Was It the Flood of 1953?
The Wapsi and Maquoketa River Basins
Although the caption accompanying the picture of the Ralph Wood home in Olin identifies the year as 1953, that was not, according to the records, one of the worst years for flooding on the Wapsipinicon River in the twentieth century. But then rivers and streams can flash flood quicker than you can say—well—Wapsipinicon.
J.V.B. Wells of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, directed a 1959 study of the US floods of 1953. Among the most dramatic floods that year were ones that occurred on June 7, 1953 in northwest Iowa. O’Brien County saw a flood described as a record in settlement history of the territory. Seven to eleven inches of rain fell in parts of that county and surrounding territory. The Wells study reports on the Minnesota, Floyd, Little Sioux, and Racoon rivers, and the West and East Forks of the Des Moines River. But not on the Wapsipinicon and Maquoketa that cross through Jones County.
A 1971 report from the Geological Survey focuses on the “Floods in the Wapsipinicon River Basin, Iowa.” It examines the 338-mile main stem of the river as well as its six tributaries noting that the Wapsi’s river basin is long and narrow, and, above Anamosa, the basins of its major tributaries are also. Below Anamosa the tributaries follow a more typical dendritic pattern. In all, the basin drains 2540 square miles, almost all of it in the northeast quarter of Iowa. When this 1971 report was researched 703 people lived in Olin.
Harlan Schwob, producer of this 1971 report, explains that little is known about flooding in the basin before gaging stations. Purportedly, there was a flood in 1892 in Stone City with the largest discharge known on any stream in the basin up to 1971. It probably occurred, writes Schwob, in late June or early July. The first stream gaging station at Stone City, the first in the county, was not installed until 1903, and it was removed in 1914 when a dam was built four miles downstream at Anamosa. No gages were installed in the basin from 1914 until June of 1933 when a gage began operation at Independence. From 1933 until 1971 seventeen gages were established.
The most notable flood of the period, according to the gages then in place, was one caused by heavy rains in the basin from June 12 to 15 in 1947.
The 1909 History of Jones County reports on three nineteenth-century floods following settlers’ presence in the territory. On June 7, 1851 hours of rain were said to produce flooding on the flat land extending from either side of the Maquoketa River. Joseph Clark and his family who had made their home on the bank of Kitty Creek woke to water in their cabin, the fire snuffed out and the firewood floating around the room. The Western Stage Company that ran passengers and mail from Dubuque to Iowa City and back could not cross the river with their coaches. Passengers and mail had to be rowed across.
The same was true on August 1, 1858. That summer the west end of the wooden bridge over the Maquoketa dropped on the river’s bank, and the planks of its three spans floated downstream on their way to the Mississippi River.
On June 28 and 29, 1865 another flood swept a bridge on the Maquoketa downstream. But a second wooden bridge, this one on military road, survived because residents had anchored it with ropes and chains to the cotton wood trees on the river’s banks.
Historian R.M. Corbit describes all three of these floods as the result of heavy rainfall for a day or two with measured accumulations of more than three but less than five inches.
Sources: SHSI: Disasters-Natural-Floods photos; on-line: “Floods of June 1953 in northwest Iowa,” 1959; “Floods in the Wapsipinicon River Basin, Iowa,” 1971.