“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.



A Laboratory on the High Plains: Joe Kuska of Colby

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Raised on a farm in the Great Plains, Joseph B. Kuska graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He joined the staff at the Colby Branch Station in 1914. The Colby Branch Station, an agricultural experiment center, was opened by an act of the Kansas Legislature in 1913. Northwest Kansas farmers, concerned with erratic rainfall, drying winds, temperature extremes, and periodic drought decided a branch station might help find solutions to the difficult growing climate. Soon the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the branch station to research how to farm in dry conditions.

Joseph B. Kuska’s leadership of the Colby Branch Station left a lasting impact where “except for a few years,” he served as its chief until 1951. According to a 1964 50th anniversary history of the Branch Station, Kuska’s “firsthand knowledge of farming practices in the Great Plains, his good judgment, energy, and enthusiasm were in large measure responsible for the success of the work.”

A significant part of Kuska’s job dealt with water and how it impacted farming in the arid High Plains. Under Kuska’s guidance, the Branch Station studied “moisture storage under different methods of fallow; moisture storage with a basin lister; conservation of winter moisture; available moisture in soil at seeding time and its effect on yield and penetration of rain.” Ultimately, they found that “the dry land farmer, to be successful, should follow a flexible system. This applies to his cropping systems, tillage methods, and cultural practices.” Adaptability and flexibility were the ingredients for successful farming on the High Plains.

Yet the 20th century brought change to Kansas agriculture. In the 1970s the center pivot irrigation system replaced the ditch irrigation system of the 50s and 60s, ringing in a new era of irrigation. The use of center pivot irrigation to grow crops like corn in Western Kansas opened a new line of research of farming the Great Plains.

The Branch Station, now called the Northwest Research-Extension Center (NWREC) and operated by Kansas State University, continues the research that Kuska started. These days, NWREC seeks more conservation-friendly alternatives to center pivot irrigation methods. For example, in 1989 Kansas State University started an initiative to test and advocate Subsurface Drip Irrigation, which irrigates crops using buried conduits and pipes slowly emitting water right into the soil. According to their website, NWREC “is committed to developing and promoting new irrigation technologies that will be environmentally and economically efficient while conserving and protecting limited water resources.” Many believe that with the decline in aquifer levels and the high financial cost of irrigating, dry land acreage is a good fallback. Thus, a century after Joe Kuska signed on, the Branch Station in Colby continues to lead the way in water and farm research.

To learn more about Colby’s water story, be sure to visit the Water/Ways  Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and Scarcity and Abundance: Water in Northwest Kansas, both on view at the Prairie Museum of Art and History from August 12 to September 24, 2017.




Saving Water, Providing Jobs: A KERCulean Effort

KERC Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 KERC workers clear timber at the site of Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 (photo courtesy Greg Hoots)

In 1934, Kansas faced two major problems: a lack of jobs and a lack of water. The Water Conservation Program, spearheaded by the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC), aimed to take care of both at once.

A 1934 flyer for the KERC’s Water Conservation Program declared that, “The Water Conservation Program, as part of the Drought Relief Service, is designed to aid in relieving destitution actually resulting from drought conditions.” The program strove to fulfill its mission by constructing municipal lakes and farm ponds, and repairing levee and flood systems. It employed jobless laborers in order to solve the state’s drought-related problems.

All told, the program built or began construction on 27 lakes across the state, including those located in Bourbon, Atchison, Hodgeman, Linn, Harper, Graham, Wabaunsee, Decatur, Woodson, and Brown Counties. Bourbon County Lake, one of the largest, located near Fort Scott, took an average of 365 men per week for 53 weeks to construct the lake using a dam. The men worked more than 19,000 days in a region starved for work.

Lakes served as reservoirs for municipal water supplies and enabled water-based recreation like boating, fishing, and swimming.

The same, dual-purpose, environmental and recreational thinking went into KERC’s farm pond program, which built 2,992 ponds in 1934 and 1935. In exchange for the labor to build the pond, farm owners signed easements granting county access to the water in case of emergency.

