Summer 2016 marks 65th anniversary of 1951 Manhattan flood

Waters rose between four and eight feet throughout much of the business district of Manhattan during the summer 1951 flood. (File Photo | 1952 Royal Purple)

On July 13, 1951, one of the greatest floods in Kansas history swept down the Kansas River valley and into the Missouri River basin. During the period of July 9-13, some areas in the Kansas River basin received 18.5 inches of rain, and the eastern half of the basin received an average of eight inches, according to the Kansas Historical Society. This summer will mark the 65th anniversary of the flood.

“The Flood of 1951 was a pivotal time in Manhattan and Riley County history,” Cheryl Collins, director of the Riley County Museum, said. “The Riley County Museum recognizes the flood’s importance to the Manhattan area history.”

The Big Blue River rose to 16 feet above the flood stage and eventually covered the Manhattan business district with 8 feet of water. Altogether, 116 cities and towns were affected, 85,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, 22,000 residences in the river basin were flooded, nearly 2,500 homes were demolished, 336 businesses were destroyed and more than 3,000 businesses were flooded. The flood claimed 28 lives and more than 1 million acres were flooded, according to a 1951 edition of K-Stater Magazine.

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Businesses halted during the Summer 1952 flood that hit Manhattan. Store fronts were destroyed and merchandise floated down Poyntz Avenue. (File Photo | 1952 Royal Purple)

Residents reflect on memories of the flood

Bill McConnell and his wife Marie McConnell lived in the town of Zeandale, Kansas, eight miles east of Manhattan, during the flood. They said they can recall the incident.

“In 1951, I was about 12 years old,” Bill said. “We stood on top of the railroad bridge and watched the houses come down. There was all sorts of debris and tree branches. We couldn’t get anywhere because all the roads leading to Manhattan and Wamego were flooded.”

Staff, faculty members and students contributed to the rescue and cleanup efforts of the flood. K-State was the only place in the city that remained dry with working electricity because of backup generators. Staff and faculty housed up to 1,000 people without homes, and the campus provided food and shelter to roughly 1,800 people, while students found additional shelter for more victims, according to an August 1951 edition of K-Stater Magazine.

Mayme Casady, Manhattan resident, said she remembers how someone opened up their home for her family.

“A few days later, my family moved in with a friend on the 900 block of Osage Street,” Casady said. “Our first meal staying on Osage Street, Mom went out and was able to buy bacon, eggs and bread. It was a return of some normalcy — the best meal memory I’ve ever had. I was 6 years old. After the flood, which damaged everything on the first floor, we went from an icebox to a refrigerator. So some things were progressive because of the flood.”

Earlier in 1951, the governor had directed K-State President James McCain to develop a civil defense plan. K-State used the plan during the flood, which attributed to its quick response, according to a 1951 edition of K-Stater Magazine. Memorial Stadium also became the landing site for an emergency Coast Guard helicopter. The pilots picked citizens up from their rooftops and evacuated them to the campus for food and shelter.

Kent Smith, Manhattan resident, said he recalls how students helped the first responders.

“Students were helping the National Guard,” Smith said. “They had large trucks and were busy getting people out, and the trucks loaded up with K-State students to help. They were helping people move their furniture.”

K-State helps flood victims

K-State provided food, clothing, shelter and quickly became the nerve center of the city, according to the Aug. 15, 1951, article “Kansas State became city headquarters,” in the Manhattan Daily Tribune. McCain closed summer classes, the 44 departments on campus opened their buildings and faculty members were assigned to relief efforts. The campus dairy and bakery went overtime to provide food for the flood victims, according to the August 1951 articleFlood Compassion” in K-Stater Magazine.

“Since I lived at Pillsbury Crossing, I was affected by not being able to get into Manhattan to sell milk,” Marie McConnell said.

Cots used by the 4-H group on campus were used to create temporary shelter in Ahearn Field House, East and West Stadium and Nichols Gym, which later became Nichols Hall.

“We were in the old field house,” Smith said. “I was around junior high school age. We went up to Ahearn to get shots for things like typhoid. It was so crowded with people staying there until they could make other accommodations. My mother was taking classes at that time, so we had free run of the campus.”

Casady said she also remembers her experience of staying in Ahearn Field House.

“We lived at 319 Leavenworth St., which got 3-4 feet of water and mud,” Casady said. “We evacuated to the Field House at K-State. Sheets defined sleeping quarters on cots for the families. Tons of lines awaited shots, food, news, bathrooms and flood reports.”

Victims and flood crew ate in the cafeteria in Thompson Hall. Staff members at the Lafene Health Center on campus were aided by local doctors to administer free typhoid fever vaccinations. To ease boredom in the shelters, students and faculty helped organize square dances, concerts, crafts and movies. The temporary K-State Student Union building became the center of communication for flood operations, according to the July 19, 1951, edition of The Collegian. The City Hall was moved into the Union, where Mayor Z. R. Hook, City Manager W. B. Avery and Chief of Police Clint Bolt were temporarily stationed.

After the water stopped, the city began recovery efforts. For a week following the flood, the Collegian would only print ads that directly related to people in the flood.

A citywide spraying project aimed at destroying all the flies and mosquitos was part of the recovery efforts. Roger Smith, head of the department of entomology, was in charge of the project, which was another way the faculty of K-State contributed, according to a July 19, 1951, Collegian article.

A $200,000 Logan Fund and an emergency student employment office was established at K-State to help with students whose income or whose families’ incomes were reduced by the flood, according to a July 29, 1951, Manhattan Daily Tribune article.

The Board of Regents and directors of the K-State Alumni Association approved a college program of financial assistance to students who needed money to come back to K-State that fall. Additionally, K-State opened up a forum for the public on aspects of the flood, such as whether floods could be controlled, what the costs would be, how they could be prevented and what would be involved in the reconstruction process, according to a 1951 Topeka Capital-Journal article.

Manhattan, Riley County experiences over $13 million in damages

Overall, there was an amount of loss that affected Manhattan and Riley County. A Red Cross survey showed that the flood affected 2,251 families, according to the July 26, 1951, article “Surveys Damage” in the Manhattan Chronicle. Manhattan alone suffered $13,394,000 worth in damage. An estimated 1 million acres were flooded and showed damaging effects, with 60 percent of Manhattan under 8 feet of water.

Smith said the flood was a big coming-together.

“The students and faculty were there to help,” Smith said. “I think students were more involved with each other at that time. The size of community contributes how well you can get to know people. A lot of people put themselves out there and opened up their homes.”