The great flood of 1903 was the most disastrous that Morris County, Council Grove in particular, ever met with. Disastrous not only for the record deluge but for the cause of a fire as well. If flood or fire alone is a hard thing to deal with, just imagine when the two are combined.
The county had been experiencing rain for several days at the end of May, nothing to cause alarm though. The Neosho River had risen and fallen a dozen times and no one thought anything of it. Two heavy downpours, one in the northern part of the county and one at Delevan caused Elm Creek and the Neosho to rise rapidly. Some estimated that the Neosho at one point was rising an inch per minute. About midnight Parkerville phoned Council Grove to warn of rapidly rising water and flood conditions.
Most everyone in Council Grove was in bed and unaware of the danger they were in. The first cries for help were heard across Elm Creek in Sample town. The creek had cut everyone off on that end of town and people were being forced from their homes. The rescuers were just as helpless as those needing rescued, all they could do was stand at the water’s edge and listen.
Sometime around one a.m. the electric plant was fired up and the street lamps were turned on as people were gathering downtown. The water began to run down the north and south streets and then turned into the streets running east and west. The Missouri Pacific parked several cars loaded with steel rails on the bridge over the Neosho to keep it from washing away. After the waters abated that railroad bridge was the only thing connecting east and west Council Grove.
As people milled around downtown wondering what to do, the water kept rising. Business men went to move things out of the basements but the river was already coming in. So, they gave up on the basement and moved what they could from the ground floor to the second. To give you an idea, the water was said to be waist deep at the bank corners. In some of the buildings it was reported to be six feet deep. The rise and fall of the water was gauged by the spout on the town pump between the F&D Bank and Butler Community College.
The current was so strong that a number of houses were swept off their foundation and piled in a heap of wreckage. A few of these were located approximately in the area of where Rays Apple Market and Adams Lumber now stand.
As the water flooded the electric plant the fires were extinguished and so the lights downtown went out leaving everyone in the dark. As folks stood there in the blackness they smelled smoke but could see no fire. Everyone waited with great anxiety for the fire to reveal itself. Suddenly flames burst from the lumberyard behind the Farmers and Drovers Bank. The flood waters had saturated a bin of lime causing it to get hot and ignite the surrounding lumber. It wasn’t long and the whole lumberyard was in flames. Eye witnesses reported the flames exceeded the height of the bank building.
There was nothing that could be done to put out the fire. The hydrants were submerged, and without the power plant there would be no way to pump water. Men stood waist deep in the flooded streets throwing buckets of water, but this did very little to help. They were forced to wait for the water to recede and then the hose cart was brought out. The Indicator building which the Farmers & Drovers now occupies was badly damaged and the bank received a little fire damage. Burning debris was drifting away on the water but fortunately did not cause anything else to catch fire.
The fire at the lumberyard took out the long distance and home telephone wires leaving Council Grove pretty well disconnected from the rest of the world. There was one telegraph wire which kept them connected with Kansas City. Other areas were affected by flooding as well. There was a report that several miles of track washed out between Council Grove and Hoisington. There was damage to the Katy track between here and Emporia, causing shipments to come through Osage City for a time.
Three were dead after the flood. One on the Sample town side, a young girl, was swept out of the wagon when her family tried to cross Elm Creek to safety. They had not found her body after the flood and reports from downstream said a body was seen floating on the river. There were even reports in southern states that a female body was seen on the water. I’m not sure if the girl’s body was ever recovered, but it is not likely it could have made it all the way to the Gulf. Two men on the east side of town were drowned. Their bodies were driven to the railroad bridge and carried across to the hearse which then took them to the cemetery for burial.
It was reported in the Guard that “a cow floated through the bay window in Will Jaillite’s house in east Council Grove and landed on the piano where she rested till morning.” A hog was said to have made his wallow in someone’s bed until the next morning. After the flood, clothing stores had dozens of men engaged in washing shirts and such. Clothes lines were strung up along the street and quickly filled. W.H. White lost over 100 head of hogs and 11 steers and some 2,000 bushels of corn. Many other farmers lost their crops, fence, buildings and livestock as well.
Based on the accounts I have gathered from people who lived through the 1951 flood and the accounts recorded on the 1903 flood, I believe the 1903 was the record. The paper reported that the 1903 flood was four feet higher than the previous year’s which was a record. Folks I talked to about the ’51 flood said the water was just lapping the tracks at the Katy. The 1903 waters went beyond the track. The Missouri Pacific tracks were six inches underwater at the early stage of the flood, we are not told their condition at the peak. The water also came very close to the court house where over 100 refugees were camped on that damp night.
I leave you with one last comparison. Remember hurricane Katrina? In Council Grove people were forced to their attics. Some had to cut their way through the roof and spend the night on top of the house. Some spent the night in trees. Some were clinging for dear life to porch posts or anything they could get hold of. Ironically enough, one man held on to the dentil molding of his porch with his teeth until help arrived.
Addenda: It was not until early October of 1903 that construction began on the new bridge over the Neosho.