Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
Floods In Pioneer Days (man still canít harness nature!)
Living and/or growing up along the Des Moines River makes us quite aware of the wrath of the raging river during times of high water. We are quite aware that heavy rains throughout the Des Moines River valley over a sustained period of time can cause the swollen stream to spill out of its banks flooding cropland, homes and businesses. And every few decades there is an epic flood!
Some people are still trying to recover from the flood of 1993. What made that flood so disastrous was that high water persisted throughout the spring and through most of the summer! In some places the high water marks were records; in other places, the length of time the land remained flooded was indeed a record.
"Old timers" along the Des Moines have frequently said, "Every forty to fifty years, you will see a major flood." The first of these was in 1851 and the next came in 1903. A flash flood happened in 1905 that nearly equaled the 1903 mark in some locations, but the next major flood didnít take place until 1947. After that flood, the Red Rock Dam was built, which allowed control of the river in such a way so as to prevent the major floods of the past. So it was thought!
Unfortunately, the amount of rain that fell in 1993 is said to happen only once every 500 years! The dam held back water until Des Moines and other cities above were under water. Massive flooding all along the river could not be avoided, and the deluge continued for weeks, as the Mississippi and all other tributaries also experienced high water of record proportions.
The Mississippi has experienced major floods more often than the Des Moines, and some of the worst floods before 1993 have been in different years than those experienced here. It is difficult to determine when the first major flood occurred along the Upper Mississippi. Reports are that in June, 1828 Prairie du Chien was "an island over which steamboats could pass in any direction." It became the benchmark for early pioneers along the river. The problem is, where people did not yet reside, the amount of flooding and height of crest are almost impossible to determine.
It was bad enough for those who lived or worked along the Mississippi. Fences were swept away, Fort Crawford was abandoned for awhile, and village residents retreated to the higher prairie.
In 1844, residents of Iowa towns along the river experienced high water for the first time. On April 25, the Davenport Gazette reported that "the river has been rising for ten or twelve days and it is higher than it has been since 1828." The editor estimated that the river was a mile and a quarter wide at Davenport. Burlington also reported that the river was higher than anyone had ever seen it and the Illinois Bottoms were badly flooded.
There is no record of major flooding that year on the Des Moines River.
The Mississippi also experienced a big flood in 1851. The Davenport paper reported that the depth of water in stores on Front Street was never more than twelve inches, but apparently this was downplayed for fear that the flow of immigrating settlers might cease. The Des Moines, Skunk and Iowa rivers were flooded. In Burlington flood waters were higher than in 1844.
In 1859 water crested within 22 inches of the 1851 crest in Dubuque, and a large number of hands were at work strengthening the levee. That flood hampered railroad as well as steamboat traffic. Downstream cities were threatened with record crests during April and May. 1862 and 1870 also saw high water.
Newspaper accounts testify that landmarks were being obliterated in Dubuque by the rising water of 1870 and basements were full. Galena, Davenport and Rock Island reported water at record depths.
The Mississippi raged during the 1880s with floods in 1880, 1881 and 1888. On June 16, 1880 the water at LaCrosse, Wisconsin was four inches above the 1870 mark. In 1881 the flood took place in October and was of long enough duration to make the winter miserable in many localities. From Dubuque to Keokuk, the river set records in 1888.The Mississippi was 7 to 9 miles wide at Burlington. Alexandria, on the Des Moines River in Missouri found itself a "Venice." Boats carried people from home to market. One enterprising boater advertised "Ride the schooner for a nickel. Free lunch."
1892 produced disastrous flooding of the Upper Mississippi again. Davenport and Muscatine saw record crests.
While the Des Moines River went on rampages in 1903, 1905 and 1947 in Van Buren County, the Mississippi only experienced minor flooding. Major floods happened on the Mississippi in 1916, 1920, 1922, 1938, 1942, 1951, 1952 and 1965. 1965 was considered the benchmark for most Mississippi communities (comparable to 1947 on the Des Moines River) until the massive flooding of 1993.
A comparison of 1965 and the previous highest crests along the Mississippi are as follows:
City 1965 Previous (year) Flood Stage
Dubuque 26.81 23 1851 17 feet
Clinton 24.85 21 1880 16 feet
Davenport 22.48 19.4 1892 15 feet
Muscatine 24.81 21.05 1952 16 feet
Burlington 21 17.9 1951 12 feet
Keokuk 22.14 20.9 1851 16 feet
In 1965 National Guard units were dispatched to the most critical points along the rampaging river. In one way or another, the disastrous floods touch the lives of everyone who lives along the river. Van Buren County people experience epic floods about once every forty years. We sympathize with friends along the Father of Waters, and must consider ourselves lucky that major floods do not occur as often on our tributary.
"Old Timers" are quick to point out that the river will never be tamed. This is proven true with disasters of all kinds in different parts of the county and world. When man thinks he has been able to harness nature, he better watch out!
(From The State Historical Society, Iowa City, The Palimpsest, July 1965.)
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick