Strange Things Rising in the Flood

A Wilson County resident finds humor in the flood (Photo courtesy Wilson County Citizen)

A Wilson County resident finds humor in the flood (Photo courtesy Wilson County Citizen)

Stepping to the microphone, John Eck declares, “Only the good die young, but I’ve already lived too long. They say it’s a hundred-year flood, thank god, because I won’t see the next one.”

He’s in a church in the southeast Kansas town of Fredonia six months after the worst flood anyone in Wilson County remembers. When the Wilson County Historical Society brought together residents to tell their stories for posterity, townsperson after townsperson stepped up to the microphone. The memories of such a severe weather event evoked a surprisingly large amount of laughter in spite of the fact that the scars of the flood were still visible.

Early summer 2007 brought 21” of precipitation in the last two weeks of June, and the night of June 30 alone brought another 5.5″ in 35 minutes. This group of Fredonians appears happy just to be here and dry, and sharing their unique memories.

Beverly Elsberry shared the tale of how her SelectComfort air mattress floated clear to the ceiling during the flood. When it came down, the pillows were still dry.

Emma Crites recalled that every time her aunt Peggy walked across her living room, her heavy footfalls would knock over the family photos on the end table. During the flood, the torrent lifted that very end table and moving it around the corner into the next room, and when it settled back on the ground, not a single photo was out of place.

All memories were not so light-hearted. One Fredonia resident, Natalie Odell Puckett, sobbed that “everything we had is gone,” as she was consoled by none other than then Governor Kathleen Sibelius.

Still, as the July 2, 2007 issue of the Wilson County Citizen put it, “the best in people shows up in emergency.” Pam Walker at the Wilson County Conservation District remembered, “There was no ‘feel sorry for me’ attitude amongst those of us who were hit hard by the flood.  The losses were felt keenly, but everyone pitched in to pull up and out of the mire and muck.” Looking back, whether from a church microphone that same year or today, ten years later, one can’t help but be moved by a town reflecting on the surreal devastation of a flood and daring to laugh.

To learn more about Kansas’s water history, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and its partner exhibition in Fredonia, made possible by the Wilson County Conservation District from February 19 until March 9, 2018.


Waconda Springs, From Sacred to Submerged

Waconda Springs in 1921 (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Waconda Springs in 1921 (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

For centuries, tribes from the Central Plains revered the Waconda Springs, located in what is now Mitchell County in north central Kansas. The name Waconda comes from a Kansa word meaning Great Spirit, and the site carried such religious importance to the Kansa and other tribes that it was considered neutral territory and open to any group to visit.

Tribal members believed that the springs contained the spirits of animals, and they visited the site to gain knowledge from these spiritual beings. After Native removal, the springs captured the imagination of Anglo settlers to the area who drank the water in hopes of curing their ills.

In 1866, surveyor David E. Ballard described the springs this way:

“The Spring itself is a natural curiosity, it being located on the summit of a cone-shaped limestone rock. The rock is circular, about 200 feet in diameter at the base and about 30 feet high, upon the summit of this, rests the spring, the basin being circular and about 30 feet in diameter”.

The water from the springs gained such popularity that in 1904 it won a medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair for its medicinal value. A couple of years later an enterprising doctor named G.F. Abrahams turned the land surrounding the springs into a health spa to capitalize on the notoriety and advertised his venture with the promise that the water from Waconda Springs would “clean your works until your works work.”

In 2010 Kansas State University student Matt Kelley interviewed John Bingesser, great grandson of Dr. Abrahams about life at the spa as part of Kansas State’s Lost Kansas Communities Project; the project is housed at the Chapman Center for Rural Studies. Bingesser was born in a house on the site of the springs in 1939 and he lived on the 350-acre spa and farm until its demise in 1964 to make way for the dam.

He recalled administering baths to sanitarium patients with water piped from the springs heated “as hot as they could stand” and then spraying them with cold water in order to enhance circulation. To his recollection, the treatments worked and the spa regularly hosted 40 patients a day with most patients staying at the resort for many weeks.

