The Arkansas River at Dodge City may be bone dry today, but it wasn’t always that way.
In June of 1965, it was very much the opposite.
Despite the construction of the John Martin Reservoir in 1939 which usually holds most of the Arkansas in eastern Colorado, a deluge still reached our city on June 19, 1965.
The very beginning came on June 14 in the Denver area with three days of torrential rain. This caused a wall of water to rush down the front range of the Rockies which inundated roads and railroads, and destroyed homes and bridges in its path.
Some of the water flooded the South Platte River. Unfortunately, much flowed to the Arkansas River which roared east towards Kansas. Along the way, heavy rains added to this wall of water. The onslaught strained the John Martin Reservoir and, to save it from collapsing, they had to open the gates as it filled to capacity. The floods ended up killing 21 people in Colorado.
This growing disaster reached the Kansas line early on June 17, just a few hours after the border town of Coolidge, Kansas received a whopping 4 inches of rain. Both Coolidge and Syracuse, Kansas flooded that day. The next day, a Kansas man was killed near the flooding town of Lakin.
Quickly constructed dikes saved the northern part of Garden City on June 18, but homes in the south part of the city received 16 feet of water which was 6 feet above flood stage. Another life was lost in Garden City.
Next was Ingalls and Cimarron. Homes south of the Santa Fe tracks in Cimarron were hit on June 19.
But the rise in Dodge City was the most dramatic. At 9:30 p.m. on June 19, the river rose from 3.8 to 17 feet in fifteen minutes as a wall of water a mile and half wide rolled in.
Authorities evacuated 1,500 to 2,000 people from the town of 15,000 before the deluge hit, which prevented loss of life.
South Dodge suffered the worst devastation with homes the next day filled with up to 6 feet of water. Not only was water a problem, but flooding of natural gas lines caused numerous explosions. Of the towns hit in Kansas, Dodge City got hit the worst.
As the flood receded in Dodge City, the voracity of the deluge was weakening, but towns downstream still were endangered. Garfield and Kinsley flooded, but a dike system protected Larned and Great Bend. However, surrounding farmland was underwater. As the diminishing flood rolled down to Oklahoma, only rural areas received damage. Still, this disaster took barns, homesteads and killed hundreds of cattle.
Papers as far-away as Chicago printed the news of the Great Arkansas River floods.
Despite this great flood, Dodge City Days went on as scheduled on July 15, 16 and 17. The committee felt those working on rehabilitating the city needed a break and would enjoy the festivities. And they wanted to show the world Dodge City was down, but not out. Their attitude was "Sure we’ve been hurt, but we can’t curl up and die."
Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.