An Eye-witness Account of The Kansas City Flood of July 13, 1951
by Wilbur W. Giesy
I was in the roofing business in Kansas City in those days and I had an office and some warehouse space in an area down near the Missouri River that was called The Bottoms. I was angry that July morning when I found the route I usually took to my office so crowded with sightseers that I had to make my way through side streets.
Everyone knew there had been a lot of rain up north, but everyone also knew there were dikes upriver protecting the city so there’d never be another flood like that awful one back in 1903.
“What is the matter with all these crazy people?” I asked Bud, my helper, who was riding to work with me. “Haven’t they ever seen muddy water before? Doesn’t anyone but us work for a living?”
William A. (Bud) Osborne was my niece’s husband and was working for me that summer.
“You can’t blame folks for being curious,” he said. “I’d like a good look at that old river myself.”
That remark was to bring us many a laugh later. Frankly both of us now hope we never see another flooding river as long as we live.
The Industrial District was practically deserted. There were few cars about, and no pedestrians. I stopped at a filling station for gas. The attendant was on the phone. He came out white-faced.
“They said the dikes are going out. I’ll fill your tank, but then I’m getting out of here.”
True to his word, the minute he finished with us he ran into his station and came running out with a load of supplies which he tossed into his car before running back inside for more.
I turned to Bud. “No sense in panicking. We’ll go on down to the office, load the truck with whatever equipment we can, and drive it up to higher ground. But I don’t think the water will get this far anyway. This isn’t 1903. Those dikes will hold.”
My office shared a building with a feed store. I found the feed store manager busy loading the freight elevator. The three of us pulled out the drawers from my desk and piled those drawers and everything else that was loose into the elevator. Then we sent the elevator up as high as it would go. No one expected the water to get that high, even if it came in, but it didn’t hurt to take precautions.
By that time the streets were so crowded with vehicles of every description that had been moved to the high ground that I could not find a place to park my truck. I ended up driving it all the way to my home. Bud followed in the car and once the truck was safely parked we started back to the office.
The streets were jammed worse than ever. We did not know it then, but the police were stopping everyone trying to get into The Bottoms. Again we took to the side streets and alleys, and that was why we missed being warned.
We had reached the foot of the Forrester viaduct when here came the water. It came with a roar like a dozen freight trains, and the force was so terrific that it was preceded by a cloud of dust. I threw on the brakes, reached behind me for the small folding ladder I always carry, and yelled “Come on!” to Bud.
We stepped into water that came up to our ankles and raced for the nearest building. I put the ladder together as I ran. By the time we reached the building the water was up to our knees and rising fast.
The ladder would not quite reach, but I drew myself up and over the edge of the roof, then reached back to steady the ladder for Bud. He was halfway up when the main force of the water struck. The ladder swung out, and for one awful minute I thought I could not possibly hold him. But Bud was young and strong, and he made it.
I pulled the ladder up behind him and we flopped on our backs on that sweltering old roof and lay there, stunned and speechless. But after a few minutes we crawled to the edge and peered down.
The violence of the water was awful. There seemed to be almost more debris than there was water. Great beams and pilings, whole walls of buildings, small sheds, roofs of houses, everything anyone could imagine seemed to be churning and grinding in that terrible current. The roar it made was deafening.
Someone had left an old panel truck parked across the street. Bud yelled, “Look! There’s a man!”
He was sliding along next to the brick wall of the store across the street from us, evidently trying to reach the truck. As we watched, he made it and scrambled inside.
“He’ll drown in there,” Bud wailed, and we began to scream at him and motion for him to get on top the truck. He finally saw us and understood and someway managed to swing himself up onto the truck’s roof.
He was an old man. He wore a coat and a felt hat, in spite of the hot day, and he was smoking a pipe.
As the water’s depth increased, the debris grew bigger, and the current more violent. The truck began to sway and to lurch sideways. Bud peeled off his shirt.
“I’m going after him,” he shouted.
I caught his arm and yelled into his ear. “You couldn’t possibly swim in that mess.”
As if to give emphasis to my words a big ten-by-ten suddenly reared up and crashed down on a floating box, splintering it.
“Suppose that had been your leg,” I yelled. “Or your head.”
He pulled away from me. “We can’t just stand here and watch him drown.”
“Listen,” I shouted. “You have three little girls at home. You have no right to risk their father’s life for that old man.”
I yelled, “Maybe we can find a rope.”
A window from the adjacent building opened onto this roof. When we tried the window it opened easily. We stepped in and looked around. Almost too good to be true, there lay a coil of rope.
