Ad Astra: Idea for Big Ditch grew after Wichita had sustained series of major floods

In the days before sump pumps and the Big Ditch, there were big floods.

Sometimes the devastating floodwaters would sweep through downtown Wichita and Riverside without hesitation.

In recent weeks, as much of Kansas has received torrential rains, Wichitans have largely remained safe and dry. But it wasn’t always that way.

Wichita was hardest hit by the waters of the Arkansas River, the Little Arkansas River and the Cowskin and Chisholm creeks in 1877, 1904, 1916, 1923, 1944, 1951 and 1955.

The floods came as no surprise: Wichita was built on a floodplain from Hillside to Ridge Road. Some early settlers referred to it simply as swampland.

In 1877, The Eagle reported on floodwaters in the Occidental Hotel at 300 N. Main: “The guests stood on the chairs and sofas in the parlor and caught fish. The water stood over a foot deep in the hotel. Boats were run up Main Street to about Third Street.”

The floodwaters in downtown Wichita were so swift in July 1904 that a rope was stretched across Second and Main to help people cross the street. According to Craig Miner in “Wichita: The Magic City,” the Arkansas River was 7 feet above flood stage after the city received 11 inches of rain in just four hours.

What hastily built dikes there were didn’t hold. Marsh Murdock, founding editor of The Eagle, wrote of the 1904 flood: “Horrid stenches brewed, streets washed out and everybody inconvenienced.”

Wichitans coped with the floodwaters the best they could by climbing into canoes and boats or forcing horses and mules to swim murky waters as they traveled from one end of town to the other.

In 1923, more than 18 inches of rain fell on Wichita from May 15 to June 15. More than 600 blocks were underwater, and the city was once again flooded – mostly along what is now the canal and in north Wichita.

One of Wichita’s worst floods occurred in 1944, when more than 100 rivers were swollen throughout Kansas and Missouri after a summer storm brought 75 mph winds and hail. As the floodwaters came rushing through Wichita, more than 5,000 people were left temporarily homeless.

The Forum auditorium was filled with refugees, and the Red Cross and Salvation Army fed the homeless.

That spring, Wichita was flooded three times in 11 days. It prompted the Wichita City Commission to appoint a flood control committee.

From its report grew the idea for the Big Ditch, which was completed in 1959.