One such patient was Perry Weston. Hailing from Nebraska, Weston made several trips to Waconda between 1916 and 1937 to help his heart ailment. While there, he took hot and cold baths, got massages, and went on juice diets. In one letter home, Weston wrote, “I have taken three baths in all. Yesterday they did not get me so very hot. Just when I got to sweating good he turned on the cold water and froze me. This is a funny place to doctor.” Though he thought it a “funny place,” Weston kept returning, and even took the spring’s water home to Nebraska in a Red Wing Stoneware jug, now in the Kansas State Historical Society’s collection.

Bingesser remembered filling up “countless numbers” of gallon jugs with spring water and shipping them off to customers from around the country at the Missouri Pacific Railroad depot, which built a line specifically for passengers traveling to the springs for treatment.

He also remembers the spring as more than a spa or resort. For him it was also a farm with pigs, chickens, geese, and cattle. They grew wheat and corn, and all meals served at the sanitarium came from food grown and harvested on site.

In 1944 plans were made to build a dam for flood control at the site. The Bingesser family fought the proposed dam, going so far as to hire an hydrologist who verified the site’s uniqueness. Dam supporters dismissed the findings and referred to the springs as a “mud hole.” The floods of 1951 sealed the fate of Waconda Springs and work on the dam began in 1964 when John Bingesser himself bulldozed the sanitarium site.

To learn more water stories in Kansas, visit Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the companion exhibition SubMerged!, on display at the Geary County Historical Society and Museums in Junction City through February 18, 2018, and its partner exhibition, Water/Ways in Rice County: Our Relationship with Water at the Rice County Historical Society in Lyons through March 31.




Dams, Democracy, and Cold Cuts

Lyons ULAR

ULAR Watershed District Site 2 (Photo courtesy of Susan Nelson)

Jack Wempe saw democracy in action in a church basement between a podium and a cold cut tray. It featured a performance by the Notables, a band from nearby Hutchison, and a PowerPoint presentation by a K-State graduate student. Democracy in action, on view annually in central Kansas’s Rice County, makes Jack Wempe believe in the system.

Wempe, a former Kansas state legislator and member of the Kansas Board of Regents, now lives in Lyons, the seat of Rice County in central Kansas. In a September 2015 column for The Hutchinson News, Wempe described his annual visit to the board meeting of the Upper Little Arkansas River Watershed Joint District No. 95, and he claimed that such meetings “might be considered a way to keep government as close to the people as possible.”

The Upper Little Arkansas River Watershed Joint District No. 95, or ULAR, is one of 80 active Watershed Districts in the state, which cover about 28 percent of Kansas. Established by the Kansas Watershed District Act of 1953, Watershed Districts minimize flood damage along Kansas rivers. Their most common strategy, supported by local and/or federal tax dollars, is to construct dams.

The ULAR Watershed District formed in 1974 when Gene Deeds delivered a petition to the Secretary of State with 315 signatures, representing 28 percent of landowners and 33 percent of the land in the proposed watershed. The successful petition created a district covering more than 160,000 acres along the Upper Arkansas, which runs north to south through the eastern half of Rice County.

Over the past 42 years, the ULAR Watershed built 10 structures in attempts to control the Little Arkansas, and plans to construct 8 more. The District has two people on payroll—one office worker holding down the fort at District headquarters in Little River, and one part-time maintenance person to care for the aging dams. The rest of the 4-mile levy goes right into new dams for flood control, and all board members serve as volunteers.

According to Wempe, “exact cost/benefit studies are difficult [but] the benefit to farmers avoiding crop loss and to taxpayers avoiding damage to roads and bridges is obviously immense.” In a state that still has clear memories of big floods in 1951 and 1993, that peace of mind is more than worth the tax bill.

