Dry year or wet year, North Platte and west central Nebraska can get a lot of rain all at once.
And when you live near where two rivers become one, you’re bound to get the leftovers of other people's big rains, too.
Flash floods and river surges out of the Rockies have delivered sudden misery now and again during North Platte’s 150-year existence. Its relationship to the North Platte and South Platte Rivers, however, has evolved as the great 20th-century dams took shape upstream and the city has grown past its original watery boundaries.
The North Platte River, with a flood stage less than half that of its sister stream, technically floods more frequently. But the South Platte, which often seems more like a creek, has produced the city’s most graphic and even tragic examples of river flooding.
1800s: Respecting the River
It’s worth remembering that, in their untamed states, both Plattes were substantial enough for the early 19th-century fur trappers to paddle them to the base of the Rockies. The South Platte regularly posed a substantial obstacle for Oregon-California Trail emigrants, who had to cross it at one of several points between present-day Brule and Julesburg, Colorado.
That branch demonstrated its fiery nature at dusk on May 25, 1876, when it “began to creep over its bank and meander over the prairies,” the North Platte Republican observed. “The rapidity with which the river was rising caused considerable uneasiness.”
Two men who had ridden to the South Platte bridge, built in 1872, “met a lady coming up the road imploring help and stating that some women and children were in wagons surrounded by water and threatened with destruction.” The men managed to rescue them, but not “until the water had reached the top of the forward wheels.”
Soon “the country west of the city was pretty generally inundated,” the Republican wrote. “The water came pouring down with fearful rapidity, and the roaring of the river for an hour or so was like unto that of the sea. The (Union Pacific) track west of town was so covered with water that it was deemed unadvisable to run trains on regular time.”
No serious damage was reported, though the rising river had endangered some houses along a nearby road. “The cause of the overflow,” the Republican wrote, “is thought to be because of the recent severe rains near Denver and the heavy snows in the mountains which have filled the streams emptying in the South Platte River to overflowing.”
North Platte reporters would write such words often over the decades.
1921: Our New Bridge Is Falling Down
That 1872 South Platte bridge was built well. It stood up not only to that 1876 flood but also to high water in May and June 1917 that zipped down from the Rockies and raised both forks of the Platte to flood stage.
In March 1918, state and local officials agreed to spend $40,000 on a new concrete bridge. Built with 10 arches, its construction was overseen by state District Engineer Roy Cochran of North Platte, who would serve three terms as governor from 1935 to 1941.
Even so, the old bridge’s red cedar pilings were deemed in such good shape that they were recovered in November 1921 to be reused in the foundation of the still-standing Lincoln County Courthouse.
By then, the new bridge was history.
As June 1921 opened, floodwaters from Front Range cloudbursts hurtled down both the North and South Platte. If newspaper accounts from North Platte and Omaha are accurate, both branches that month would crest at or near an astonishing 30 feet — more than twice the South Platte’s stated flood stage in 2018 and five times that of the north branch’s modern flood stage.
They were high enough, in any case, to wash away several South Platte bridges as the deluges passed into Nebraska.
Upstream communities on the North Platte feared a break in Wyoming’s Pathfinder Dam, built above Casper in the century’s first decade. That didn’t happen, but the fill north of North Platte’s “North River Bridge” was washed away — though the bridge itself survived.
By midday Saturday, June 11, the Weather Bureau’s observer had reported a 6-foot rise in the North Platte, according to that day’s Evening Telegraph. South Platte floodwaters were flowing over the south bridge’s fill dirt, and Lincoln County crews were “diking and sandbagging the fill to save as much of it as possible.”
The account added: “There is small likelihood that the flood will damage the bridge proper.”
At about 2 p.m. on June 13, two of the bridge’s five piers suddenly fell into the South Platte.
John Walker, a county employee working on the bridge, fell toward waters measured by “the government gauge” at 24 feet where the piers collapsed and 28 feet on the north bank, The Telegraph wrote.
“Walker held onto another pier and was able to save himself from washing away until fellow workmen, by cutting a telephone wire, were able to throw him a line and pull him to safety, unhurt.”
Three other men on the bridge ran to safety — but North Platte had narrowly averted a major human disaster.
“Prior to the giving way of the piers, the bridge was lined with sightseers who were rushing the angry torrents rush past,” The Telegraph wrote. “But fortunately the crowd had just moved from the doomed spot.”