Also important were KERC’s flood relief programs. Somewhat prophetically, KERC set up emergency work relief programs in Kansas during December of 1934. In the spring of 1935, terrible floods ravaged the state. Under KERC’s program, counties telegrammed the nature of their emergency and how much help they needed to the state, who instantly approved work-relief labor to help.

Many counties employed work-relief for preventative measures such as rebuilding levees in advance of the floodwater. These efforts saved property and likely lives. Work-relief labor was also used to bury drowned livestock, repair dams, clean up post-flood messes, and repair roads. One work-relief crew in Cheyenne County rescued a family atop a house floating down the river from Colorado. On its roof, trapped for days, were a rattlesnake, a coyote, and five humans, each too absorbed with their own predicaments to bother one another.

All told, during the 1935 flood, 61 relief projects were authorized in 51 counties, all thanks to KERC’s efforts to both care for Kansas’s waters and its workers. KERC was disbanded in 1937 by order of Governor Walter A. Huxman, in part because many New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration took over providing jobs for the struggling and transient workers of Kansas. Still, many of KERC’s aquatic projects continue to shape Kansas waters today.
Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora at the Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017 and its partner exhibition in at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Center in Kansas City, KS.


Lawrence’s Reluctance to Take the Plunge into Equality

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3, 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

In 1949, riots erupted in St. Louis when the city desegregated its public pools. As many as 5,000 white swimmers attacked black youths who tried to swim in the newly integrated pools. The unrest injured 20 people and took 400 police officers to break up.

A few years later, Kansas City’s public pool at Swope Park, its crown jewel, opened in 1941 as a whites-only facility and became the target of an NAACP lawsuit on behalf of three black children who wanted to swim there. Instead of integrating the pool, the city shut it down. In courtroom proceedings at the time, a city representative said pools in particular needed to be segregated because of “the natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle socially.” Regardless, the city integrated the pool peacefully in 1954, after an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case fell in favor of its young, black petitioners and toppled segregation.

The road to aquatic equality was rocky in Missouri’s two biggest cities, but by 1954, both reluctantly accepted that all races could access the public swimming facilities. However, Lawrence in northeast Kansas took much longer in providing equal access to public pools.

As late as 1960 Lawrence’s residents refused to fund a municipal-owned swimming facility. Lawrencians voted down municipal pool ballot measures in 1949 and again in 1964. The closest equivalent to a public pool for black children was the Kansas River, where many drowned. White children, on the other hand, swam at the Jayhawk Plunge. Officially, “The Plunge”, owned by Bertha Nottberg, operated as a private club and was thus exempt from civil rights legislation as exemplified in Brown v. Board of Education; unofficially, Nottberg sold single-day tickets for 25 cents to children who were not members as long as they were white.

A Lawrence group called LLPD, Lawrence League for the Protection of Democracy, took issue with Nottberg’s discriminatory practices. The group, led by University of Kansas Professor of Economics Harry Shaffer, looked to pressure the city to pass an ordinance claiming pools were included in the public entities covered in recent Civil Rights legislation. The city dragged its feet due in no small part to the pool’s technically private standing.

A group of about 30 black residents loosely affiliated with LLPD, perhaps spurred into action by the unhurried response of the mostly white leadership, began picketing Jayhawk Plunge on July 4, 1960. Nottberg put slats in the pool’s chain-link fence so swimmers could not see the picketers.

Nottberg, fearful of the negative economic impact of being a political flashpoint, and of operating an integrated pool, offered to sell her pool to both the city and the LLPD. Neither entity was interested.

The biggest counter-argument to forcing Nottberg to integrate the pool was one of politics. The city, as well as the LLPD’s opponents, were deeply uncomfortable telling Nottberg how to run her private business, even though it was functioning as a public pool. According to historian Rusty Monhollon, opponents of an integrated Plunge were more concerned with private property than race:

“The effort to take the Plunge also testified to the potent forces impeding racial equality in Lawrence and the limits of liberalism in challenging those forces. White racism was one such force. But many Lawrencians defended segregation through their opposition to the activist, liberal state and a steadfast belief in the rights of individuals to use their property however they wanted.”