Ultimately, the ULAR Watershed District provides an example of local democracy in action—a band of dedicated volunteers coming together to solve local problems with significant local input. Jack Wempe doesn’t even own property in the ULAR District any more, but still makes a point of attending the yearly meeting because he likes “the idea of a shared objective that has lasted 41 years and appears to have no inclination to end.”

Learn more about Kansas’ water history at the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, Water/Ways, on display in Hesston from November 18 to December 31, 2017.

To learn more about how Water Districts have shaped life in Rice County, make plans to attend the Water/Ways partner exhibition at the Rice County Historical Society from January 29 to March 31, 2018.




Don’t Forget Broughton

(Kansas City Star, April 9, 1967)

An image from the April 9, 1967 Kansas City Star entices tourists to vacation at the Tuttle Creek Reservoir, the construction of which erased many towns.

In 1966, government bulldozers arrived in Broughton, near Clay Center in north central Kansas. The engineers operating the bulldozers carried maps, which marked almost every house in town with circles. The circles indicated homes slated for demolition. The town emptied of people long ago, and now it was about to be empty of houses, too.

From 1962-1966, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Republican River near Junction City. It created Kansas’s largest lake, Milford, an “inland sea.” Newspaper articles featuring attractive swimmers in bikinis promoted the idea of the new dam promising aquatic recreation and “glamour, too.”

The dam project arose as memories of 1951 still lingered in the minds of many riverside Kansans. The flooding that year devastated so many communities that it spurred the government to action on flood control. Add that to a New-Deal-inspired, Eisenhower-driven, anti-communist faith in big government projects and Kansas saw two major dams arise together within the span of a few years: Tuttle Creek and Milford.

Still, the Milford project inspired fierce opposition, especially from those in the towns that would have to move or be abandoned. The book Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town explains, “large scale development and public works were supposed to be for the benefit of the public, but in practice, important community livelihoods as well as linkages to significant human history were destroyed in the name of ‘progress.’” In order to prevent future floods in larger, downstream cities like Junction City and Manhattan, purposeful flooding would erase Broughton and 13 other smaller towns.

The people of Broughton knew what was coming. They were located in the flood plain for the Milford Dam. They saw it plainly on the planning map hanging in the post office: if the dam collapsed, no more Broughton. A similar project took shape in the creation of the nearby Tuttle Creek dam, and towns much like theirs were scrubbed from the map to make room for its reservoirs and floodplains. One resident said, “We all knew, when it came to be Broughton’s turn […] we knew we wouldn’t win.”

The post-war trends that saw young people fleeing small towns for big cities and college affected Broughton, too. Thus, the population of the town declined throughout the 1950s. By the time 1965 rolled, with its scheduled bulldozers rolling in as well, few families remained. Among them were the Bauers, whose ancestors settled the area in 1868. According to Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town, “the Bauers stayed so long on their land that they eventually received a ‘condemnation order.’ Family members still recall this bitterly […] ‘Many nights my father lay awake trying to reach a decision,’ Diana Bauer wrote in 1965.” The family eventually moved to Nebraska in an attempt to start anew. A few short months later, the bulldozers aimed their plows at their homes.

Kansas State history professor M.J. Morgan wrote that, “three general themes” encapsulated Broughton’s character. First were “psychological and social orientations”, based on proximity to the Republican River. The river provided fertile bottomland for farming. It also helped create a close-knit community through water recreation such as summer swimming and winter ice-skating, and had helped the town persevere through hardships, namely floods.

Second was “an impressive degree of human mobility” in counterpoint to the small core group of Broughton residents. For example, fifty young men from this tiny community served in World War II.

Third and perhaps most important was “a high degree of inclusion for people who were often viewed as ‘other,’” including African Americans, immigrants, and even Gypsies. Mark A. Chapman grew up there, eventually going to Kansas State University and then on to Texas where he became a wealthy businessman.