Water had broken through the north bank and started running into town west of the bridge; a temporary dam was built to keep the city safe. But as the South Platte kept rushing by at 23,000 cubic feet per second, the rest of the doomed bridge’s piers collapsed over the next 24 hours.
With Sutherland’s South Platte bridge also washed away, motorboats started traversing the river as soon as possible to bring supplies to cut-off families. A footbridge soon followed.
The state threw a temporary bridge for automobile traffic across the river at North Platte. Though voters defeated a $165,000 reconstruction bond issue in August, the state and county began a $56,000 rebuilding project late that month.
Again in charge was Cochran, who had told the North Platte Rotary Club two weeks after the flood that the lost bridge there “was not properly protected at the south end” and the pilings supporting the pier there were too short.
With longer pilings, stronger jetties, 600-foot approaches and a 20-foot-wide roadway instead of 16 feet, the new South Platte bridges were ready for traffic by the end of 1921.
1942: Rowing from Graceland
Nebraska’s seven-year 1930s drought was disastrously interrupted in June 1935 by fresh flood surges from the Rockies. But while 110 people in three states lost their lives in the Republican River valley, Lincoln County weathered less intense floodwaters on both branches of the Platte.
Even so, the South Platte’s June 3 water level at North Platte reached 14.02 feet, a foot above today’s flood stage and a modern record until the 2010s. The city’s next flood disaster, as it happened, would be delivered from above.
The rain started on April 15, 1942, a Wednesday. A trace fell both that day and Thursday, followed by 0.32 inches on Friday. Sunday would bring 0.26 inches, with a trace again recorded Monday before the skies finally cleared.
But on Saturday, April 18, North Platte was drenched by a 4.11-inch deluge — still the city’s all-time one-day record since 1874.
As the heavens opened Saturday night, flash-flood waters gushed into basements. “Approximately three-fourths of the homes in North Platte had anywhere from an inch to 2 feet of water lying in basements,” The Telegraph reported Monday as the rain quit.
North Platte River levels quickly rose 1½ feet, while the South Platte rose about 9 inches. Between the latter river and the city’s heart lay Graceland Addition, for three decades a popular housing area south of Philip Avenue and west of Jeffers Street.
As Graceland’s water levels rose to 4 feet that Saturday night, firefighters, police officers and Red Cross workers hastily assembled a four-boat flotilla. Rescuers rowed along Graceland’s streets, rescuing 25 families from their soggy homes and putting them up in a tourist camp.
An ill man was loaded onto a stretcher, The Telegraph wrote, and a boy with whooping cough and chickenpox “found keen excitement in being rescued by the fire department.”
Fire Chief Cecil Hines and his crews “worked until early Sunday morning disconnecting lights and wiring to prevent the threat of fire,” The Telegraph wrote. “Furniture, washing machines and other appliances were moved to higher levels.” A south-side gas station pump had spilled its contents. A water main had broken along West Sixth Street. Trees were down everywhere.
Those six days brought nearly 5 inches of rain, but an even wetter rerun was in store. More than 6 inches of rain produced fresh flash floods between 5 p.m. Sept. 1 and 8 a.m. the next day, helping to lift the city’s 29.74 inches for all of 1942 to the No. 4 spot in its annual records. (The record belongs to 1951, when 33.44 inches fell.)
Once again, The Telegraph reported, basements filled up everywhere and Graceland was cut off “with water covering all the streets leading from that part of town.” Street Commissioner Jack Stack “was called several times to relieve families marooned in their homes.”
1972: Kingsley’s Frightening May Day
A year earlier, the completed Kingsley Dam had begun gathering the North Platte River’s waters into Lake McConaughy. Pathfinder Dam and its smaller Wyoming sister dams would remain pivotal players in river management. But river levels on North Platte’s north side now depended greatly on the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, the dam’s owner.
In time, environmentalists and federal regulators would mandate additional Kingsley releases beyond Central’s irrigation-season “runs” to central Nebraska farmers. But for 75 years, residents in Keith and Lincoln counties have known that a dam breach would quickly immerse downstream residents in catastrophe.
Only once, on May 1, 1972, has that specter of a watery Armageddon seemed imminent.
Day-long winds consistently topping 60 mph conjured up nasty waves from McConaughy’s waters. They tore repeatedly at Kingsley’s rock-covered western slope and splashed over Nebraska Highway 61 atop the dam. They washed away 500 feet of the dam’s wave wall and left deep gashes all along the dam’s western face.
