Tom Benton’s Flood

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.



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  1. Linda; What a truly amazing post! So well written and so poignantly true! I’ve never thought of individuals owning pieces of history, but after reading your story, I realize that I do associate periods of my life with certain people; they may not have been artists or famous in any way, but they still figured importantly in my existence for for at least a while.

    PS: I thought of you this evening while visiting the Chatham Candy Manor with a friend. We were strolling and shopping in downtown Chatham and just had to make a stop in there! *sigh* I can still smell the heavenly aroma of chocolate!!!

    • seachange,

      I like your comment about “owning pieces of history”. The opposite side of that coin is the refusal of history that happens so often and in so many ways.

      My mother couldn’t swim, hated water and was nervous on every bridge, even the little wooden ones over Iowa creeks. Her refusal to look out the car window as we left KC is a bit of a contrast with Benton’s approach. My dad and I kept saying, “Look!” but she was having none of it. There are plenty of people around today who prefer to refuse taking a look at what’s happening around them, despite every encouragement.

      Ah, the Chatham Candy Manor! If I were you, I’d get myself down there and stock up a little. No one should go through a tropical storm or hurricane without chocolate! Stay safe – it’s going to be an interesting weekend.

      Linda

  2. I am so glad you stopped by Prufrock’s Dilemma today, not only because you left such a lovely comment, but more importantly, because it led me back over to you again! I must keep better track (do you find this hard? I definitely do.), for this is a beautiful post, and I know it’s only one of many. Your weaving of the family story with Benton’s is elegantly done, and your use of the Didion quote is simply perfect. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

    • Susan,

      I’ve been having a bit of a time getting back into my reading routine, but I’m working on it, and was delighted to find your new entries.

      Now that I think of it, I see a direct correlation between your wonderful heron and Tom Benton. “Stalkin’ and sitting” is a good part of the artistic process, too. The ones who don’t have patience and perseverance aren’t going to “catch” the vision on canvas, the page or the score.

      That quotation from Didion’s been around my blog for a long time. You can see another use of it here. In fact, I enjoyed re-reading it so much I may post it as an entry.

      So gracious of you to stop by!

      Linda

  3. Linda;

    I DID buy some chocolate while we were there…. some chocolate fudge! Like you said, no one should have to face a storm without it! (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, although now it looks as though Irene is taking a more westerly course and we’ll probably just get a sloppy weekend out of it…. but that doesn’t hurt my feelings at all, even if I am sorry for the mid-Atlantic coast.)

    My mother couldn’t swim, either, but she didn’t hate the water; which was a good thing, considering that she and my Dad lived aboard and worked their schooner for a dozen years or more after they become empty-nesters. But, I’ve met other people who came from flood-prone areas who were terrified of water and wanted nothing to do with it. I’m sure they knew exactly how your mom felt.

    Hope all is going well with you~ Beth

    • Beth,

      I still remember one of Mom’s worst experiences – driving across the Lake Ponchetrain bridge in Louisiana. Once was enough, that’s for sure. When she and I were planning our visit to the kinfolk in Baton Rouge she said, “I will not go across that bridge again. If we have to do that, I’m not going.”

      It took me a long time to get over my own fear of water. I was so shy as a child that when the YMCA swimming instructor told us all to jump into the deep end of the pool, I didn’t mention that I couldn’t float yet. After they fished me out from the drain at the bottom, I wasn’t so eager to get back in. But I did, eventually, and finally was able to enjoy things like diving in the Bahamas.

      Speaking of which, they surely have suffered with Irene. I fear a lot of people are going to learn some hard lessons with this one. It happened here with Rita and Ike. Folks who’d never experienced such a storm just didn’t take them seriously.

      But we’ve got our chocolate!

      Linda

  4. Chocolate: Some years ago I went to a presentation at the local college by one of the three trekers who made the south pole “In the footsteps of Scott”.Details of his food provisions were: Chocolate, Butter, salami. That’s all. They removed the wrapping to reduce weight because they ate what they could tow on a sled. It took 90 days to get to the pole. I’m confident that they made this decision after some research.

    When we can say: “Good Night Irene” I might get together a comment on the above post but just now I’ve got some issues from being away for a few days: the local bear is back and I need to set up the electric fence; new dryer is sitting in the middle of the laundry and my pickup has low ATF.

    • Ken,

      Well, I believe you, but – chocolate, butter and salami? Maybe that’s our modern equivalent of whale blubber. It sounds perfectly awful, to be quite frank. Of course, in those conditions it might be just fine.

      Say “hi” to the bear for me. Black or brown? Does it have a name? It doesn’t eat goldfish, by any chance…? Enjoy getting settled back in.

