The Floods of Dallas County
Dallas county, Iowa
In March 1849, the snow began to melt in Dallas County. The winter had had no lack of precipitation, which, when the snow converted to water, was too much for the North Raccoon and Des Moines rivers and their tributaries to handle. The water “swell[ed] the rivers until far beyond their banks and well up on the bluffs on either side, thus rendering it impossible to cross them, and shutting the settlers in from communication with those living on the other side, for weeks and months.” The spring rains provided the county no relief from flooding until July.
The floods posed many challenges, but for the people of Dallas County, the biggest was getting to the mill. The county’s horse mill was built by Samuel Miller, “being, perhaps, the first one of the kind in the county,” and it opened on Christmas Eve, 1846. It’s opening on this day “afforded an occasion of a great Christmas jollification the next day among the settlers of that vicinity.”
The mill was nick-named “Stump Mill” because “it had one small set of burrs prepared and fastened on a stump.” It was “a regular old-fashioned ‘corn-cracker’ run by horse power.”
In 1848 the mill was sold to Buel Lathrop, who converted it into a water mill on Hickory creek. Lathrop was a devout Mormon, and in the 1879 History of Dallas County, the historian claims that Lathrop’s commitment to his religion led to the mill’s downfall. The historian’s accusation goes as follows: “[Lathrop] seems to have been too negligent and too much occupied in advocating Mormonism to accomplish very much as a pioneer miller, so that his mill soon ran down and stopped grinding altogether.”
Mormons are brought up in the history of Dallas County often because at this time the Mormon settlers were making their way across the U.S. While Mormons may not have been located within the present-day borders of Dallas County, in 1848 the county’s political borders went all the way to the Missouri River, where Mormons did live at that time.
Mormons had made their way to Iowa after their founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Nauvoo, Illinois. In Iowa, the Mormons were met with less resistance. In the 1907 Past and Present of Dallas County, Iowa, Prof. R. F. Wood writes, “In the persecutions of the Mormons Iowa did not join. The people of the Hawkeye state have a liberal tolerance for different religious beliefs.”
During the flood of 1849, it is unclear in the histories of Dallas County whether or not it was Buel Lathrop’s water mill that settlers were struggling to get to. What is clear is that many decided not to cross the streams to get there. Instead, they relied on their supplies of “hog and hominy” to get them through the spring.
However, “Sometimes very risky, and generally fruitless, attempts were made at crossing during the high waters, by the more adventurous and daring ones. A temporary raft was made of logs or home-made canoes and dug-outs fastened together, on which the grist and wagons were taken across, piece by piece, and then the oxen caused to swim to the other shore, when all things were put in running order, and the mill-goers moved onwards on their journey.”
Just two years later, the Flood of 1851 struck Dallas County, and was “as great, if not greater in extent and amount of damages” than the flood of 1849. This flood affected both the Des Moines and the Raccoon Rivers, swelling the former to a width of two to four miles in some places. One description of the land says that “for some time the earth’s surface was like an immense sea of mud and water, rather than like terra firma.”
Dallas County’s floods continue into the 21st century. As recently as June 24th and 25th, 2015, Dallas Center was host to flash floods resulting from over four inches of rain in short order. Resident Daniel Riatt said his basement had four to four and a half feet of water in it. Sandy Riatt, of the same residence, said she had talked to the city about improving drainage in their area, but was told it was too expensive. Heavy rainfall during a short period of time is the main cause of flooding. Even in the twenty-first century, floods can still result in some “very risky attempts” to get on with the business of life amidst a lot of dangerous water.