the car off the road; the people are getting out; who are they? Gil Rains car; but who is with him? His father, Ed Buising, Ralph Rebman, and the two little Houtz boys. We saw some of them swimming north to the bluffs. We saw Mr. Frank Rains just stand in the road and then all at once go under the water.
Many more eyewitness accounts of the flood are found in Marlene Wilmot’s two-volume history, Bluff-to-Bluff: The 1935 Republican Valley Flood, available in many libraries around the state. And the National Weather Service has posted many 1935 newspaper articles about the flood.
Check back here in a few days. We’ll post an amazing series of photos showing a daring flood rescue in McCook.
—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research and Publications (Text adapted from the state historical marker near Oxford.)