Bud snatched it up and we hurried back. But it was too late. The water had bumped the truck along until now it was underneath a row of wire cables. We could not throw the rope under the wires, and we dared not try to haul the man across them.
Just then an extra surge of water threw the truck up against the building. Using window ledges, ornamentation – anything for hand and foot holds, that man went straight up that wall like a cat. And he never lost his hat, nor missed a puff on his pipe!
A cow from the stockyards came bawling down the current. She was red with a white face, and she kicked now and then in an effort to guide herself, or to keep afloat. Bud swung his rope.
“What will you do if you manage to rope her?” I shouted. “We can’t possibly pull her up here. She’d choke.”
Regretfully Bud lowered his lasso.
A pig came along next, and tried his best to get on top of a store across the way. It had a false front and, try as he would, he could not quite scramble over it. If he had had any sense he could have swum around back and walked on, for the roof sloped up from the rear. But he was only a pig and could not figure that out. Soon he gave up, exhausted, and the current carried him away.
All this time I had been worrying about my wife and family. They undoubtedly had heard about the dike failing, and when they received no word from me, they would be frantic.
I realized we could be stranded on that roof for several days before anyone came along and found us. It was a scorching hot July day. The heat shimmered on the tar and gravel roof. We had had no food or drink since breakfast.
Regretfully I remembered we both had lunches in the car, and there was even a thermos of ice water. I peered over to where we had left the car. I thought I could see the car’s roof, but l wasn’t sure.
Then I remembered something. There’d been a telephone in that place where we found the rope. Quickly I climbed back into the room and took up the phone. I was plenty relieved to hear that dial tone. But I got no answer when I dialed home.
Bud had better luck. He talked briefly to his wife and asked her to call the police and tell them where we were. We went back to our roof.
We could see the Forrester viaduct from our place on that roof. There was a group of men in swimming suits there. They were diving into the water to salvage anything they saw floating by that looked interesting. It was a dangerous business, and couldn’t have been too profitable.
After a while a policeman came by and made them leave. We waved and shouted as loud as we could, but nobody heard us. Everyone was so busy looking at the water that no one thought to look up.
We’d seen lots of crates drifting by, but now the force of the water broke open the door to a warehouse to the north on Mulberry Street and it was something to see those big crates come wheeling out in single file just like a parade. Those crates held heavy electrical appliances, ranges, refrigerators, and such. You would never have thought they could possibly float. But they did. The current must have been terrific.
We saw older and smaller buildings shudder and collapse and go to pieces before drifting away. Bud was sitting on the wall watching, and wishing he could get at that drinking water.
“Which way are you going to jump when the wall you’re sitting on crumbles?” I shouted.
He looked startled and then dropped down on all fours and crawled away. From then on he never got within ten feet of the edge of that roof.
It was about four-thirty that afternoon when some men in a motor boat came to our rescue. They stopped and got the old man first, and then they came and took us off the roof.
The boat took us over to the viaduct and let us off. The viaduct humps up in the middle and, to our dismay, we discovered that the far end of it was under water, too. And the motor boat had gone.
Finally we dropped from the middle of the viaduct to the roof of the old freight depot. From there we climbed onto the old street railway trestle that led to the Eighth Street tunnel. We walked through the tunnel and over to Grand Avenue, where we caught a bus for home.
Now, remembering how hungry and thirsty we were, I wonder why we didn’t stop somewhere for something to eat or a cold drink. But at the time, all either of us wanted was to get away from that river and go home!
When the water finally receded several days later, my car was still there, but it was fit only for the junk pile. The office was a sticky, smelly mess of debris. The records we had so optimistically sent up on the elevator were soaked and illegible. And when I entered my warehouse and began to take in the desolation there, a live hog stood up and grunted at me.
That hog was a determined old beast. Every time we managed to run him out, he found a way right back in. I couldn’t really blame him. That big filthy room looked more like a pigpen than a roofer’s warehouse.
Bud and I called for a bull-dozer to rake everything out and haul it away. A short time after we sat down to wait, an elderly gentleman approached us from the street. The minute I saw that coat and that felt hat (so out of season for July) and especially that pipe sticking out of his mouth, I knew who he was.
We introduced ourselves, Bud found him a chair and a cold bottle of Coke, and we passed the time of day for a while.
Eventually the conversation lagged. Bud shook his head. “That was some flood.”
The old fellow grinned at us. “You know for a while there, I was kinda scared.”
I told him, “I wouldn’t have given a plug nickel for your chances.”