Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
THE PERILOUS FLOOD OF 1851
For the first time, settlers witnessed the wrath of the Des Moines River during the deluge of 1851. Residents of Iowaville, Black Hawk and New Market fled to the hills and camped with the Indians. Villages were destroyed; some never recovered.
It is difficult to determine how much damage the great flood of 1851 caused in Van Buren County, because there was little or no insurance. Even a population study of the villages and townships of Van Buren County does not tell the full measure.
Although the county population continued to climb until 1860, a shift in distribution took place as people relocated to higher ground. With approximately 12,000 people in 1850, villages scattered mostly along the river had remained small. This trend continued until the railroad brought industry and commercial activity of a kind that resulted in a few hubs of population.
Between 1850 and 1860, Van Buren County climbed in numbers by 70% yet Keosauqua remained relatively unchanged in population. A comparison of 1850 and 1852 township populations shows that Van Buren County gained only 1%. Van Buren and Village Townships declined sharply while Farmington Township increased slightly and Harrisburg, Union, Washington, Vernon, Lick Creek and Jackson Townships posted larger increases. Cedar Township jumped by 19%! A closer look at where people moved and settled reveals that people now favored the prairies and higher ground, a direct result of the flood.
What cannot be measured is the damage done to the Des Moines River itself. Before 1851 the river is believed to have stayed within its banks. The river was swifter moving and clear enough to see the bottom through several feet of water. This stream was navigable and thus an active steamboat trade had developed between the river towns in and out of the county. Prior to settlement during the 1830s and 1840s, the stream was lined with trees and thick forests. Not only was land cleared for building villages, but also extensive farming through the fertile Des Moines River valley led to silt run off from rains. By 1851 enough silt poured into the river to make it shallower, wider, and difficult to navigate.
Soil erosion from the flood was enormous and the riverbed filled with silt and debris. Although steamboat activity was at its zenith during the 1850s, the season for plying the river became increasingly shorter each year. River traffic ceased in 1861 and was never revived. The Army Corps of Engineers soon declared the river unfit for navigation. The silting that began with the flood of 1851 directly impacted the death of this industry.
It is difficult to estimate how high the water stood along the river in 1851. Legend says that it was as high as rooftops in Pittsburg. The Manning Hotel has marks to show the high water levels of 1903, 1947, and 1993 but was not yet built in 1851. Information gathered from prominent sources would indicate a level somewhere close to the 1993 mark but not as high as the other two floods.
However, it is hard to compare this flood with others that followed. Few buildings could withstand the swift current. For those that lost everything they owned or their livelihood, it was indeed a perilous disaster.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick