From the upcoming book about Southeast Kansas
The Perfect Storm
Submitted by Jim Gaskell of Chanute, Kansas
My wife and I found ourselves in the middle of the largest flood that has ever been recorded in Southeast Kansas. It was July in 1951, and we were living on a farm four miles east of Altamont, Kansas, in Labette County. Highway US 59 went by our land. In retrospect, this flood was caused by what some call "the perfect storm!" Heavy rains started in North Central Kansas, flooding the Cottonwood River and upper Neosho near Manhattan, Kansas. The storm continued to move slowly to the Southeast, following the flow of the Neosho River. The movement of the storm and the flow of the water in the Neosho River were simultaneous, compounding the problems along the river. By the time it arrived in Chanute, Kansas, the river was flooding to the point that floodwater was just one block south of the municipal building at Santa Fe and 2nd Street.
From our home in Labette County, we had a view of Labette Creek, as it flowed across the edge of our farm. A few days after the rain started, we watched our field of wheat, ready for harvest; disappear as the flooding from Labette Creek spread out across the low-lying fields. The following day, we watched the five-foot tall green corn growing in the bottomland disappear under the water. We had heard reports that the Neosho River was flooding very badly at Oswego, just six miles east of us. We got in our car and drove to the Riverside Park in the Northeast part of Oswego. The park is located on a high bluff with a clear view of the Neosho River.
What we saw is burnt into my memory and will last as long as I live. About a mile north, we could see the peak of a barn with only a few feet of it standing above the floodwater. We could see an electric line that sloped down a hill and disappeared under the water. This main REA electric line was mounted on poles at least 30 feet tall. Not a single pole could be seen anywhere across the mile or more of farmland it crossed. The official report of the depth of floodwater at Oswego was 40 feet above the banks of the Neosho River.
As we returned home, we saw a sight that we have only observed one time in our entire lives. The river floodwaters were so high that it was forcing water to flow backwards up Labette Creek. This amazing event revealed that the Neosho River floodwater was entering Labette Creek a couple miles north of Chetopa and flowing backward up Labette Creek. As the crow flies, it is at least 15 miles from Chetopa to US 59, where it was flowing upstream and going over the highway about 8 to 10 inches deep. Up to this point in my life, I did not think water could flow upstream! As I look back, I was a fool to drive our car across this flowing water. But I did, and we returned home safely.
It took weeks for the water to finally drain off our farm fields and dry up. The wheat that I had started harvesting before the flood was yielding 40 bushels per acre. I was able to salvage ten bushels of wheat per acre after the land dried up, and it was only fit for livestock. I remember that the wheat was lying flat on the ground and was covered with a lot of dry soil. We rigged the combine with special teeth to pick up the flattened stocks of wheat. The dust from our combine was so heavy that I could only work going into the wind. Otherwise, the dust would choke me and blind my vision.
Following this flood, we had about three years of drought where it was nearly impossible to raise any row crops.
After leaving this job in November of 1954, I entered military service and never returned to farming.