Chapman, thinking back on Broughton from his adopted home of Texas, decided to do something about the as-yet unrecorded history of his town, which at that point was only visible as ruins in the woods. In collaboration with Kansas State University, he founded the Chapman Center for Rural Studies (

Their first project was Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town, a book produced as collaboration between center director M.J. Morgan and her students. The book is a lively slice-of-life history that brings the once-forgotten town to life in its pages.

After finishing the Broughton book, Chapman and the Chapman Center decided to widen their focus, researching and documenting all kinds of lost or forgotten Kansas towns. The Chapman Center website provides a treasure trove of forgotten Kansas history.

All told, 14 towns were moved, razed, or abandoned to make way for the Tuttle Creek and Milford Dam projects.

To learn more about how water shapes the lives of Kansans, be sure to visit Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the local exhibition, SubMerged,  on display at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums from January 6 to February 18, 2018 and at the partner exhibition in Our Relationship with Water opening at the Rice County Historical Society in Lyons on January 29, 2018.




Horse Fossils and Buffalo Grass: Life on the Equus Beds Aquifer

A lush landscape of low-irrigation native plants at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston

A lush landscape of low-irrigation native plants at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston

For a librarian, Libby Albers sure loves aquifers. Before becoming the director of Hesston Public Library in south central Kansas, Albers worked in water and environmental resources management. She still maintains a passion for water in her current work. When asked how water affects her job at the library, she laughs and points at the fish tank in the lobby. But then she pulls a fossilized horse tooth off a shelf—she found it beachcombing in the surface waters downstream from the Equus Beds Aquifer, so named because of horse fossils like the one she delicately holds.

Water does affect Albers’ work at the library, just as it affects everyone in Hesston (and, by extension, Kansas). Sometimes, it’s in small reminders—the Hesston Public Library is one of three in the state where patrons can check out a fishing pole.

Sometimes, water’s impact on library work is accidental, like when the water main out front had to be replaced, a symptom of the aging water infrastructure of both small towns and large cities across the country.

Hesston’s water usage is primarily municipal, and it draws almost all its water from the Equus Beds Aquifer. About 24 percent of the aquifer is used for residential purposes, while 13% goes to industry and 50 percent goes to irrigation. The Equus Beds, begin just north of Wichita and stretch north and west to include Hutchinson and McPherson. It serves the most residential customers of Kansas’s aquifers.

The challenge, according to Albers, lies in how to make aquifer preservation and care seem like a pressing issue for a Hesston, Wichita, or Hutchinson resident who can twist a knob and make clean water come out for cheap any time, day or night, drought or flood. However, Kansas aquifers in general are depleted faster than they’re recharged, and some estimates have aquifers in the state reaching a crisis point by the 2060s.

Brad Guhr, education coordinator at nearby Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, recites a quote most often attributed to Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It’s funny, but the context is clear: If we don’t care for the aquifers, things could get ugly, political, or even violent. Guhr says so far we’ve been lucky. He explains, “Kansans for decades have utilized a seemingly endless supply of water to drink, to bathe, wash clothes, manage sewage, generate power, irrigate lawns, and grow crops. We give it little thought, we turn on the tap and it is there – clean, plentiful and inexpensive. A good first step to better aquifer stewardship is more awareness.”

To learn more about demands on the Equus Beds Aquifer, as well as other elements of Hesston’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, splashing into the Hesston Public Library from November 18 through December 31, 2017.


Stanton County: Can You Dig It?

A mural at the Stanton County Museum depicts life in the Western Interior Sea (mural by Chuck Bonner, Keystone Gallery, Scott City, Kansas)

To understand Stanton County’s water story and history, you need to start digging. Clues to this southwest Kansas county’s long and varied water story are found underground. Here you’ll find fossils of fish and whales, not dinosaurs.

These sea animals lived during the Cretaceous Era, between 66 and 145 million years ago, in a body of water as the Western Interior Sea. This sea stretched from today’s Gulf of Mexico all the way through northwest Canada to the Arctic Circle.