Kingsley held, despite more than $500,000 in damage. Central’s engineers never opened the dam’s gates, not wanting to cause more damage downstream than the high winds had. But the approximately 70 residents of Keystone, six miles east of the dam, were evacuated — a step never taken before or since.
Hundreds of trainloads of replacement rock were shipped on the Union Pacific branch line north of the lake. Highway 61 was rerouted during its repair to a county road along Kingsley’s east base. And McConaughy’s maximum storage — except in emergencies — has been capped ever since at elevation 3,265 feet, a foot below its May Day 1972 level and about 5 feet below its true capacity.
1995: The South Platte Roars Back to Life
Several dams above Denver and irrigation canals in northeast Colorado have long siphoned off portions of the South Platte River’s flows. For a half-century after World War II, the river’s water level at North Platte crested past the 10-foot mark only five times. Only once, on May 13, 1973, did the river approach flood stage with a 12.64-foot crest.
Most years, in fact, the South Platte looked like a creek than a river. That changed in June 1995.
The culprit, once again, was massive Rocky Mountain snowmelt and heavy Front Range rainfall. Warnings of coming high water on the Platte system surfaced as June opened. “We don’t want to be alarmist, but people really need to watch closely and monitor the situation,” said longtime Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District spokesman Tim Anderson, who died in October 2017.
The north branch wouldn’t reach its 1995 crest until July 18, staying below flood stage at 5.72 feet. When the Colorado waters peaked on June 7, the South Platte’s river level had reached 12.99 feet, just barely below flood stage.
Nonetheless, North Platte and Lincoln County residents had already been forcefully reminded that they still had a river between the Union Pacific tracks and Interstate 80. Exhibit A, then and for virtually every South Platte flood since, was the city’s then 1-year-old, 18-hole Iron Eagle Golf Course along the river’s banks.
The course had to shut down its front nine holes by June 2, and the South Platte left its banks throughout western Lincoln County three days later. Three holes on the back nine also were flooded out, with only the holes closest to Interstate 80 unaffected. Iron Eagle, built where the river’s flood stage is just 12 feet, would be submerged repeatedly in future floods.
Wary residents built dikes and sandbag barriers in Hershey and Sutherland, as well as Brady and Maxwell east of the junction of the two Plattes. Though the South Platte’s June 7 crest fell about 18 inches short of its forecast, officials warned that the river’s first wave had come from northeast Colorado’s heavy rains. The main snowmelt runoff was still ahead.
Federal officials gave Central permission to temporarily exceed Lake McConaughy’s storage limit. But the skies remained clear enough that when the snowmelt arrived in mid-June, both Platte branches were able to handle it.
2000s: Records and Tragedies
Fresh flood warnings went up in mid-June 1997, once more blamed on heavy northeast Colorado rains, and city employees and volunteers placed some 7,000 sandbags around Iron Eagle’s front nine. But the South Platte crested on June 20 at 11.33 feet, about 18 inches lower than the 1995 peak.
Five years later, and 50 miles upstream, west central Nebraska’s first major 21st-century flood struck suddenly and fatally.
On July 6-7, 2002, in the midst of an extended multiyear drought, overloaded thunderclouds officially dropped 8.5 inches of rain in and near Ogallala. Rain gauges at nearby locations, The Telegraph reported, surpassed 11 inches as streets in the Keith County seat turned into canals. Deep lakes and ponds formed on all sides of the I-80 interchange.
And the rushing waters washed out or damaged several roads and bridges — nowhere more significantly than on I-80 four miles west of Ogallala, where they washed out the approaches to culvert bridges in both directions. North Carolina truck driver William B. Baucam, 46, was killed when the cab and front part of his semitrailer truck fell into the highway’s eastbound wound.
While North Platte and downstream towns monitored the floodwaters — which generally spared them from harm — road crews from the Nebraska Department of Roads’ District 6, then led by veteran longtime District Engineer Les O’Donnell of North Platte, plunged into action.
As state troopers and National Guard soldiers detoured thousands of I-80 vehicles as far north as Oshkosh, O’Donnell’s workers hustled day and night to rebuild and repave the bridge approaches. By the night of July 12, five days after the flood, I-80 reopened pending permanent repairs.
“Getting this ready was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen,” declared Capt. Jim Parish, then commander of the Nebraska State Patrol’s North Platte-based Troop D. “The way everyone worked together to get this done is amazing.”