      Linda

      • What you need are Calories and lots of them in cold conditions and working hard.

        Our bears are called “Black” and so they look but I have seen Cinnamon in the Okanagan.Years ago on the north end of this Island I worked in mineral exploration and we trained and named a bear that ate all our meat supply. We called him “Wilbur” and at some point radioed in that we needed more meat and a rifle. Wilbur got that meat as well and I abstained from the hunting event. Unfortunately the hunters killed Wilbur and we had a small ceremony. Bill, an old “Prospector”, wrote a small Poem:”Here lies Wilbur,Because He got Greedy,Six feet down,Gone to Seedy”

  5. Sometimes I wish I could leave the responsibilities to someone with a set jaw and white knuckles… Oh, that’s me now!

    • Claudia,

      Yep. The torch got passed while we weren’t looking. Not only that, good ol’ Jimmy even wrote a song about it. ;-)

      Linda

  6. Wow — that Didion quote is fabulous — it reminds me of our lake — and my “ladies of the lake” who remember the history of the area where our original cottage was. I’m hoping to interview her over Labor Day to be able to write the next level of the area history. Because we — her daughters and I — choose to claim it.

    I’m little familiar with the floods of which you write. But I can only imagine the terror of seeing what you saw and have those fragmented bits holding tight to your soul memory. I wonder if those who begin too late to flee hurricanes or other “weather” experience similar thoughts. I suspect so. But how wise to seek out the story later, when you are old enough to understand, process, and learn. And, I might add, share. Thank you.

    • jeanie,

      Mom, Dixie and I nearly were “too late” when we evacuated for Hurricane Rita. I simply couldn’t get her to move and finally said, “Get in the car, we are leaving NOW!” As it was, what should have been a three and a half-hour trip took fourteen, and it was only luck that we found gas along the way. (I still believe my great-great-grandfather was responsible for that – but that’s a story for another time.)

      When we arrived at our destination and began chatting with other people who’d made the same trip, the anxiety was of much the same quality as I remember from that childhood trip. People had been holding their breath the whole way, wondering if they’d arrive before some unseen, different disaster struck.

      When Ike came along, it was so different. I’d learned a variation on and old theme and my new mantra was, “evacuate early, and often”. These days, I get prepared for hurricanes in May. ;-)

      Linda

  7. Again, there’s so much to learn from a single post of yours… something I won’t find anywhere else. Just heard on the radio about Hurricane Irene on the East Coast. There’s so much devastation of late, how can we even protect ourselves and our land? And Didion, my heart went out to her… after reading her book The Year of Magical Thinking. I didn’t know she’d said something about reclaiming our sense of a place, so meaningful and true. Taking a bit further, I love the idea of reclaiming… time, space, and memories.

    • Arti,

      Reclaiming time, space, memories… For some reason, “Days of Heaven” came to mind immediately when I read those words. After a little thought, also “The King’s Speech”. They’re quite different films, but each in their own way reclaim a certain time and place. It occurs to me: reclaiming is not the same as reconstructing. Simple historical accuracy isn’t enough to revivify memory.

      I began reading Didion as an essayist. Her eye is unerring, and a few of her pieces from “The White Album” have become touchstones for me – particularly the one about Georgia O’Keeffe.

      As for protecting ourselves – sometimes the best thing to do is just leave – for hurricanes and floods, but for other things, as well. Certainly there are a lot of bridges that will be closed in the next day or so and a lot of ferries that will stop running. I hope there are plenty of “my dads” around to gauge for their families when to get out.

      Linda

  8. Linda,
    Just when I thought I’d be able to follow a straight line to my own writing, you got in the way. After finishing your utterly readable comment on my blog this morning, I had to come here. And I’m so glad I did.

    Pure pleasure, you said? I found it here too. So very well written,that I began to feel anxious for the whole lot of you. Wonderful story, graceful prose that rolled along like a river. In the space left by your newly-absent distractions, I very much hope you’ll write a lot more.

    • Deborah,

      Comments like yours – about prose that rolls along like a river – make every minute hour evening spent writing more than worthwhile.

      Now and then I think about a favorite quotation from Paul Graham, computer programmer extraordinaire and author of “Hackers and Painters”. He says, “Programs should be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.” I think the same thing holds true for us, except I’d rephrase a bit to say, “Prose should be written for people to read, and only incidentally for critics to dissect”. ;-)

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading, and yes, ma’am – I see manuscripts marching along to the horizon.

      Linda

  9. Hey Linda,
    You wrote about flooding and it rained in Texas. :)

    We made it through Irene. We lost power for a few minutes but it came right back. Wish everyone over here had been so lucky.