Indeed, soon after the picketers took up residence outside the pool, a counter-protest covered the ticket booth: an anonymous Nottberg ally plastered the pool with flyers that said “what happened to the personal rights of private industry to operate at a profit?” and “KU does have a pool, what’s wrong with it?” The flyers sent a clear message: the protesters were “outsiders,” affiliated with KU and not Lawrence, agitating a local business owner and trying to tell her what to do with her business and hard-earned money.

On July 11 of that same year, someone put 11 carp in the pool and 11 more on LLPD president Shaffer’s doorstep along with a threatening effigy, followed up with telephoned death threats.

On July 12 Nottberg closed the pool, citing financial losses. She leased it to Kansas City businessmen who ran it more like a private club, erasing any possibility of integrating that particular pool.

It would take several more years for Lawrence to pass a referendum and build an integrated municipal pool. For the black children of Lawrence, finally, the time would come to be able to take a dip on a hot summer day without needing to fend off the currents of the mighty Kansas River.

Learn more about Kansas’ Water Story at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, on display in at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017, and its partner exhibitions.

This article is based primarily on Rusty L. Monhollon’s article “Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960,” written while he pursued a PhD at the University of Kansas. The article can be read in full here.



Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County

The 1926 dedication of the Main Street bridge in Ottawa. Image courtesy of the Franklin County Historical Society

One of the most important pathways in Franklin County’s early history is a natural river crossing that no longer exists.

When the founders of the Ottawa Town Company were deciding where to establish their new town, they understood that access to a reliable source of water—for consumption, for agriculture, for transportation, for powering mills—was crucial to the long-term success of their town. The Marais des Cygnes River meandered through the center of Franklin County, dividing it almost entirely, from west to east. But access to the river wasn’t enough – for a town to truly be successful, citizens needed an easy way to cross it. As a result, the Ottawa Town Company’s site was located alongside a natural ford that native and emigrant tribes used, as well as early Franklin County settlers on their way to the now defunct county seat of Ohio City, a ford that would become known as the Hickory Street Crossing.

Unfortunately, the early town founders did not recognize the danger that they would bring to their fledgling town by settling inside one of the many crooks and bends of the Marais des Cygnes River. Ottawa’s history—and indeed, Franklin County’s history—became inextricably intertwined with the temperamental river and the many creeks that feed into it. Floods repeatedly destroyed homes and businesses while further dividing the county by shutting down roads and bridges and washing away railroad tracks. Ottawa’s development into an unusually elongated town, stretching north and south, reflects the town’s effort to move away from the river without abandoning it completely.

Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County takes a closer look at the irregular relationship citizens of Franklin County have with the Marais des Cygnes River. The exhibit documents old town sites developed around water crossings, including the original Ottawa Mission site, which was destroyed by a flood in 1844. It also examines the crossing at Hickory Street, a ford that was in use until it was destroyed by the completion of the levee system in the 1960s.

Crossings also explores the story of the river itself. The exhibit draws from the Franklin County Historical Society’s collection of nearly 1,200 photographs of floods, as well as the photographs, maps, and artifacts documenting the shifting of the river channel, the creation and marooning of the Island, and the sometimes controversial construction of flood control measures and the levee system that would both save and further divide northern and southern Ottawa. The exhibit takes a closer look at how Franklin County continues to control, protect, and respect the Marais des Cygnes River as both a source of safe drinking water and a site for recreation, and visitors are encouraged to consider how the construction and destruction of river crossings influences the development, success, or demise of communities.

Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways, a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora from June 19 to August 6, 2017.

To view Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County and other parts of Franklin County’s water story, be sure to visit Water/Ways exhibition at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa from June 4 to August 20, 2017.



Dam, that Took a Long Time

The Wyandotte County Lake Dam under construction (Photo courtesy Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library & Environmental Learning Center)

The Wyandotte County Lake Dam under construction, c. 1938. (Photo courtesy of Schlagle Library)

Each year, thousands of anglers, hikers, and boaters enjoy Wyandotte County Lake, a manmade lake that has been a getaway destination in northeast Kansas for nearly 75 years. Today, life on the lake is carefree, but building it was a different story. The process was so long and difficult that, at times, it looked like it would not happen at all.

