How Floods Shaped The Kansas City We Know Today

Aug 10, 2015

Kansas City owes its place on the map and its early prosperity to rivers. But those same streams that carried people and goods in and out — and later made easy routes for railroads – also created unforgettable chapters in the city’s history: destructive floods. With each disastrous chapter, Kansas City has recovered, adapted and sometimes changed direction.

As early as 1826, when western Missouri remained mostly wilderness, a Missouri River flood drove the Chouteau fur-trading agency out of its location on the north bank of the river. The French-speaking traders moved upstream to higher ground on the south bank, not far from where the Kansas River joined the Missouri and near the site of the early Kansas City. Two decades later, the newly formed Town of Kansas – home to a few businesses and a few hundred setters – was inundated by one of the greatest floods on record in the area. The waters washed away warehouses for overland shipping and led to the death by disease of scores of Wyandotte Indians who had been transplanted to nearby bottomlands. The flood also persuaded Missouri River shippers – and Santa Fe trail traders — to favor the nearly indestructible rocky landing at Kansas City’s riverfront to the muddy landing at Independence.

Despite the chance of flooding, Kansas City continued to build in the lowlands. After the railroad arrived in the 1860s and the Missouri River was bridged, the West Bottoms along with bottomlands on the Kansas side boomed with rail yards, stockyards, meatpacking operations, grain mills and elevators, farm equipment businesses and wholesale warehouses.

A boat on the river's edge loaded with people during the 1903 flood.
Credit Elizabeth Benton Chapter Scrapbook / Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

By the turn of the century, when the metropolitan area had surpassed 200,000 people, the bottoms proved an easy victim when the rivers topped their banks. In 1903 a late spring flood did just that. It shut down the Kansas City water supply, the natural gas works and the electric generating plant. Without electricity, the basic means of transportation for thousands of city dwellers — the streetcar — came to a halt. A score of deaths were attributed to the flood and thousands temporarily were homeless.

The railroads whose passenger trains used the deteriorating Union Depot in the West Bottoms had considered several low-lying sites for a new station. The 1903 flood persuaded them otherwise, and when Union Station opened in 1914, its tracks and upper floors occupied higher ground along Main Street. One real estate developer, William Strang, saw an opportunity to buy lots well above the flood zone and advertise them as safe from flooding. Thus was born Strang’s Overland Park and similar subdivisions, all carved from then mostly vacant and rolling prairie of Johnson County. The metropolitan area’s march to the southwest was on.

In July 1951 the Kansas River, filled to overflowing by heavy rains in its tributaries to the west, swept over levees and temporary floodwalls in Kansas City. It rolled into the Argentine and Armourdale districts of Kansas City, Kansas, damaging rail yards and sweeping homes off their foundations. In the West Bottoms, under water from bluff to bluff, stockyard operations came to a halt and rail service ceased. The water backed up along Southwest Boulevard, knocking oil company fuel containers off their foundations and starting smoky fires visible for miles. The rivers also broke through in the Fairfax industrial district, surrounding petroleum refinery storage tanks and drowning TWA’s airliner overhaul base in water and mud.

The flood of 1951 signaled the beginning of the end of the giant meatpacking plants in the West Bottoms. It caused TWA to move its overhaul operations to higher ground in Platte County, where one day Kansas City International Airport would rise. And it called forth a resolute response from people and businesses not only in the flooded area but all over the city. That outpouring inspired Joyce Hall of Hallmark to commission a painting by Norman Rockwell depicting a construction operator looking to a greater future for a rebuilt city. Its title: “The Kansas City Spirit.”

In later decades, smaller streams created havoc. In September 1977, concentrated and heavy rain quickly filled Brush Creek to overflowing and then swept rapidly down the Blue River. Floodwaters inundated businesses in the Country Club Plaza and also homes and businesses downstream; 20 deaths were believed to have resulted.  In 1998, an unexpected downpour led to the deaths of drivers trying to cross the Prospect Avenue bridge over Brush Creek.

In 1993, water from Turkey Creek poured into Southwest Boulevard, but the West Bottoms of Kansas City and the bottomlands of Armourdale and Argentine remained safe. Although the Kansas and Missouri rivers nearly reached the top of floodwalls, Kansas City breathed a sigh of relief. Up and downstream along the rivers, however, communities and commercial districts were inundated and farmland ruined.

From the 1903 flood on, governments at all levels tried to build flood-prevention walls and later to extend and raise them. After the 1951 flood, the Corps of Engineers worked vigorously to construct dams and impoundments upstream, leading to the development of many of Kansas’ large recreational lakes. After the 1977 flood wracked Brush Creek and the Blue River, both streams were widened and their beds and banks smoothed. Brush Creek gained miles of trails and streamside structures.

Floods are a fact of life for Kansas City and the metro area but, as Kansas Citians have proved time and again, so have adaptability and resiliency. 

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Bordersand spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.