An amazing variety of creatures lived in the Western Interior Sea, including the Mosasaur. Katie Herrick, director at the Stanton County Museum, refers to it as “the T-Rex of the sea.” An adult Mosasaur grew up to 17 meters in length and looked like an aerodynamic, elongated whale with a pointed, alligator-like mouth. Mosasaurs and other marine life left their fossilized remains, and archaeological digs regularly find ancient traces of a time when an ocean covered this part of Kansas.

Around 9,000 years ago, after the ocean receded, the first humans appeared in what is now Stanton County. During the same era, a chain of intermittent playa lakes – temporary lakes formed by rainwater filling natural hollows in the landscape –provided a place for bison to gather and drink and offered a tempting spot for Paleo-Indians to hunt.

In 2002, Jack Hofman, archaeologist at the University of Kansas, discovered dozens of bison bones, including fully articulated skeletons, on a dig at the Bear Creek playa bed. The team also found two small stones—a tiny edge of a lithic arrowead, and an entire arrowhead point. This helped provide evidence that Paleo-Indians met at Bear Creek playa and used it as a bison kill site.

Keep digging in Stanton County today—you might need to go down pretty deep—and you’ll hit the Ogallala aquifer, proof that Stanton County’s water story is ongoing.

To learn more about Kansas’s water story visit Water Rights: Exploring Our Relationship with Water on display at the Stanton County Museum in Johnson City through November 12, 2017.


Look Down to Think Forward

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

In the 1880s, towns across Kansas sprang up with two hopes: to become a county seat and to attract a railroad. To do either, a town needed people and businesses, and water. Greensburg, in south central Kansas, was no exception. Teams of farmers, cowboys, and transients dug a huge hole in the middle of Greensburg in search of the groundwater below. It took two years to find the water and shore up the resulting well, which measured 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide.

The well still stands in near-perfect condition, a triumph of frontier engineering. The Big Well served as Greensburg’s chief water source from 1888 when it was completed until 1932. After sitting vacant for a few years, the Big Well reopened in 1937 as a tourist attraction, which it remains today. Visitors can descend a long, spiral staircase and inhale the damp, cool air of the well, which smells like equal parts ocean and fill dirt.

On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado, one of the strongest ever recorded, freight-trained its way through town and leveled 95 percent of Greensburg, including the small gift shop and visitor center above the Big Well. Safely below ground, the well remained intact, though the tornado had knocked its concrete cover askew.

Less than a year after the tornado, the Greensburg City Council passed a resolution calling for all new municipal buildings to acquire LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification, the first such resolution in the country.

The decision to go green impacted Greensburg’s water use: downtown’s small business incubator is equipped to use gray water in its toilets; the hospital boasts a retention pond that serves to collect rainwater for irrigating the grounds; and the high school has four massive collection tanks designed to channel rainwater off the roof and into the irrigation system.

The design of all these water systems minimizes Greensburg’s impact on the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive stretch of groundwater that serves much of western Kansas. The Ogallala is depleting faster than it’s replenishing, and suffers from other concerns such as toxicity and chlorine salinity. Some are intimately aware of the depletion of the aquifer, as Greensburg Tourism Director Stacy Barnes notes, “water is something you’re always aware of.”

The Big Well offers visitors a valuable experience – here, they can actually see the Ogallala aquifer. The bottom of the well still contains water and provides a rare chance for people to glimpse the underground water supply that feeds so much of the High Plains. It’s right there, a strikingly clear turquoise in the cool, hushed well—and it’s fallen four feet since the new, post-tornado Big Well Museum opened in 2012.

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

To learn more about Kansas’s water history, visit the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition Water/Ways on display in Dodge City from September 30 through November 15, 2017.

To learn more about Greensburg’s water story, both past and future, visit their Greensburg: Looking Down to Think Forward exhibition, on view at the Big Well Museum during the same dates.