    • Kit,

      Sympathetic magic’s a wonderful thing. If we can just get the pump primed, we might get some more.

      I’m glad you got your power back. I’m afraid there are going to be some very surprised people north of you when this is all over. It’s always a problem here in Houston. People arrive who’ve never experienced a hurricane, and they just can’t conceive of what the aftermath will be like.

      Hope the morning doesn’t reveal too much havoc for your town to deal with.

      Linda

  10. This is you writing at your best ever, Linda, and a joy to read, in spite of the subject matter and it’s juxtaposition against Hurricane Irene. I turned on CNN Int’l the minute I got up this morning. Your $425 million then seems like a drop in the bucket to what the amount would be nowadays, of course.

    Thomas Hart (Benton). Now you really have my attention because my lineage has one! My grandpa Hart…never met by any of us because he was 70 when my dad was born, dying when Dad was 9. I don’t come across that name very often, mind you! I take extra glee in Benton’s fame and thank you for writing about him…and these memories that go back so far!

    • Ginnie,

      Oh, my! When you mention “memories that go back so far” you remind me of something I know – that I grew up in a world nearly gone. I suppose part of the reason I feel compelled to write about it has less to do with nostalgia than with values I consider important, and worth holding up.

      The “Hart” I knew, of course – but “Thomas”, as well? How wonderful! As you probably know, the artist Thomas Hart Benton was named after his great-uncle, the Missouri senator of the same name. I have a bit of a connection there, as Senator Benton’s son-in-law, John C. Frémont, was involved in the Homestead Acts, which opened up new territory for settlers, including some Nebraska soddie-dwelling ancestors of mine.

      And I have to add this, which I just discovered in Frémont’s wiki entry: “Frémont’s great-grandfather, Henry Whiting, was a half-brother of Catherine Whiting. She married John Washington, uncle of George Washington.”

      See? From a painter’s rendering of a 1951 flood to your grandpa to George Washington – if we could just get our noses out of Facebook and Jersey Shore, think what we could learn! ;-)

      Linda

  11. I agree with the previous comments that this is one great read, Linda. I love the way you took us along with you while you meandered along the river of your childhood memory. I always learn something about history from your posts and I hadn’t heard of Tom Benton.

    • dearrosie,

      It took me a good bit of looking around to confirm Thomas Hart Benton really was called “Tom” by family, students and so on. As so often happens, Ken Burns had the information – he did a PBS “American Stories” episode on Benton, and the website confirmed that he was known as “Tom”. I’d never heard him called anything other than his full, formal name, and it just seemed silly – so I took the familiar route!

      Glad you enjoyed the read. If I hadn’t seen news articles about the Sotheby’s auction on the web, it never would have gotten written. But when I realized that Benton and I were both in KC for the event – well, it just tickled me to death. ;-)

      Linda

  12. Interesting story about a part of the world I’ve never had much interest in… the flatlands don’t hold much for me. I love that painting. It has something of Dali in it somehow.

    • ian,

      No wonder your vacations are such a delight for you. I’d never really thought about northern Germany, but I see in your current post you describe it as “flatlands”. Of course everything’s relative. When I go back to Kansas and Iowa now, I think, “Good gosh, look at all these hills!” Life on the coastal prairie will do that to you.

      And you’re right – I’d not thought of the similarities, but as soon as you said “Dali”, I thought “of course”. And it’s even more obvious in some of his other work.

      Linda

  13. Linda–

    What a fantastic piece of writing! Your recollections of your family in the car bring them and the situation of the moment to life for me.

    I also loved the Didion quote and most likely will be using it myself sometime soon.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • redtreetimes,

      I’ll be using that quotation again myself sometime – it’s so rich, so absolutely true. I did discover I’ve had it placed in the wrong context – thinking it was in a forward to her book “The White Album”. In fact, it is from that book, but from one of the essays. I’ll have to go a-reading again to find the exact source.

      Truly, I don’t think I would have paid a bit of attention to Benton’s “Flood Disaster” if I hadn’t been sensitized to his work through your blog. I guess you get to be my muse on this one! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Linda

  14. You’re right, Linda. Benton’s painting is “a portrait of the scowling aftermath of every flood, every tornado, every hurricane or fire that afflicts us.” With just paint and a brush, he captured the surrealism we feel when order, years or decades in the making, turns into disorder in a matter of minutes. Your memories, and the words you used to convey them, do the very same.

    • bronxboy,

      “Surreal” is a good word. After Ike, a friend’s house was just gone. Nothing was left but slab and some pilings – well, that and a pile of stuff in the yard from other people’s homes. But up in the remains of their big oak hung her engagement pearls, draped there for all the world like a Christmas ornament. How could the homes be destroyed and the pearls not come unstrung? Who knows?

