In March 1938 a committee of the House of Representatives first discussed building Tuttle Creek Dam. The idea for building the dam had originated years before among a group of Kansas City businessmen. The important meatpacking industry with railroads, stockyards, and packing plants was located near the river bottom and needed protection.
The Corps of Engineers suggested protecting the property by raising the levee 12 feet higher than the existing one. The railroads and other industrial interests fought this idea because of the disruption of transportation while bridges and roads were also being raised.
To bolster their cause, chambers of commerce in Greater Kansas City organized a flood protection planning committee to develop a more workable solution. Members of this group felt that the most obvious solution was a system of reservoirs upstream, one on the Republican River at Milford and the other at Manhattan on the Blue River. An additional benefit of reservoirs was to ensure a steady flow of water for the transportation barges on the Missouri River. This proposal was submitted to the Congress.
Discussion of the flood control project continued in Washington, D.C. for many years without money being appropriated for the building of the dam. During that interim, however, residents of the Blue Valley began gathering information concerning the monetary and social impact of the destruction of the valley.
The Blue River Valley north of Manhattan was a natural place for such concerns to coalesce. It housed many residents who could trace their heritage back to 1847 when German immigrants homesteaded. These energetic farmers plowed the fertile soil, grazed cattle, and built homes for their families.
Swedish immigrants followed. In 1855 John A. Johnson, the first Swede to settle in Kansas, began farming in an area called Mariadahl. Mr. Johnson donated land for the building of the first Swedish Lutheran Church west of the Missouri River. The grounds also included a home for orphaned children and the community cemetery.
In 1948, members of a group known as the Blue Valley Study Association issued a “To Whom It May Concern” letter opposing construction of the dam and listing the dam’s destructive effects.
Among its predictions:
* Initial farm losses would total $11,276,556.
* Farm lands including at least 55,000 acres valued at $8,250,000 would be taken out of production all or part of the time with a great part inundated permanently.
* Farm buildings and permanent fixtures valued at a total of $3,026,556 would have to be abandoned.
* Only the most valuable and most productive land would be purchased by the federal government, leaving thousands upon thousands of acres of pasture land in the surrounding hills which would be of comparatively little value without the bottom land that produces the necessary grain and feed crops.
It also cited what it viewed as possible damage to land below the proposed dam. Specifically it forecast an annual recurring loss of more than $6.1 million based on the loss of livestock and crops produced for market.
Beyond that, it identified nearly $807,000 in business and residential property losses in five small towns that would be inundated as follows:
It found that 1,500 persons would be forced to leave farms, 230 town homes would be inundated along with 80 businesses, and many schools, churches, cemeteries, and public utilities would have to be moved or covered with flood waters.
Among the most prominent dam opponents was Rep. Albert Cole, whose congressional district included Manhattan. In February 1948, members of the North Topeka Merchants Association wrote Cole trying to get him to change his mind.
“While we appreciate the opposition of those who would be adversely affected by the installation of the Tuttle Creek Dam, we take a position of the greatest good for the greatest number of your constituents,” they wrote. “Aside from the subjective value, which to them is dear, they would be compensated for their loss. We have recovered neither money nor morale from past floods nor could we in the future. This does not include the too often forgotten injury and loss of life, which is irreparable.”
Cole was re-elected in 1948 and again in 1950, both times on platforms that included opposition to construction of a dam. In that time, funding for the building of Tuttle Creek was held up. But a series of 1951 floods changed the issue’s dynamics. In mid-May the Arkansas River in the southwestern part of the state experienced large amounts of rain and unprecedented flooding. The next week northwestern counties in Kansas experienced great rainfall. Then between July 10 and July 13 record amounts of rain, as much as 17.5 inches, fell on already soaked soil and ran off into the Saline, Solomon, and Blue rivers, tributaries of the Kansas River. Record rainfalls also caused the Osage, Neosho, Verdigris, Delaware, and Missouri rivers to flood.
The battle over Tuttle Creek dam arrived with those flood waters.
Sunday: The flood of 1951 changes the debate.