Republican River Flood, Part 2: Rescue in McCook

The McCook power plant at 10 a.m., May 31, 1935.

The flood waters rise. McCook power plant, 10 a.m., May 31, 1935.

As promised in the May 25 post, “Republican River Flood – 75th Anniversary,” here is the story of how forty men were trapped on the roof of the power plant in McCook. A narrative by plant worker Louis B. Wolf appeared in the McCook Daily Gazette on May 27, 2010. We have a slightly different version (unsigned but apparently also by Wolf) in our collections (RG1992.AM).

The first warning came at 4 a.m. on May 31. Workers were called in to fill sandbags to protect the power plant.

The men couldn’t keep up with the rising water. Wolf writes, “Word was received from the chief dispatcher’s office that the water had risen at a rate of two feet in 10 minutes in Culbertson.” Even so, local businessmen pleaded for the men “not to let the plant go down regardless of what happens.”

RepRiver02

So the men stayed. Soon they were trapped by the rising water. They shut down the power to the city at 10:50 a.m.

RepRiver04As the water rose, some men climbed to the roof, but others were still trapped inside. The men on top tore a hole in the roof so everyone could climb up. “We saw a crowd of people on the banks some 400 feet away, our wives, mothers, fathers and friends,” Wolf writes. “Under normal conditions, we could have conversed, but the loud roar of the water made it impossible.”

Detail of previous photo.

Detail of previous photo.

The swift current made it impossible to swim to shore. But how long would the building withstand the torrent of water?

Someone came up with a plan to use the power lines that connected the plant to dry land. First, someone shot the insulators off one of the wires. “To this, a large rope was attached and we on the roof pulled it to the power plant,” Wolf writes. “A telephone cable car and land-line were brought over on the rope so that we could pull the cart to and from the land.”

RepRiver06

“Paul Wilson pulling himself hand over hand on the rope, bringing a hand line and a telephone cable car with what 2 men were rescued from the power plant roof.”

Detail of previous photo.

Detail of previous photo.

“Two men were thus transferred from the roof to the land. As we were about to start the third man…”

RepRiver08

Robert French stands on the H frame of the power line as the water tower collapses.

“…the water washed out the poles and the employee [Robert French] on the H frame near the plant dived into the flood. By his skillful swimming, he succeeded in reaching a point near land about one-fourth of a mile below, where he was thrown a rope and rescued.” (Robert French’s granddaughter told a somewhat different version of the story, based on her mother’s recollections, as reported in the September 10, 2007 McCook Daily Gazette.)

RepRiver09There were no more rescue attempts that day. The men waited on the roof until the water receded the next day. Then they “waded out to a sandbar near the cooling tower, a large boat was brought to us and from then on, trips were made taking seven or eight men each time until we were all landed safely on land.”

This devastating flood affected many communities along the Republican River valley. Are you ready to do your own research? In addition to the sources mentioned in the May 27 blog post, check these NSHS sources: “Floods – Republican Valley” in the Vertical Files (RG5000.AM); Federal Writers Project interviews about the Republican River Flood (in Works Progress Administration files, RG515); plus individual county files and archival newspapers. These sources aren’t available online; contact our Library/Archives reference staff for assistance.

—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research and Publications

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