The Flood of 1935 -- Many books tell stories of courage, destruction

Monday, June 1, 2015
This collection of books tells the story of the 1935 Republican River flood. (Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Gazette)

In her book, "Swept Away," Mary Magorian Sherk wrote, "Water has often harassed the folks who live in Southwest Nebraska. Usually it was the lack of it they complained about ... "

However, the last week of May 1935, in the middle of a drought, it was too much water that would terrify those who lived along the Republican River. Rain falling too fast and moving so fast down the Republican that people along the river were caught unaware or unprepared. Or, despite warnings, disbelieving. Their river could never behave so horribly.

A flood of the Republican was legend among the area's earliest inhabitants. In her book, "Bluff to Bluff," Marlene Harvey Wilmot wrote that the Pawnee warned settlers not to build in the Republican River Valley. "Big water come. Bluff to bluff. Do not stay here by water," they warned.

But the lures were too great, and settlers came.

Joy Hayden, in her new book, "The 1935 Republican River Flood," explained that the Homestead Act of 1862, a cycle of abundant rainfall, good river bottom soil, the invention of barbed wire to protect plowed fields and the easy availability of water, timber and wild game encouraged settlement along the Republican by European immigrants.

Following the railroad, towns sprung up along the river.

Hayden writes, "For the residents of the valley in the 1930s, the river wound through their fields and their lives like a honeysuckle vine through a fence. Soon the vine and the fence become inseparable, and cutting one damages the other. In just this way, the river became an integral part of the life of the people, and the people in turn took life from the river."

But the river would take life from the people in late May and early June of 1935.

Mary Sherk wrote her book because, she explains in her introduction, "Even people who were there when it happened recall 'the flood' differently. Each person experienced it individually. ... Facts can become jumbled in memory. ... The deceptively peaceful Republican valley was suddenly a nightmare of death and destruction ... There is no preparation for such disasters. One is lucky or not, as the case may be."

Each of these books contains stories of escape, loss and rescue.

Sherk's book includes this comment from LeNeve Kyle of Stratton, who submitted her story of the flood to the Hitchcock County Historical Society Newsletter in April 1977: "It was so dry during the earl 1930s, you couldn't spit. And then the rain came -- all in one night."

Her book also included this warning from health officials in June, 1935: "The State Department of Health and local doctors advise immunization against typhoid fever. See your local doctors. For those unable to pay, the Red Cross has provided serum. Mrs. Beulah Wiedman, Red Cross Nurse in charge, said that today, serum was given to 85 people in Max, 90 in Parks and 97 in Haigler."

In "Bluff to Bluff," Marlene Wilmot tells of Arapahoe mill employees marooned for two days, and a related story of men trying to take refuge in the mill.

Two men tried to reach safety at the mill by wading through raging water, but were caught in strong currents and tossed across a ditch to a telephone pole. Wilmot continues the story, "Neither of the men could swim well enough to cope with the current, so both attempted to reach the mill by crawling along the telephone wires. Continued calls (of warning) to the mill kept them suffering electrical shocks and made progress slow." Discouraged by the "shock treatment," one of the men climbed back upon the telephone pole, but lost his grip and was swept away with the water. The other finally worked himself over the span of two telephone poles to near the mill-race bridge, where men there threw him a rope and pulled him to the bridge.

The mill workers were rescued by members of the National Guard, 48 hours after flood waters struck the mill.

Joy Hayden reports that officials called in the military to help with the clean-up, and North Platte became the center of operations for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Red Cross. One-thousand Civilian Conservation Corps men were allocated to McCook to help with clean-up. The CCC and FERA brought in an additional 1,600 men to help throughout the area.

Hayden tells of McCook Gazette publisher Harry Strunk's resolve that his community would never again suffer such a loss of life and property and, as president of the Republican Valley Conservation Association, promoted his campaign for flood control. Eventually, a series of dams, the last one in 1960, would be constructed to not only protect Republican River Valley residents from flood, but provide water for irrigation and recreation.

To commemorate the flood and honor the lives of those lost, Cambridge stonecutter D.F. Neiswanger created monuments marking the location of "high water" along the river.

Hayden writes that in Jan. 23, 1936, Neiswanger told the Cambridge Clarion that in future years "people would probably guess, wonder and argue as to the highest point of water reached."

Hayden writes, "To prevent this from happening, he (Neiswanger) placed eight markers documenting the flood of 1935. As of this writing, seven remain as a testament to the foresight of this local historian."

Hayden concludes: "The Republican still meanders through the valley, now hemmed in by dams and reservoirs, lined with trees and crisscrossed with bridges. It has returned to its quiet ways, a gentle giant sleeping on the prairie. Will it waken again as it did in 1935? ... The next chapter ... is being written today by the actions by those who live along its banks, those who control the rights to the water and those who govern the land through which it flows."

These are certainly not the only books written on the horrendous flood of the Republican River in 1935. If anyone knows of others, please contact the Museum of the High Plains, 308-345-3661, as the museum would like to include them in its collection of books of local significance.

"Bluff to Bluff" and "Bluff to Bluff, Too!," by Marlene Harvey Wilmot, are available at the Museum of the High Plains in downtown McCook.

"Swept Away," by Mary L. Sherk, is available locally at the Massacre Canyon Visitors Center on Highway 34 east of Trenton.

"The 1935 Republican River Flood," by Joy Hayden, is available in McCook at New Life Christian Book Store in downtown McCook.

Another book, "High Water Mark," by Raymond Borchers, is available for reading at the High Plains Museum.

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