Eating out at a Mexican Restaurant in 2003 (I moved to Kansas City at the end of 2002) served as my first introduction to flooding history in Kansas City. Hanging from the ceiling in the dining room was a full-length size kayak with a mannequin paddler, cruising at the projected height of one of many of Kansas City’s flooding events. The bizarre sight was entertaining, and little did I know that it would propel me to making a mental note and recording other tributes to such occasions.
Many locals recall the major flood in July of 1993. I was living in Alaska at the time, and the slowly unfolding event made it on national news and in the local headlines of the Anchorage newspapers. I could not fathom the idea that passage over the Mississippi and Missouri rivers was not possible as the roads leading to the bridges were flooded in hundreds of locations stretching for miles and miles.
The flood of 1951 seemed to have a greater impact on my in-laws as they recounted the stories of dead cows floating down the river from stockyards in the West Bottoms. Also, my father-in-law recalled where, on several occasions, entering buildings in the Bottoms that still had the relevant marks left behind by the flowing waters. Other stories were shared about that catastrophic event, and to look out over the Bottoms from the home of my in-laws’ rear windows, it was hard to imagine the scope of the devastation.
Not long after my curiosity was piqued on the flooding subject, I started working at the former Argentine branch of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library. Books of local history circulated a fair amount, and I was captivated by several, including “High and Rising” by Brian Burnes.
High & Rising: the 1951 Kansas City Flood by Brian Burnes.
Author: Burnes, Brian, 1954-
Examining the pictures from the book, I wondered if other relics from that event were still present and where I might see them.
A few years later, when I started working at the Main Library, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library, co-worker Sam Hughes informed me that there was a marker on a building in the Bottoms indicating the maximum height of the 1951 floodwaters. He had lived in the West Bottoms a few years before but could not remember the exact location of the sign. His only recollection was that it was on a building north of the 12th Street Bridge that leads from downtown KCMO onto the Bottoms.
His information piqued my interest, and I realized my nearly daily routine of commuting by bicycle through the West Bottoms gave me the perfect opportunity to start my quest in earnest.
Traveling by bicycle gives one the opportunity to see things often missed by those going at a faster speed in a car. Plus, to view objects above eye level, it is easier when sitting on the saddle of a bike than when you are enclosed in an auto.
For months and months, I scoured the brick walls of many of the edifices in the Bottoms, but to no avail. I questioned Sam, who would sometimes play jokes on me, about the authenticity of his claim. I had asked others about such markers, and no one else would verify his recollection. I had had my doubts and was willing to file his claim in the category of urban legends. My enthusiasm lessened, and no longer did I actively surveil the upright surfaces. Furthermore, the lack of details about the sign (color, shape, size, distance up the building, etc.) provided by Sam did not help my cause.
In October of 2009, I did find a source of floodwater recordings. It was, however, more than halfway across the state of Missouri along the KATY bike and hike recreational trail. At mile marker 120.5 of the KATY near Steedman, MO, is Standing Rock. On it are black lines indicating the height of the waters along with the year of occurrence.
Near Steedman, MO, a wayside exhibit highlights the recordings placed on Standing Rock.
Remarkably, the feature is over a mile from the Missouri River and records four or five events.
As the months wore on, occasionally, I would search the Bottoms. I expanded the grid and checked outbuildings south of the 12th St. Bridge, too.
My efforts still came up empty.
Plus, no longer did Sam work at the library, so it seemed the incentive had diminished to find what he claimed existed.
Then one day, my luck would change, and it was quite by accident. For years, I had been intrigued by the faded and fading business “signs” or lettering of long-gone establishments that used to exist in the Bottoms. Some of them still exist, however, like the Faultless Starch Company at 1009 W 8th St. Regardless, it was the faded lettering on a brick column of what appeared to be a former storefront that caught my attention. The word “WATER” jumped out at me. I was puzzled, and since I was on my bike and apparently thirsty, I thought, “how nice of this business to provide the public with a chance to fill up their water bottles.” My search for the faucet led me down a rabbit hole. There was no faucet, nor any sign that there ever was one anywhere nearby. Perplexed, I continued to survey the area, and then another revelation appeared. On the column on the left side of the front entrance door was the word “High” at the same height as the word WATER standing right in front of me. The next column to my right revealed the word “Mark,” followed by the remaining two columns with the inscription “June 1” and “1903,” respectively.
On the right column is the word “WATER,” and to the left is the word “HIGH.”
The word “MARK” is discernible on the left with the date of “JUNE 1” on the right.
Last but not least, the year “1903” was recorded on the last column.
This was not the marker that Sam had talked about because the sign he was referring to was for the 1951 Flood.
I looked above the overhang protecting the old façade. Nothing more. Not far from my discovery, but much higher on a very non-descript brick wall was the marker pictured below. Finally, I found the marker Sam told me about.
The inscription reads, “Flood July 13, 1951, Water Reached This Height.”
My search for the plaque was done.
However, my quest was not over.
Years would pass before I discovered the Town of Kansas Bridge and another tribute to the rising waters.
Located at the corner of Main and 2nd St near the City Market in KCMO, the bridge is actually an extended observation deck. The stairs and elevator at the north end will take persons down to connect with the Riverfront Heritage Trail (a pedestrian and bicycle trail), where one can see the historical markers prepared by the US Geological Service.
This angle of the markers provides an additional reference as to the height of the flood events.
With a similar reference point on the Heart of America Bridge
It was just within the past few years that I found a duplicate plaque from the 1951 Flood, also in the West Bottoms. At 1331 Union Avenue in Kansas City, MO, sits a four-story brick building next to the railroad tracks. To the left of the door near the top of the first floor is a marker placed long ago, indicating the highest water level of the 1951 flood.
Perhaps more identical markers/plaques exist in the Bottoms on other buildings; if so, I have not found them yet.
For more information on the fascinating history of the Town of Kansas Bridge, follow the link of the Kansas City Port Authority. The official portkc website with more detailed information https://portkc.com/amenities/town-of-kansas-bridge/ about the site.