      Later, she laughed, saying, “We came unstrung, but not the pearls.” The truth is quite different, of course. They didn’t “come unstrung” at all, but still, I take her point. And isn’t it those little details that stay with us? It makes me wonder what Benton saw, in those days when he was living through the flood.

      Linda

  15. I always love reading your posts – I usually have to leave them until I have time to savor them. I had never (to my knowledge) heard of Thomas Hart Benton until we had to use one of his paintings (People of Chilmark) for a poetry prompt in July – now he keeps popping up all over!

    Go here if you’d like to read the silly poem his painting inspired.

    • Bug,

      That’s another of his paintings I’d not seen – the man was prolific, for sure. And I really enjoyed the poem – being able to capture the experience of “dropping the ball” in so few words isn’t silly, it’s skillful.

      And isn’t that just the way – every time I come across a new word or hear about something completely new, suddenly it’s everywhere. I’m not sure if we just get sensitized to it, or what. But it’s a real experience, and there’s surely nothing wrong with suddenly finding Tom Benton everywhere!

      Linda

  16. Hi Linda,

    I really enjoyed this story; very informative and of course I love the art angle.

    It is a good thing that natural disasters are captured for history; so hopefully we can learn from them.

    Thank you for another excellent read!

    Patti

    • Patti,

      I suspect the folks in NOLA & other parts of Louisiana are hoping tonight that some lessons have been learned – such a shame that they’re getting it again. But we all take our turn, I suppose – another month or so and we’ll be able to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief re: the hurricanes.

      When I think about your painting, I think of work that has some of the same directness and energy that Benton had. One of these days you’ll have more time to develop your art – at least we all hope so!

      Linda

      • Thank you so much about my art… I am not giving up on painting. I’ve been doing it off and on now for about 50 years! Somes times I go nearly 10 yrs without picking up a paint brush. But this time is different, I did not put everything “away” I still have my painting equipment, easel, pages of ideas, etc all ready to go in a moment’s notice. Even the last painting I never finished.. is
        still there on the easel waiting for me to return.. and I will…

        • We know you will, and when you decide it’s the right time, we’ll be there to cheer you on!

  17. Well, thank goodness that you and the family got out of that one, Linda. What an experience it must have been. Those images really do make a strong impression, and the painting has such a haunting quality to it.

    • Andrew,

      Well, I suppose the worst result would have been that we’d end up spending extra time with my aunt and uncle. We weren’t going to drown. I suspect now the biggest anxiety-producer for my dad (apart from the actual drive across the bridge) was getting out so he could get back to work. In his book, death was about the only excuse for not going to work – as long as you were sure it was permanent!

      Linda

  18. Excellent, as always, Linda. And despite the upsetting and all-too-frequent topic of flooding in our lives down the bayou, I love this painting, which never before had I heard of or laid eyes upon. Disasters, as natural as life and breath, will carry on giving us opportunity to overcome them, in whatever way we can best do so.

    • BW,

      Mom and I evacuated to Tyler for Ike. As it turned out, Ike came to visit anyway, and we had a pretty good period of 70-80 mph winds that felled a lot of trees and took out power for a while.

      That Sunday morning, I drove from Tyler to Nacogdoches, and was amazed to see the highway open. The “civilian chainsaw brigade” already had been out, clearing the roads and making it possible for the folks dealing with downed power lines, etc. to get to their work faster.

      I stopped for a cup of coffee in a gas station that had power, and was just standing, looking around, when a fellow next to me said, “Well, here we go again.” Isn’t that just it? When it comes to disasters the question isn’t “if” but “when”, and when they come, we dust off our coping skills and get after it.

      I suppose the key is to spend our time in between doing what we can to lessen the effects of what we know will come – wetland restoration and such does come to mind. ;)

      Linda

  19. Ah the great flood I have vivid memories of although I wasn’t born till the following spring. Curious as to what town the Maytag plant was in? Big fan of Fritz’s work. Cheese and beer.

    Morning is creeping up so I’ll be off to the bank and the lake soon.

    • blufloyd,

      My gosh, how nice to see you! And I’m just grinning away – not too many people in the world could put Fritz, beer and cheese together.

      The town is Newton, Iowa, and they’re still making that cheese. Big sign out by the highway. I can get it down here in Houston at a couple of the chains, and don’t you know I indulge from time to time.

      The town suffered when Whirlpool took over and closed the plants – big time. There was a special on 60 Minutes, maybe a year ago, documenting the woes. Things are turning around somewhat – I’m glad.

      I spent a couple days on Lake Sisseton in Fairmont while I was up your way. Now I know where our coots live in the summer. ;-)

      Linda


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