Wyandotte County Lake Park was dreamed up in the early 1930s, when Wyandotte County, like much of the country, faced the dueling problems of economic depression and drought-induced scarcity of water. After finagling, political maneuvering, and some help by banker Willard Breidenthal, the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution on September 24, 1935, to buy 1,400 acres of land near Marshall Creek to build a county lake and park, simultaneously solving the problems of lack of jobs and lack of water; the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided labor.

But building this landscape wasn’t all a dream. In July 1936, the first of a number of strikes took place, as the WPA laborers picketed for a raise. They also demanded that only Wyandotte County residents be hired, at least until the labor pool ran dry. Although such issues were eventually resolved, it did not end the strikes. Nothing, however, could prepare workers for the disaster ahead.

On September 19, 1937, when the dam was 90 percent complete, and with water about 30 feet in the adjacent lake, several motorists sightseeing on a nearby road noticed a crack in the pavement. Wisely, they fled. The dam collapsed in a massive landslide. 300,000 pounds* of earth fell 50 feet, causing the land to the north to shift and close a 16-foot drainage ditch. The collapse also made the highway over the spillway impassible.

WPA and Wyandotte County officials put the project on hold while they tried to figure out what to do. The construction of the new dam started nine months later at the end of July 1938, just south of the dirt pile where the first dam once stood; it was completed in 1942.

Today, the Wyandotte County Lake enriches the lives of Kansas City residents. Jennifer Kilburg, education specialist at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center in Wyandotte County Lake Park, asserts:

“In a county that is very urban, Wyandotte County Lake is a place to get away…the lake is continuously busy with fishermen and boating. We have over 11 miles of hiking and many people comment that it has the best trails in the area! Birders from all over eastern Kansas come out to the lake to see the migrating waterfowl. None of these activities would be possible if this lake were not here.”

Learn more about the history of Wyandotte County Lake at the Dam, That Took a Long Time exhibition, on display at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center from June 24 to August 6, 2017.

Learn more about Kansas’s water history at the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition Water/Ways, on display in Eudora during these same dates.

*Primary documents estimate that 300,000 pounds of dirt fell in the collapse, but according to Retired Civil Engineer Steve Schmidt, given the size of the dam and impact of the collapse, the amount of dirt that fell was probably closer to 300,000 tons. 




Taking Pictures, Speaking Out

Photo of the Delaware River taken by one of the Photovoice project participants. Image courtesy of Felicia Mitchell.

University of Kansas social work doctoral student Felicia Mitchell handed out disposable film cameras to members of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, all of whom “lived or worked” on the Tribe’s reservation in northeast Kansas. Mitchell asked the Tribal members to take pictures illustrating the relationship between health and water in their community.

The distribution of the cameras and the associated research formed the backbone of Mitchell’s dissertation. Recently completed, it’s a study using a qualitative research method called Photovoice. Invented in the 1990s by Caroline C. Wang at the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris at the Ford Foundation, Photovoice aims to enable participants “to represent their communities or express their points of view by photographing scenes that highlight research themes.”

In inviting the Kickapoo to photograph the connection between water and health in their community, Mitchell empowered them to voice their own concerns and interests. A small tribe, with around 1,600 members and about 600 reservation residents, the Kickapoo are uniquely affected by water issues, and Mitchell wanted to let the Tribal members explain exactly how.

The Kickapoo rely on the Delaware River for nearly all their water use. This reliance leaves them uniquely positioned for certain water challenges. First, surface water is subject to drought and climate change, often leading to low flow. In fact, in 2003, the Delaware ran completely dry and the Kickapoo had to ration their water, spending thousands to truck in over 7 million gallons of water. Another drought in 2012 affected everything from livestock to swimming pools, fire departments to car washes.

Further, non-source contamination from pollution and runoff upstream affects the quality of the water. Often the tap water on the Kickapoo reservation tastes bad, and those who can afford it use bottled water, itself posing a host of environmental issues. Additionally, tainted river water can lead to health concerns like eczema and even cancer.

Yet, when Mitchell handed out the cameras, she left her Photovoice question broadly phrased, not explicitly mentioning any of the Kickapoo’s previous water issues. In this way, Mitchell ensured that the results wouldn’t be tainted by her own interest, theories, or previous research. Mitchell says she “left it open-ended on purpose. I was careful about not leading them to any visuals.” So it’s all the more striking that nearly every camera came back with a picture of the Delaware River.

