Modern explorers call it the Lewis & Clark, that long swath of concrete and steel connecting Kansas City, Missouri to Kansas City, Kansas. Constructed as a two-lane toll bridge in 1907, it was jointly purchased by the two Kansas Cities in 1918, and tolls were discontinued. Expanded in 1936, it remained the only bridge open to traffic during the flood of 1951 as the West Bottoms, the Argentine and the Armourdale industrial districts – including the stockyards and rail yards – disappeared under water. Finally, in 1969, a parallel bridge was tucked in next to it and the entire span was designated the Lewis & Clark Viaduct.
Still, for many who heard stories of the original bridge, remember its expansion or experienced gratitude for its survival through decades of flooding, it’s still called by its original name, the Intercity Viaduct. In 1951, the Intercity (and perhaps the 7th Street Trafficway as well) helped our family escape from one of the greatest floods ever to roll through the Midwest.
It was vacation time in our town, two weeks granted every summer to employees of the Maytag Company, for whom my dad worked. While the plants were shut down for maintenance, office personnel, line workers and management alike scattered to lakes, family reunions and exotic cities like Minneapolis and Omaha.
In 1951, we’d gone to Kansas City to visit family. The trip south from Iowa must have been a soggy one. Heavy rains had fallen throughout June, soaking the surrounding countryside and filling up the Marais des Cygnes, Verdigris and Neosho river basins. As NOAA later reported, some tributary basins, such as that belonging to the upper Blue River in Kansas, filled to overflowing in early June, their crests exceeding even those arriving in July. The Kansas River, wending through the heart of Kansas City itself, began escaping its banks as early as June 9.
As the rivers continued to rise and reports of significant upriver crests began to dominate the news, my dad grew nervous and insistent. We were leaving for home early, he said. We were getting out “while the gettin’ was good”. Five years old at the time, I was far too young to understand his apprehension, and just old enough to remember the fits and starts, the attempts to leave, the suddenly-closed bridges and the long, nervous waits at my aunt and uncle’s house for the next opportunity to cross the river separating us from our home.
Decades later, even my mother couldn’t answer most of the questions: Which bridge did we cross? How many attempts did we make? Did we get over the bridge before or after the levees failed? Still, she confirmed the substance of my memory, the truth of those stark, disturbing images disconnected by time but capable of re-creating anxiety - the dead and bloated cattle pulled under the bridge by the current, railroad box cars floating only feet from the bridge decking, my dad’s grim, set jaw and white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, my mother cocooned, buried in a magazine, refusing to look out the window.
Though I believe we crossed the Intercity, our precise location – which bridge, which highway – hardly matters. Accounts of the flood published by NOAA mesh perfectly with those childhood memories.
In the Kansas City area, the Kansas River poured over levees protecting the Argentine district in the early hours of July 13th. By 5 AM on the 13th, the flood topped the levees protecting Armourdale, causing the evacuation of 15,000 persons. Damages in the Kansas City area to homes, railroad yards, stockyards, packing plants, warehouses and manufacturing plants ultimately totaled $425 million. Major fires resulted from damaged oil tanks. Runaway barges smashed into the Hannibal Bridge adding to the confusion and difficulties. Hogs and cattle were stranded or washed from the stockyards. The American Royal building was under 15 feet of water and homes in Armourdale had water lapping at the roofs. Flood waters crept within 4 blocks of Union Station.
It was, in short, a disaster, a flood unlike any my family had seen.
While my dad, concerned for our safety, carried us away from the city and its flood, another Kansas City resident was staying. Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton, well-connected, well-traveled and well-known as a painter and muralist in the art circles of New York and Paris, had moved back to Kansas City in 1935. Having accepted a commission to paint murals at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, he agreed as well to serve as head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Sixteen years later, when the flood of ’51 arrived, Benton was 62, relatively settled and extraordinarily well-equipped to interpret the event, albeit in the service of a cause.
Benton could be rude, irrascible and cantankerous, but he wasn’t insensitive to the world around him. Determined to communicate the suffering of the flood victims and encourage passage of legislation authorizing financial aid, he produced a painting entitled Flood Disaster, which showed a family returning to their destroyed home with the Kansas City skyline in the distance. Lithographs of the painting were sent to each member of Congress, along with pleas that they expand the proposed flood relief appropriations bill.
Despite then-President Truman’s estimate of more than $1 billion in damages and Benton’s lobbying efforts, the expanded bill didn’t pass. President Truman signed a bill providing $113 million in relief, and many of Benton’s lithographs ended up in the trash. Ironically, when Benton’s original painting was auctioned by Sotheby’s on May 19 of this year, it sold for $1.9 million, well exceeding its pre-auction evaluation of $800,000 – $1.2 million.
I’d not seen Flood Disaster until it began to be publicized prior to auction. It reminded me of two things: my own community after Hurricane Ike, and the words of essayist Joan Didion, who once declared,
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
In 1951, Thomas Hart Benton claimed the flood that ravaged his home state. Obsessed as every artist is with communicating his vision, he almost literally lived out Didion’s words, wrenching the flood from itself, shaping and rendering it into an image capable of touching anyone who has suffered at the hand of nature. Beneath his hand, Flood Disaster took shape as a painting for Everyman, a portrait of the scowling aftermath of every flood, every tornado, every hurricane or fire that afflicts us.
For most of us, the floating boxcars and bloated cattle of Kansas City, the rising waters and collapsing bridges faded away, becoming little more than mental snapshots of a remarkable event. Benton, on the other hand, allowed his experience of the flood to become a touchstone, an obsession – art. We may visit the flood in memory from time to time, but in the end there’s really no question who owns it. In the end, it’s Tom Benton’s flood.