Since 2010, North Platte’s attention has been summoned repeatedly to the two rivers responsible for its very existence.
Heavy rains that June flooded many basements, including City Hall. A year later, the North Platte River set its modern record of 7.73 feet at North Platte, nearly 2 feet above flood stage, as snowmelt from “historic snowfalls” in Colorado and Wyoming barreled downstream on June 21, 2011.
With Lake McConaughy full again after reaching record-low levels in 2004, officials had to pass the excess water on downstream. Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park was closed all summer. Residences on and near the river sustained $1.3 million in damages, and seven businesses suffered $60,000 in damage and lost income.
The flood surge forced closure of the 12-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 30 between North Platte and Maxwell. Roads Department workers, Telegraph reporter Mark Young wrote, had no choice but to break the road with a 12-foot wide, 6-foot-deep channel to relieve an overwhelmed White Horse Creek.
Former Telegraph staffer Sage Merritt, who lived along U.S. 30, remembers being an “unlucky sap who found herself wading through moving water to get home every night.”
The National Guard was deployed to help fix a breached North Platte River levee, Merritt said, and the Red Cross kept an emergency shelter on standby at Adams Middle School. But though some people evacuated their homes, North Platte never ordered mandatory evacuations, she said.
Like a jealous sibling, the South Platte seized the city’s spotlight again in both 2013 and 2015.
Epic rainfall from a stalled cold front soaked Colorado’s Front Range from Sept. 9 to 15, 2013, drawing national headlines as several people were killed and thousands coped with massive flash floods. The runoff inevitably found its way into the South Platte, flooding parts of Sterling, other northeast Colorado towns and Keith County on its way to North Platte.
City, Lincoln County and state officials had nearly two weeks to prepare. Emergency management leaders held regular briefings and warned homeowners and apartment complexes between Philip Avenue and the river — including the areas flooded in 1942 — to start sandbagging and be ready to evacuate. Sutherland, Hershey, Maxwell and Brady did likewise.
The floodwaters’ leading edge arrived in town the morning of Sept. 21. Two days later, the South Platte set its modern crest record — though its 14.4-foot reading Sept. 23 remained half of the reputed 28-foot-deep cauldron that swept away the earlier river bridge in 1921.
Sightseers, who crowded the South Platte bridges on the 20th to take “before” photos, unwittingly re-enacted part of 1921’s near-tragedy as they jammed roads in search of “after” shots. Law enforcement officers and Roads Department workers kept them back.
The slow-moving deluge spread north as sewer drains backed up, delivering Iron Eagle its inevitable drowning but also forcing the closure of Philip Avenue and many streets to its south. At 7:15 a.m., the streets were still dry at Richard Reimer’s home at William Avenue and McDonald Road. By 9 a.m., water was running into his driveway.
“The street was filling up fast,” Reimer told Telegraph reporter Diane Wetzel. “We decided to start sandbagging right away.”
Water levels remained high for days, but Lincoln County residents’ preparations prevented community-wide damage and suffering. “It’s great that we were prepared for what was coming and great that the community has taken heed and taken the precautions they felt they needed to take,” said county emergency management director Dan Guenthner.
The late-summer timing of the 2013 flood was out of the ordinary, but its 2015 sequel struck at a more normal time — and with deadly force.
Rockies snowmelt and Colorado and Nebraska rains once more filled the South Platte’s banks to overflowing that spring. The river reached 13.3 feet on May 18, its third-highest level since the 1920s, though it was only three-tenths of a foot above flood stage.
Iron Eagle was submerged once more. Residents between Philip and the river dealt with flooded streets on May 15, when rainfall backed up because North Platte’s sewer system had been plugged to prevent floodwater backwash.
According to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, the remains located in the Chrysler Sebring recovered from the South Platte River on Tuesday…
But the Flood of 2015 will be remembered more sadly than all the others.
A vehicle containing Alexis Wiezorek, 17, and Noah Ramos, 18, went around barricades on South River Road, fell into a washout and ended up in the fast-moving river. A three-day search had to be called off because the river was too high and the current too swift. Not until July 7, after the Colorado snowmelt and additional local rainfall had flowed east, were search crews able to recover the vehicle and the teens’ bodies.
As long as this city guards the forks of its namesake, its residents will need to pay heed to the rivers in their midst and the skies above.
Former Telegraph reporter Tammy Bain contributed to this story.
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