Empty Promises, Empty Riverbeds

The Soule Canal, Dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal, dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

Once Dodge City showed promise of becoming a bustling town, enterprising minds decided irrigated farmland would be just the thing to lure even more people to the area. In the 1880s, brothers George and John Gilbert dreamed up the Eureka Canal, which diverted the Arkansas River through potential farmland. The large scale irrigation project drew financing from none other than Dr. Asa T. Soule, the “worldwide Hops Bitters King,” a flamboyant businessman who made his fortune peddling a medicinal combination of alcohol, bitters, and hops.

Townspeople greeted the canal project with bombast and fanfare. One 1884 article in the Ford County Globe promised such a large vegetable crop from the irrigated land that a canning factory would be needed. The article claimed, “Upon completion of the irrigation canal you may talk about homes in Southern California, and on the banks of Lake Como, in Italy, but in preference to either give us a home in Southwestern Kansas, with plenty of water for irrigation purposes and a bottle of Hop Bitters as a family regulator.”

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The canal was finished in 1888, but a mere four years after its construction the project became known as “Soule’s Folly.” The Arkansas River, the canal’s source, flowed irregularly, and nowhere near the predicted levels of water came through the canal. Add to that unusually porous soil, and the canal was dry more often than wet; the promised Eden of Southwest Kansas growing never came to fruition.

The westward movement of settlers into Colorado and their use of the Arkansas River proved to be another reason the canal never filled. These Colorado farmers built their own canals upstream, diverting enough water to decrease the flow of the Arkansas into Kansas. A conflict erupted between the two states resulting in a decades-long legal fracas that saw United States Supreme Court decisions in 1902, 1907, 1943, 1985, 1995, 2001, and 2009. Even today, people in Dodge City claim that Colorado uses too much water from the Arkansas. It’s easy to understand why. Most days, the Arkansas River through Dodge runs as dry as the remnants of the Soule Canal.

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

As Boot Hill Museum curator Lyne Johnson says, “Dodge City always has to renivent itself.” Despite rapidly-changing times, environments, and riverbeds Dodge City has done just that.

To learn more about Dodge City’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the Napeste: Water in Dodge City exhibition, both on display at the Boot Hill Museum from September 30 until November 12, 2017.


Water + Ink

Amanda Maciuba, "Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer)" (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 20” x 26” each, 2015)

Amanda Maciuba. Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer) (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 2015)

Printmaker Amanda Maciuba is an artist shaped by water. Hailing from Buffalo, New York, for most of her life looking at water meant looking west to the behemoth Lake Erie. She says it still feels odd to go to a city like Chicago, where “the water is on the wrong side.”

After living a childhood anchored by the Great Lakes, she moved to the Great Plains, land of underground aquifers and rivers “that you can’t even swim in,” as Maciuba puts it. This influenced her art, which she says investigates issues like time, place, and a location’s environmental history.

Amanda now lives in Massachusetts, but she recently completed a stint as an artist in residence at the Lawrence Arts Center in northeast Kansas. She earned her MFA in printmaking at the University of Iowa. Four years before she arrived in Iowa City the town flooded so severely that recovery continued by the time she got there. The lingering effects of the disaster shed new light on Amanda’s perceptions of how environment and place interact.

The flood inspired motifs in Amanda’s art that she still employs, namely Noah’s Ark, which she sees as “a reminder of the futility of building despite climate change”: no matter what man builds, it will always be surpassed by the environmental forces which are beyond his control.

After moving to Kansas, Amanda became interested in aquifers and irrigation, especially the circular patterns caused by center pivot irrigation systems. The geometry of the circles, as well as their environmental implications on aquifer drainage and water conservation, inspired Maciuba to include them in her art. Both circular plots and Noah’s Ark frequently appear in her works, which she makes using a variety of printmaking techniques such as letterpress, intaglio, silkscreen, and lithography.