Water is central to many if not all indigenous populations — a common saying across indigenous peoples is “water is life.” The Kickapoo Tribe has only been in Kansas — and by extension, along the Delaware River — since the 1800s, when they were relocated to their current reservation in Brown County. Therefore, going in to her Photovoice study, Mitchell wasn’t sure how central the Delaware would be. Turns out, it was. The river, according the Mitchell, is “connected to a lot of aspects of the livelihood of the community,” even if the Delaware wasn’t the Kickapoo’s by choice.

The Kickapoo people Mitchell spoke with raised many concerns. Some discussed how much more uncommon swimming was these days. Others worried over contamination in the springs used for ceremonies and rituals. Many raised the specter of being unsure whether the river caused cancer.

Yet Mitchell’s goal is more than learning about the issues facing the Kickapoo; she also aims to raise awareness to a broader public. She say “the purpose of the study was to engage the community in participatory research by collecting these photos and stories about health and water that can then be shared with a wider audience.”

With the wider audience in mind, Mitchell secured a Kansas Humanities Council grant to design and mount an exhibition of photographs the Kickapoo participants took. She enlarged the photographs and quotes from her research and displayed the exhibition in the senior center at the Kickapoo Reservation. After the exhibit, Mitchell solicited feedback from the participants and Tribal members to make sure she got the story right. Soon, she hopes to mount a public exhibition to make the Kickapoo water story more widely known.

Learn more water stories of Kansas at the Water/Ways Smithsonian exhibition that is touring Kansas through June 2018..




A Deluge of Things to Do

Photo provided by Eudora Area Historical Society

Photo provided by Eudora Area Historical Society

In mid-July 1951, Hazel Harris went to visit her husband Jerry in the hospital in nearby Lawrence, just west of their home in Eudora. Any other day the drive would have been a piece of cake, but on this particular day, she cruised the nine miles down Kansas Highway 10 in a boat – that day, several feet of water covered the road.

Elsewhere in Eudora, Bob and Lois Neis needed to get their 200 chickens to safety. As the waters rose, brothers Clarence, Floyd, and Oscar Broers came to help the family pack. With no time to properly bag the chickens, they simply placed them in the back of a truck. As the brothers pulled away, one chicken fell out, but luckily Clarence managed to save it. From that moment on, the chickens sat perfectly still on the truck’s stock racks, even after the poultry-rescue wagon reached dry land; with the help of the Broers every chicken survived.

The Monday July 16, 1951, editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World, published at the end of a chaotic weekend full of mud and water, proclaimed:

“Amid all the uncertainties, one thing is certain: people are impatient to get at the task…from the moment the river began to fall, those persons hardest hit by the overflow began making plans to return to their flood-battered properties…others, fortunate enough to have suffered no direct flood loss, are considering means by which they may continue the exercise of neighborly helpfulness, so notably in evidence in the dangerous crisis of the flood.”

Ben Terwilliger, executive director of the Eudora Area Historical Society, says the flood “submerged the entire northern portion of the Eudora Township, as well as significant parts of the city limits in Eudora.”

Visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and At the Mercy of the Kaw: Eudora’s Relationship with Water exhibition, both on view at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24-August 6.

Special thanks to the writing of Patty Neis Johnson for sharing her story.

Inside the Dam

The Milford Dam logbook, charting every change in flow levels since 1968

The Milford Dam logbook, charting every change in flow levels since 1968

Ken Wenger, Park Manager at Milford Lake in northeast Kansas, loves that every day his job can look different. One day he can hop in the pickup and patrol the park, another day he can be on a boat inspecting the lake and 32 acres of the dam facing the lake. Today, his job is to lower the dam’s outflow, from 8,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 200cfs.

The Milford Lake Dam operates a sophisticated flood control system with gates that allow water to discharge into the valley below through a conduit under the dam. Levels vary based on the depth of the lake, the amount of water flowing into it, and the wildlife and water supply needs downstream.

