Jump to Navigation

Flood of 1903

Cedar PointKansans sometimes define a year by its weather. The "blizzard of 1886," "flood of 1951," and the Dust Bowl's "Black Sunday of 1935." Such a year was 1903.

Sleet storms and freezes in late April 1903 led to tornados, hail, and massive rainstorms in May. Tornados on May 22 damaged Abilene, Clay Center, Vermillion, Salina, Mulvane, Newton, Ashland, and Eureka. Hailstones in Saline County were reported from eight to 16 ounces, measuring as much 14 inches around. By late May the rivers and streams from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma were swollen, extending in Kansas from Ellsworth to the Missouri border.

Salina received the largest amount of rain for the month at 17.13 inches. By May 26 water covered the north and west portions of the city, with rivers still rising. Topeka was flooded on May 29, Lawrence and Kansas City on May 31.

The surge caused railroads to discontinue service. Waterworks flooded, cutting off water supplies and fire protection service. In the days before radio, automobiles, and airplanes, communication was difficult.

People in North Topeka became stranded when a portion of the Melan Bridge that crossed the Kansas River was destroyed. Boats arrived from St. Joseph to assist in reaching those stranded. When a fire broke out at the Thomas and Gabriel lumberyards in Topeka, burning timbers were carried by floodwaters to other structures.

Samuel Reader, a Civil War veteran with a number of health issues, lived in North Topeka. His diary tracks the advancing water. He mentions rain in most of his entries from May 23 to 28. By May 29 he begins to be alarmed.

I said: "There's no danger," but water up in yard at 11:30. At 2 a.m. water in the house, Water rising fast.

The next day boats arrived to carry people to safety, but the water continued to rise. Since Reader was suffering from arthritis, neighbors carried him to the second floor where he observed the activities below. He was resolved to stay in his house. On May 31 commented that it was rainy and "awful cold," but the river fell nine inches that day.

Over the next two days food was delivered to his house. By June 3 he was told he would be taken to a temporary hospital facility.

I said "No," but they said I had no say about it. They with a Mr. Matson carried me down stairs, and put me in a boat. Water two feet in the house yet.

The Topeka Daily Capital reported that 4,000 people were driven from their homes. Local businesses and individuals raised $6,000 to assist those who were suffering. The Lawrence Daily Journal reported "Desolation everywhere, North side a complete wilderness, country for miles around one vast sheet of water and homes and property have been swept away to destruction."

By June 1 the rescue efforts were ending and communities were facing other issues. Dead animals and standing water raised the threat of disease.

The Johnson County clerk reported to Governor W. J. Bailey on June 8, 1903, the situation in Olathe.

The northern border of two townships that touch the River have suffered very much the first call was about Ten Oclock Sunday May 30th 1903. It was for anything in the shape of a boat that could be used for rescuing people from house tops & trees.

Few river towns escaped damage. A total of 57 people died, 38 of those were in Topeka. Only one of seven railroad bridges in the Kansas City area survived the flood.

The floods of 1903 and successive years eventually led to a flood control plan implemented with the New Deal in the 1930s. The floods of 1951 led to further flood control measures in Kansas.

Entry: Flood of 1903

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2011

Date Modified: July 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.