Kansas City Times, January 7, 1872, 4/1
Playful Pranks of the Missouri.
The Floods of 1827 and 1844 – Will
There be a Flood this Spring – Some Recollections
of a Native of the Soil.
The continued heavy falls of snow in the black hills, the plains, and the main range of the “big rockys,” by which the Pacific railroads have been more or less blockaded all winter, have given rise for speculation and comment concerning the probability of a rise in the Missouri river in the spring. Old mountaineers in Colorado testify to the almost unparalleled deep falls of snow during the present winter, and are prognosticating a heavy rise in the upper rivers during the coming spring. In view of the immense interests at stake here, at Kansas City, a large portion of which is below high water mark, THE TIMES yesterday interviewed one of the first settlers of the East Kansas City bottoms, who was a resident at this point at the time of the great floods of 1827 [sic] and 1844.
The flood of 1827 occurred about the last of May or the first of June of that year, and was quite moderate in dimension as compared with the one that followed it seventeen years later. The Harlem bottoms were totally submerged, and all of the bottoms immediately below this city, with the exception of the Guinotte bottoms farm. This mere fact that these Guinotte bottoms were above high water-mark in 1827 caused it to be purchased by the Chouteau family, and in due time the rich, loamy bottom lands, now an almost barren sand-bar, became a fine, large plantation, with hundreds of acres of fertile fields surrounding the fine old homestead of the Chouteaus.
The residence of Mr. P.M. Chouteau (now City Collector) was a spacious double log house with two wings, all covered with weatherboarding. The house had three heavy chimneys built at the ends and one in the center. There were numerous barns, ware houses, hemp the tobacco houses, besides the Negro quarters, clustered around the large house, hundreds of head of stock, horses, cattle and hogs, roamed at will in the quiet bottoms, and all seemed as peaceful and prosperous as could be.
The winter of 1844 was somewhat like the present one, deep snows fell in the mountains and very little in this valley. The “June Rise” of 1844 came booming down the river, the channel of which ran down just west of the north end of the railroad bridge and struck fair against the rocky bluff at the foot of Broadway, and then ran along the south shore of the river bank down to Randolph bluffs, where it crossed over and washed the base of the Clay county bluffs. A large island covered with heavy timber existed where now only a low sand bar is seen opposite the gas works.
Just at the time the “June Rise” began and the snow began to melt at the mountains, a heavy rain commenced to fall all over Kansas and Western Missouri. This rain continued to fall during thirty days and came booming down into the Missouri just as the spring thaw was running down. In a few days the bottoms across the river as far back as the bluffs were overflowed. The Kaw river began to rise and came rushing along like a mill race. In a few days it burst its banks and cut a channel across where West Kansas City is now built, and emptied into the Missouri nearly opposite the elevator. Many feet of the top soil of the Kaw bottom were washed away by the surging current. Trees, houses, and the warehouses of the Canadian and French settlement of Kaw’s mouth were swept away by the flood, and at one time sixteen feet of water stood upon the site of West Kansas City.
The plantation of P.M. Chouteau, below the city, was gradually submerged. Inch by inch the angry, muddy stream crawled upon the fertile face of the fields: the slough soon became filled with water, but the wealthy planter remained with his family, expecting every day that the water would go down. One morning the family awoke to find themselves surrounded by four feet of water. Cattle, horses, and hogs were wading and swimming about in the stream; a hundred acres of fine hemp standing in shoals in the field was nearly covered. Upon nearly every every [sic] shock were perched chickens, turkeys or little pigs. The family had barely time to escape to the main shore when the current became quite rapid, and raised to the second story of the house. While a party of young men were endeavoring to save some of the furniture from the upper story, the steamer Missouri Mail hove in sight up the river. The boys, eager for a joke, dressed up in female apparel, and got upon the roof of the house and hoisted a signal of distress. The steamer rounded to and came to the house. The boys went on board, took a drink, and were taken by the boat to the bluffs, where Chouteau shipped a few tons of water-rotted hemp to the St. Louis market.