Today, though, Ken needs to stage down the outflow a little bit every hour in order to dry out the conduit. To go from 8,000cfs to 200cfs at once would not be good for the downstream river channel or the fisheries program.

Once the conduit is dry, for the first time in ten years, government inspectors will need to walk through it to assess the systems and status of the Milford Dam. Ken is excited to see this rare view of the dam where he has worked for so many years, and his enthusiasm bubbles through his normally measured demeanor.

He heads out of the office and across Highway 57 towards the dam itself. He opens one barbed wire gate, unhitches a cable and opens yet another barbed wire gate. Security is important, as any tampering with the dam could lead to catastrophic flooding for the cities downstream, including Junction City. It has only gotten tighter since 9/11, and he will not allow any photos to be taken inside the dam. He used to give tours to elementary school students, but soon that too ended.

He opens a heavy, groaning steel door into a tall, cavernous concrete shaft that looks like something from another world. He descends down a narrow staircase spiraling around the outside of the shaft until he reaches the control room, where twin sets of levers sit in the middle of a concrete floor. It’s technology from the 1960s, original to the dam – a paper tape with a series of numbers indicates the flow level, and Ken pulls a lever while he watches the tape crawl by. When it hits the desired level, he releases the lever – one small motion controls the massive gates that hold back unimaginable amounts of water.

After returning to the office building, Ken displays the log book where he records such adjustments. It is the only logbook Milford has ever had, filled with scrawling handwritten data on every single adjustment made to the dam since it opened. It’s decidedly analog and old-school in a charming way, just like pulling a lever and watching numbered paper tape scroll by. But old school or not, it works – and you could say the same thing about Milford Dam.

To learn more about Kansas’s water story, visit the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways touring exhibit, on display at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums from January 6 to February 18, 2018.


Grant Avenue by Boat: 25 Years Since the 1993 Junction City Flood

Milford Reservoir rushes through a channel cut in Highway 57 along the top of Milford Dam during the 1993 flood (Photo courtesy Geary County Historical Society)

Milford Reservoir rushes through a channel cut in Highway 57 along the top of Milford Dam during the 1993 flood (Photo courtesy Geary County Historical Society)

In mid-July 1993, 32” of precipitation fell in Geary County in northeast Kansas, home to the Milford Dam and nearby Junction City. On July 19, with the lake at crisis level, Milford Dam Project Manager Brad Myers maximized the water going through the dam into the valley below, which kept the lake from cresting the dam but unfortunately caused flooding.

Despite efforts at the dam to manage outflow without washing away any of the dam’s infrastructure, waters along Junction City’s Grant Avenue continued to rise. The nearby Smoky Hill River also caused concern. Hundreds of Junction City residents flocked to parking lots to help fill sandbags despite the summer heat.

The situation at the dam continued to worsen. On July 24, in order to prevent the dam from collapsing, construction crews cut a channel into Highway 57 along the top of the dam.

Large portions of Grant Avenue, including businesses and mobile home parks, were evacuated that day – 3,500 people had to leave their homes. Hundreds camped in the high school gymnasium on cots provided by the Red Cross and the army. The next day, Governor Joan Finney declared the dam site and surrounding region an emergency area. By 8:30 that evening, three feet of water covered Grant Avenue. The depth of Milford Lake, normally 65 feet, rose to 101.18 feet. To try to save the dam, Myers and the Army Engineer Corps developed a contingency plan that involved using massive stone reinforcements for the channel over Highway 57. Junction City residents stood in their yards and saw Army Chinook helicopters hauling house-sized boulders towards Milford.

On July 26, the output-level of the dam finally fell, a good sign. Soon after, residents were hard at work cleaning up.

Heather Hagedorn, curator of the Geary County Historical Society, commented that, “one of the greatest impacts the flood had on Geary County was the sense of community that arose out of the disaster.  Neighbors worked together, children worked alongside adults, all to help stem the tide of the flood through sandbagging efforts. While these efforts were not always successful, they created a network of support within the community that is still remembered.”

Learn more about Junction City and Geary County’s water stories at the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums facility from January 6 to February 18, 2018.

To learn more about local water history, check out the partner exhibition in Marion from February 24 to March 24, 2018.