Recently, Maciuba ventured out to the Baker Wetlands south of Lawrence. For years local debate erupted when it was revealed that the wetlands would fall in the projected path of the South Lawrence Trafficway. A compromise was struck – in order to complete the project and avoid destroying the wetlands, construction crews would add 380 acres of Wetlands adjacent to the existing site to make up for any territory lost to the highway.

When Maciuba visited the new, man-made wetlands site, she found it a “nude and strange landscape.” Such places raise questions about the human ability to control – much less replace – nature and water.

These questions also remind her of the Iowa City flood, which occurred due to necessary discharges from a man-made dam. While others might not be drawn to “nude and strange” landscapes, these themes compelled Maciuba to use her artwork to explore the question of how humans interact with nature.

To learn more about how water shapes human existence and vice versa, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and its partner exhibitions.

To learn more about Amanda Maciuba’s art, visit her website or see her work as part of Memory of Water: an Interdisciplinary Arts-Based Research Project on exhibit at Albrecht -Kemper Museum of Art on display from December 1, 2017 – March 18, 2018.



“Water Clear and Pure, & Excellent for Drinking:” Exploring the Solomon


Robert McBratney, Newspaper Man, Railroad Man, Explorer Man (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Robert McBratney, born in Columbus, Ohio in 1818, held quite a few jobs during his career: lawyer, printer’s apprentice, delegate to the 1861 presidential election, newspaperman, and, by 1861, registrar of the Land Office in Junction City in northeast Kansas, but it was abolitionism that first drew McBratney to Kansas.

The western territories had a case of railroad fever, and companies sprang up to lay routes into the territories. One such company was the Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad, which formed in September 1869. The new company’s board of directors needed to hire a president who could not only lead the business, but who could also lead an expedition along the Solomon River to sell the region to settlers and railroaders. They wanted someone smart and ambitious who could observe and report with clarity. Robert McBratney and his journalism background fit the bill.

The journey began October 14, 1869 and was not an easy one due in part to its size. In addition to a senator, a geology professor, and a state agent for the sale of railway lands, McBratney brought along one cook, one ambulance driver, one servant, and almost a hundred state troops to serve as protection. McBratney kept a detailed diary of his trip, available to read in full here.

Issues plagued the journey almost from the start. McBratney complained about the wind in an October 18 entry, near what is now Glasco. He wrote, the party “concluded to go into camp, one of our mules being very lame & the day being very raw and windy [and…] very disagreeable.” Later, on October 22, the party awoke to “a strong northern blowing filled with snow, that fairly stings the face.” The snow abated long enough for them to hit the trail, but resumed later “with almost blinding fury.”

Despite these difficulties, McBratney fell in love with the Solomon Valley. He wrote, “this is as fine a contre [sic] as any in the state.” The wildlife of the region filled him with wonder, and he reverently observed, on October 28, that “the hills were nearly covered with buffalo. We have seen more of them today than altogether. Saw also deer, elk, and antelope. Also gray wolves, thousands of prairie dogs, coyotes, and sage hens.”

He declared “the water of the Solomon and its tributary is clear, pure, and hard.” McBratney’s final verdict? “One snort of the iron horse in this valley would do more to people the wilderness we have traversed, than an army with banners.” The Solomon River, according to this early exploratory expedition, was fully capable of housing both industry and communities on its banks and bends.

The Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad never came to be, but the Union Pacific did build a branch line through the valley after McBratney’s letters to eastern periodicals enticed settlers. Present day towns like Minneapolis, Delphos, Glasco, Simpson, and Beloit pepper the banks that so enamored McBratney.

Find out more about McBratney’s expedition and the Solomon Valley’s water story at Valley Highway 24 Heritage Alliance’s exhibit Living Off the Water: the Challenge to Tame and Sustain Life in the Solomon Valley, a Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution partner program on display at Bull City Cafe in Alton from August 12 to September 2, 2017; at Mitchell County Historical Society in Beloit beginning September 11, 2017; Stockton Public Library, October 7 to October 28, 2017; and Glasco Community Foundation’s Corner Store, November 4 to November 25, 2017.