You wouldn't know it from today's appearance, but the Republican River used to have an untamed reputation. A flood similar to the magnitude of the 1935 event was said to have also occurred in 1826. In addition, floods of magnitude which threatened life and property were reported in 1885, 1903, 1905, 1915, and 1947. On May 26, 1885, 9 people were killed from the towns of Cambridge, Richmond Canyon, and Arapahoe; victims are buried in Cambridge with a monument. On June 23, 1947, 13 were killed in Cambridge and Orleans. Total damage was estimated at $15 million, largely because 7.5 inches of rain fell in the Medicine Creek watershed. When this flow mixed with the already-swollen Republican flow, it caused it to rise to a record stage in Orleans: 23 feet, 14 feet over flood stage.
Like many other places in the West during the Great Depression, the spring of 1935 was extremely dry. Severe and intense dust storms routinely swept across the flat landscape of southwestern Nebraska, completely blocking out sunlight. If one was unfortunate enough to be caught out on the road during a storm, it was not uncommon to drive into the roadside ditch due to the poor visibility. When this happened, cars were known to overturn and be completely covered in wind-blown sediment. Often, these unfortunate folks were not found for years.
But this all changed in May when the skies finally started to open up and allowed some rain to fall on the parched landscape. A few days later and after continued rain, farmers were excited that they could be in for a bumper crop for the first time in many years. But they were not aware of the major storm brewing in Colorado which would literally drown those dreams.
The storm of May 31/June 1 was unique for two reasons: first, it dumped an incredible amount of rain - where the Arickaree and Republican rivers meet in Colorado, 20 inches of rain was recorded, and 24 inches in 24 hours was recorded along the South Fork Republican River. The entire upper Republican watershed witnessed an average rainfall of nine inches. This storm was also unique in that it moved in the same direction as the drainage basin. As a result, the Frenchman, Red Willow, Medicine, Deer, Muddy, and Turkey creeks all reached their flood peaks at the same time as the crest passed on the Republican River.
According to witness accounts, the roar of the water could be heard coming down the Republican Valley five miles away. Many survivors also reported that there were two crests - the water came up on May 28, then receded slightly, but the second crest on June 1 greatly exceeded the first. At one point, the water rose six feet in thirty minutes and was ten to fifteen feet higher than the previous record crest. Another account states that the Republican rose 10 feet in 12 minutes in McCook; naturally, anything in the path of that wall of water would be destroyed. Water was twenty feet deep in some places, and the discharge was an incredible 280,000 cubic feet/second - more than 320 times the normal flow today. Water was "bluff-to-bluff" in areas where the bluffs are typically at least two miles apart. The town of Haigler was spared because it is situated on higher ground, but places like Parks, Benkleman, Max, Stratton, Trenton, Culbertson, and McCook were severely impacted if not outright destroyed. In addition to these towns, deaths also took place in Perry, Arapahoe, Orleans, Oxford, Franklin, Alma, and Cambridge. Some victims were last seen screaming for assistance from the roof of their home as it was being swept down the river.
Due to the fact that deaths occurred in three states and that reporting back in 1935 was not very efficient, the number of deaths attributed to flooding differs. An accurate estimate would be 113 killed - most reports just say "over one-hundred" dead. A reported 11,400 head of cattle and 41,500 were killed by the high water, and one report stated that carcasses littered roads as to make them impassable. In total, 341 miles of highway and 307 bridges were destroyed, and 74,500 acres of farmland were inundated. The damage estimate of $26 million is almost certainly low - personal losses, bridges, agricultural, and railroad losses were all incredibly heavy. $26 million is equivalent to nearly $800 million in 1997 dollars.
The River Today
The Republican River has a total drainage area of 22,400 square miles and has its headwaters in northeastern Colorado. There have been several dams constructed in the Republican basin, most in response to the 1935 flood. Harlan County Dam is the second-largest reservoir in Nebraska and was completed in 1952. In addition to the addition of reservoirs, flow rates have also decreased over time due to irrigation and other upstream uses. As a result, damaging floods have not occurred after 1960.
Hoffman, Rocky. River Portraits: The Republican. 1983.
v. 61, #1 (January-February): 58-65.
Wilmot, Marlene Harvey. Bluff-to-Bluff: The 1935
Republican Valley Flood.
Wilmot, Marlene Harvey. Bluff-to-Bluff, too! The 1935 Republican Valley Flood.
(Marlene Wilmot's publications are available at the
Nebraska State Historical Society
on the campus of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.)