The flood was about two weeks going down but when it left it had changed the face of the low lands. In many places the sand had been piled up ten feet deep, in others it had taken off the rich top soil and left only the sandy subsoil. The Choteau [sic] plantation was worthless. What had been rich land was now poor. No one would buy it at five dollars per acre. It was nearly twelve years before the bottom land would sell at any price. It finally sold at $ 12[?] per acre. The old house stood against the flood until the chimneys were fairly battered down by the huge trees that were hurled against them. When the chimneys went down away went the house. The stream was dotted with floating houses and barns, some surmounted with chickens, dogs and pigs, all alive and taking an involuntary ride.
There can be no danger of such another rise this year, even if the snow falls of twice the depth it is now in the mountains, unless there should be wet spell of weather in June sufficient to raise the western creeks and rivers, and that event may not happen again for many years. For those who are curious and desire information the following extract from an old diary of 1844 will be interesting:
The inundation of 1844 says the writer, was ten or twelve feet higher than that of 1808, or of 1826, and higher than ever known exception in 1785, when it rose thirty feet above the common level, and from the reports recorded in Beck’s History of Illinois and Missouri, it was the greatest flood know during he last one hundred and fifty years, at which period the Mississippi washed in a part of Fort Chartres. Mr. Cerre, the oldest French settle in St. Louis, says the inundation of the Mississippi and Missouri was not as high by some four or five feet in 1785 as it was this year, 1844, and all the old settles of Kaskaskia agree in saying that the overflow of 1785 left one dry spot in the town of Kaskaskia which was covered in 1844 with water five feet deep. The steamer Indiana was chartered by the nuns to take the pupils of the nunnery to St. Louis, and received them on board at Col. Menard’s door, and passed along the road to St. Louis, on which there was from six to fifteen feet of water, leaving the river so far to the left the whole route. Some two hundred citizens went up from Kaskaskia on the Indiana, and about three hundred found shelter on the premises of Col. Menard and many more spread their tents along the bluffs.
Millions of dollars will not cover the loss sustained by this flood in the States of Illinois and Missouri; some of the most valuable farms in those two States have been rendered worthless for several years. The whole American bottom from Alton to Cairo was submerged, containing seven hundred square miles of the finest land in the world. La Beete a Reynard was the only point of land out of water in 1785, so says the St. Louis Republican.
The great flood was occasioned by the swelling of the Northern rivers which empty into the Missouri and Upper Mississippi, and by the melting of the snow on the eastern declivity of the Rocky Mountains.
The Spanish and Portuguese historians of De Soto’s marauding expedition tell us that in March, 1542, all the high grounds on the west side of the Mississippi, from the mouth of the Ohio to Red River, were submerged several feet. There is a document in the clerk’s office of Randolph county, Ill., at Kaskaskia, dated 1725, soliciting a grant of lots and lands from the crown of France, and urging as a reason the “great flood” of the preceding year, 1724, which overflowed the village, destroyed the houses, and drove the inhabitants to the bluffs.
The bottom lands along the Mississippi from Alton to Cairo, at the month of the Ohio, average five miles in width. Since the Mississippi was first discovered by Europeans, the waters had passed over all the low grounds, from bluff to bluff, several times. The bottom was submerged several times from bluff to bluff in 1812, and in 1824. In 1785 this bottom was again covered, and small boats passed from St. Louis to Kaskaskia over the land. In 1811, at the annual June rise of the Missouri, a part of the American bottom and the common fields of St. Genevieve were inundated.
In 1826 the river inundated the town of Illinois, opposite St. Louis, and also the low lands along the American bottom, but not as high by ten feet as this flood of 1844. The flood at St. Louis attained its greatest height on the 17th of June, 1844, and was 38 feet seven inches above the low water mark at that day.
The Mississippi bottom now appears unusually clean and healthy, all the decomposed vegetable matter being washed away, and all the shrubs and undergrowth which the water covered are killed, together with all the beach, sassafras, and many of her species of timber.