III The Great Floods of the Spring of 1873
E. J. Babcock

Old settlers are often asked why the storms and the floods of pioneer days were more serious and more tragic than in later years. Great storms and floods, they tell us, are nothing uncommon, even in these later days. Why the interest, then in these early ones? I answer, that now we are prepared for them, with better buildings and improvements and built in safer locations. Now we know what to expect, then we did not. Now we have near neighbors, and good roads and bridges, then we had none. Now we have telephones, then they were unknown. Now we have other property, goods and effects with which to repair and replace. Then we often had none other. Now we have railroads and near towns where all kinds of supplies can be had. Then, the nearest railroad and city was Grand Island, fifty miles away, with no public road for most of the distance, and not a single bridge, except one over the South Loup River near St. Paul.

These conditions often made an unexpected storm a real and living calamity, long to be remembered.

And so now in the new settlement, winter had gone, the big blizzard was past. Now, we said to ourselves, we have nothing more to fear, except Indians. After all, our good old dugout, even if it could be buried in absolute darkness for three long days and nights by snow, was now light and safe. Nothing more could trouble our night’s rest, nor our work by day. Even during the blizzard, we had kept warm and dry. Now we knew our sturdy neighbors had chosen for their pastor, a warm and dry abode. The weather was warm and dry. If Nebraska was not such a dry country, if it could only rain and start the new grass, all would be merry as a wedding bell.

And sure enough, all things come to those who wait. It has commenced to rain this spring afternoon. Light at first, then harder and harder all the afternoon; but we were dry and safe for once, and all rejoiced in the needed rain. Toward night, the creek, a few rods away, commenced to rise. By dark, the banks four or five rods wide at the top, and about twenty feet deep, were half full and the water still rising. It was great fun to run out through the rain and watch the black whirling and eddying water.

At bedtime the banks were full, but we were surely safe because, even if it continued to rise, it would soon spread out over the entire flat or first bottom, which was ten or fifteen rods wide. Soon this happened, and water trickled into the three foot trench, cut for a doorway into the dugout. So father told me to take a spade and make a low dam across the narrow passageway. I then threw up a few inches of dirt, packing and trampling it down. Very soon the water was up to the top of my little dam, and taking my spade, I built the dam still higher. But (with) the water still rising, father came and soon had built a good wide substantial dam about two feet high, tamping it and tramping it well.

The water had now spread out over the entire flat, and was running with a strong current, which father said must soon carry it away. Harder and harder however came the rain, and still the water raised, and with it father raised the dam. He was now becoming uneasy and worried. It was nearly eleven o’clock. Our team, which after the blizzard, had been kept at John Sheldon’s was three and a half miles away. Our two nearest neighbors, Dr. Badger and Bert Davis, both lived across the creek, and could under no possibility be reached.

We were now surrounded by this flood of water, the draw or ravine in front of the dugout being also filled with water. Hurriedly, we built the dam up a foot higher till father could take the table, and a straw tick filled with straw out over the dam to where a big dry goods box stood, placing the straw tick on top of the table and box for a roof. Coming back, he feverishly placed two heavy board trunks on top of the bed, one on top of the other, and placed sister Myra, three years old, on top of the trunk. Then telling me to watch her, he took baby George, about a year and a half old, in his arms, stepped onto a chair, from the chair to the top of the dam, and from the dam to the solid bank, and followed by Aunt Retta, went through the pouring rain to the box, and left them. He got back just as the dam gave way, and the water was pouring into the dugout. The lamp had been set on a high shelf, and I remember yet very distinctly how Myra screamed as the water broke through before father returned, and how we waded, and slipped and fell, and finally crawled out over the slippery bank, and how I saw the two trunks, then turned bottom side up, with all their contents, whirling around in a mad eddy of water, mud and debris.

When father went back the water was just up to his upper vest pocket. For nearly an hour yet he worked gathering up first his most valuable legal, business and family papers and records, old day books, ledgers and legislative documents from the water, then clothing, bedding, provisions and other personal effects, carrying and towing some to our rendezvous on the bank and piling some on shelves and on tops of boxes placed on the bedsteads and stove.

All the long night the rain fell in torrents. Aunt Retta, baby George and Myra sat in the dry goods box under the straw tick. Father and I sat under the table. Brother Art happened to be staying at Grandfather Bristol’s for the night and did not get home till morning, missing a part of the experience. All night long, however, vivid flashes of lightning would disclose the dark, ominous and raging water about 20 feet away as we sat in silence, since the incessant roar of the waters drowned our voices if we assayed to talk. Even when daylight at last came no escape, or fire or food was available till father had gone to John Sheldon’s, three and a half miles away, and back for a team.

But what was then a rather strenuous and somewhat dangerous experience comes back to me now as a very pleasant and agreeable remembrance of pioneer days. Such floods were much more common in earlier days than now, due to the fact that our prairie would burn over in the fall and winter leaving nothing to absorb or check the flow of the water. Now grass, crops, shrubs, trees, forests and plowed fields take up and absorb the water and check its flow until much of it settles into to soil.