Great Flood of 1881
The Great Flood of 1881 refers to flooding events on the Missouri River during the spring of 1881. The flood struck Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa between April 1, 1881 and April 27, 1881. The events provided the first detailed reporting of Missouri River flooding, and caused millions of dollars in damage.
The flood caused a great deal of damage along the Missouri River. Three people died in northeastern Nebraska as a result of the breakage of an ice jam upstream of the Missouri-Niobrara confluence. Thousands of livestock were also killed and several small riverside towns were washed away. The flooding forced the town of Niobrara, Nebraska to move to a new site on higher ground.
THE FLOOD OF 1881. In Cedar County in NE Nebraska, the great flood and ice gorge of March, 1881, caused great loss of property, but fortunately no loss of human life. A number of farms on the Missouri bottom were overflowed, some of them with all the improvements in buildings and fences, together with most or all of the livestock, not only submerged but washed away and destroyed. Their owners, who thus without warning lost the toilsome accumulations of years, were in many cases obliged to commence life anew, as they had begun ten, fifteen or twenty years before. Among those who lost heavily was Sabie Strahm, after whom the town of Strahmburg received its name. About 60 acres (24 ha) of his land was washed away, together with house and barn, horses and cattle, his total loss being about $12,000. John Nelson, a farmer living about half a mile south of Green Island, lost about fifty cattle, eight horses, twelve mules and the frame portion of his house. The other part of his house was constructed of brick, and furnished a refuge for six hours for fifty people while the flood was at its height. Upon the roof of this house, while destruction was going on around, prayers were offered up by Rev. Mr. Seccombe, for the safe deliverance of themselves and others in similar dangers. About eight at a time, they were safely conveyed in a skiff to Henry Morton's house, a mile and a half away. At Mr. Grime's house, two miles (3 km) east of Green Island, thirty people collected for safety. From the house they were driven to the barn, and from the roof of the barn some of them fled to a scaffolding constructed in the branches of a large tree. Here they remained from 3 o'clock in the afternoon to 3 o'clock next morning, when, as the weather had become freezing cold, they crept back into the barn. When daylight came, five young men and two young women, Emma Mallory and Mattie Mix, started over cakes of ice for land, four miles (6 km) away, which they reached in safety, the water being fourteen feet deep under the ice most of the way. But, during the continuance of this great flood, the center of danger and interest, and the scene of the most destruction in Cedar County, was at Green Island, immediately opposite Yankton, Dak. The town was situated on bottom land, close to the river and from six to fifteen feet above it. Before the flood, it was a busy town of 150 inhabitants, containing about fifteen dwelling houses, the post office, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, a store and two churches--Methodist and Congregational. The waters began to rise on Tuesday, March 30, and entirely surrounded the town. Many people, apprehensive of high water, had moved their stock and household goods to places of safety. On Wednesday the 31st, the gorge in the narrows above broke, and suddenly there rushed down around and upon the devoted little town an irresistible and overwhelming torrent of waters bearing on their bosom great masses of ice, which carried away and destroyed almost everything in their course. The Congregational Church, a fine structure with a tall spire, unable to withstand the tremendous blows of the immense cakes of ice, left its foundation, turned half way round, and swaying as it went, gracefully floated away with the current, until, about a mile below, it was lost to view behind some trees, where it was broken to pieces. It is said that people in Yankton, of hearing the tolling of its bell, although they well knew there had never been a bell inside the church. Shortly after the church, building after building followed, including the schoolhouse and large hotel, until all were gone but one, which was but partially destroyed. On the roofs of several, their owners and others floated, until they either were rescued or rescued themselves. Within two hours this all occurred. "The most imaginative writer of fiction never pictured a destruction more swift, more dreadful nor more complete." The farms were destroyed by the washing of sand on to their surface, covering them up to the depth of several inches. On the old town site of Green Island (Strahmburg) there have been since erected two hotels, a blacksmith shop and a house or two. The total loss of property, real and personal, by reason of the great flood of March 31, 1881, in Cedar County, is estimated at $100,000. A large, new steam ferry-boat now connects the old town of Green Island with Yankton. Its first trip was made April 18, 1882.
Omaha and Council Bluffs
Downtown Omaha was flooded up to 9th Street, and Council Bluffs was flooded the same. The river remained at a high level for several weeks and during the height of flooding was reported to have been five miles (8 km) wide. The entirety of Omaha's shipping industry was damaged, with industrial, trade and docking buildings severely damaged if not destroyed. Losses from this flood were said to be "in the millions," and in 1881 dollars that would equate to a major flood.
There were only two deaths in Omaha during the floods. A small one-man skiff was being used by three Union Pacific workers who were attempting to cross a break in a temporary dam when the river's current pushed it into the main channel. Two men jumped from the boat and drowned immediately.
The Omaha Bee covered the flood each day from April 2 through April 13.
- April 1
On the morning of April 1 word was received from Yankton, South Dakota that the Missouri River rose thirty-five feet, killing several people and destroying the lowlands in that area. The railroads received warnings from points north and advised people in the area to leave the river bottoms. They moved their rolling stock and equipment to higher lands throughout the area.
- April 6
In the afternoon of April 6 a temporary dam around riverfront businesses in Omaha burst. During this period the Omaha Smelting Works and Union Pacific Shops almost completely submerged. The following morning floodwaters crested at 23.5 feet (7.2 m), which was two feet higher than ever recorded on the river. The Missouri had also reached a width of 5 miles (8.0 km), effectively covering all the lowlands around Omaha and Council Bluffs.
- April 9
On the morning of April 9 the North Western Railroad levee bounding Council Bluffs against the river broke and water spread over the west and south sections of the city. An anonymous man rode a horse through the south part of the city to warn residents when the levee gave way. Rescue shelters were placed throughout the area, with "any building that was suitable was thrown open to the refugees."
After that event from Ninth Street in Council Bluffs west to Omaha and from Carter Lake south beyond the Union Pacific Shops looked like "a sea" dotted with houses and outbuildings like islands. Boats and large sections of wooden sidewalks were pressed into service, with the operators earning from $15 to $20 a day.
- April 12
Water started receding on April 12, with railroads clearing up and repairing tracks immediately. Families returned to their homes to begin cleaning out water. However, on April 22 the river stage increased at the rate of a foot an hour, causing people again to move to higher land. This time when the river broke its banks the water spread to Eighth Street and Broadway in Council Bluffs. Houses, trees and livestock were seen floating downriver.
- April 25
The Union Pacific Shops remained flooded as the river rose another two inches. A riverfront packinghouse and the Willow Springs Distilling Company were flooded, along with many smaller riverside businesses. 1,600 workers were unemployed at this point. In Council Bluffs 600 people were homeless, with more than a half of the city inundated with water. During the previous several weeks the Elkhorn River valley was flooded as well, with the entire town of Waterloo, Nebraska abandoned due to flooding.
The river began to recede on April 27 and families returned to their homes again. General Grenville M. Dodge, the chief engineer in charge of the construction of the Union Pacific, had employees ride through the flooded areas to rescue cattle. The river dropped 10 inches (250 mm) on the 27th.
After the flood in the area south of Council Bluffs, the Missouri River had looped itself in a hairpin bend, leaving an old channel filled with quiet water. The body of water left stranded by the river's change, covering about 400 acres (160 ha), later became Lake Manawa, a popular recreation area in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area.
- Olson, Robert L. "Niobrara — Knox County". Nebraska...Our Towns. Retrieved 2008-04-08.
- "Historic Floods on the Missouri River Fighting the Big Muddy in Nebraska". Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved 2008-03-31.
- Nueman, R. (2002). "Missouri River – A sleeping giant's never-ending history of uncontrollable flooding". Omaha River Front News. Retrieved 2008-03-31.
- "Flood of 1881". Omaha Public Library. Retrieved 2008-03-31.
- "Manawa created by flood back in 1881". Council Bluffs Nonpareil. Retrieved 2008-03-31.
- Gould, E. W. (1889). Fifty Years on the Mississippi; Or, Gould's History of River Navigation. Nixon-Jones Printing Company. p. 251.
- Gould, E. W. (1889), 253.