‘Big Ditch Mitch’ saved Wichita many times

For more than half a century. M.S. “Mitch” Mitchell has been Wichita’s hero, and he will continue to be that for decades to come.

You can’t go far in the history of Wichita without running across his name — “Big Ditch” Mitch Mitchell, the flood-control superintendent in the 1950s and a key figure in the success of the project that runs through Valley Center and west Wichita.

Mr. Mitchell died Saturday. He was 91 years old. Services are pending.

He was Windwagon Smith No. 10, a retired engineer and chairman of the Stormwater Management Advisory Board, Metropolitan Area Planning Commission chairman, one-time president of the Board of Park Commissioners, tennis player and friend to cats and dogs. He was a judge at local Sunflower Cluster dog shows.

“He saved this town,” said Fred Menefee, a friend and fellow Windwagon Smith. “The people of Sedgwick County, and especially Wichita, all up and down the river owe him a big ‘thank you’ for saving our homes and lives for all these years for what he did with the Big Ditch.”

Mr. Mitchell was born April 18, 1923, in Tulsa. He attended Texas Technological College and Wichita State University as a civil engineering undergraduate.

During his stint of service in the U.S. Air Force, he taught survey and drafting classes. After World War II, he surveyed most of northern Africa looking for military bases covered in sand.

Mr. Mitchell served as the Flood Control and Maintenance supervisor for the City-County Flood Control office from 1958 to 1963 and was assistant superintendent of public works maintenance and flood control superintendent from 1964 to March of 1979.

He was a consultant to engineers, architects, builders, developers, attorneys, drainage districts, homeowners and governments.

“He was and is a legend,” said former Wichita Mayor Bob Knight. “He will continue to be. He is the repository of information and what has happened in this city for the past 70 years. He never lost his enthusiasm or support for things. He was part of the golden era of Wichita’s talent pool. We owe him a debt of gratitude, but most people today don’t understand the significance of the Big Ditch — unless they are old enough to remember.”

Before the Big Ditch

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

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

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 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 route 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 downtown 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.

Building a ditch

From that report grew the idea for the Big Ditch. Mr. Mitchell was persuaded by the flood control’s first director, Calvin Schofield, to come for just six weeks to help out.

Of course, Mr. Mitchell stayed long past that.

But in the 1950s, “Big Ditch” Mitchell was not a popular fellow. His life was threatened as he surveyed land for where he thought the ditch should go. The Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control channel, which cost $20 million, is a series of floodways and diversion canals designed to protect against flooding of the Arkansas River, the Little Arkansas River, Cowskin Creek, Chisholm Creek and the Big Slough.

“The surveying was done in a hostile environment,” Mr. Mitchell was quoted as saying. “Farmers were so opposed to it they would plow out the survey stakes as soon as we turned our backs. But after the 1957 flood and the project saved the city $10 million , some of those farmers had become believers.”

He was shot and cursed at.

He persisted.

The purpose of the Big Ditch is to allow water from the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers to flow down their natural waterways while shunting excess water around the city. When it was finished in 1959, the Big Ditch was one of the largest diversion projects in the nation at 18 miles long with 50 miles of connecting channels, 100 miles of levees and 150 control structures.

Dedicating a park

Wes Galyon, president of the Wichita Area Builders Association, said the city of Wichita and the Wichita Area Builders Association will dedicate the Arkansas River Park near 21st and east of West Street to the efforts of the Big Ditch and the legacy of Mitch Mitchell.

On the display will be the story of Mr. Mitchell and one of the most prominent families in west Wichita — the McLeans, for whom McLean Boulevard and school are named.

The longtime matriarch of the McLean family, Elizabeth Anna McLean, who died in 2000 but developed the Benjamin Hills neighborhood and named it after her son who died in World War II, reportedly called Mr. Mitchell the first time she heard water roaring through the Control Structure IV where I-235 passes now. The Benjamin Hills neighborhood borders some of the Big Ditch.

“Mr. Mitchell, you opened that structure and the water started coming through there last night,” she reportedly told him.

Mr. Mitchell tried to field the call by telling her he knew and that the bank on the structure was under contract to have riprap, the stone used to wrap shorelines.

“That’s not what I’m calling about,” McLean said. “It’s the noise — sounds like the Rocky Mountains.”

“Whew,” Mr. Mitchell would tell people.

He thought it was going to be another complaint.

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner