If The Creeks Don’t Rise!

Posted 01/08/04

By Keith Horton

 It was about four in the afternoon of Friday, July 13, 1951, and three of us, Virgel Walstrom, Bud Spannuth and myself, are walking on the Intercity Viaduct connecting Kansas City, Missouri, to its sister city on the Kansas side of the state line. We were spellbound looking at the vast ocean of floodwater beneath us. The water, at a depth of at least 20 feet, was coursing through and around buildings and railroad cars as we walked along.

Pigs and cattle from the nearby inundated stockyards were frantic amid the loose lumber and trash that was floating and swirling along. In the distance we could see livestock trying to find a haven on the roofs of low buildings or even on the tops of boxcars -- wherever they could. When we had gone to work that morning it was with some trepidation that something drastic might happen that day. Floodwaters from the Kansas River had overflowed parts of Topeka and Lawrence, and the crest was heading toward Kansas City.

We were working at the TWA Overhaul Base, which was then located on Fairfax Airport in Kansas City, Kansas. The Missouri River flowed around the north and east sides of the airport but there was a strong dike that was holding that river in check. The Kansas River, or the Kaw as we called it, was to be the flood-maker, but it wasn't expected to cause any problem for Fairfax Airport.

An hour or two after lunch we had been told that traffic conditions were getting very bad and that we had better depart for home. There were four of us, counting the driver of our car pool that day, and we indeed found traffic badly tied up. There was a unanimous decision to wait an hour or so in a nearby tavern, after which we three riders decided to start walking across the viaduct while the driver got into his car and tried to work through the traffic. He finally caught up with us when we had walked nearly half way across the viaduct.

My arrival home was late and my wife was glad to see me, as we had not communicated since I had told her four or five hours earlier that we were leaving work. In the afternoon she had been out shopping and had seen a huge cloud of black smoke rising in the northeast sky. This was smoke from a fire in the vicinity of 31st and Roanoke in Kansas City, Missouri where some oil storage tanks had been damaged by the floodwaters and a large fire had resulted.

The news on the radio the next morning (we had no television in those days) told of vast flooding and much damage. It also told that floodwaters had gotten into Fairfax Airport and that there was about twelve feet of water in TWA’s Overhaul Base. While that was disappointing, it was even worse to hear that floodwaters had gotten into the city water plant and that all water distribution had been shut off. That meant no water for drinking, cooking, washing and flushing the toilet. We could deal with the drinking and cooking problem by using bottled water from the grocery store (as long as the supply held out) but not with the toilet situation. A friend living in Leawood, Kansas informed us, however, that there was a creek running under Leawood Boulevard at about 93rd street that had lots of water in it. So this created a twice-a-day drive with several empty buckets to that creek and back home with water we could pour into the toilet tank. With judicious control of the flush valve our toilet needs were met.

When we went back to work about a week later there were many jobs awaiting us. While much work was assigned to cleaning and reconditioning the many machines that had been covered by water, with nearly every machine having an electric motor that needed to be reconditioned. I was assigned to see that the motors were sent to appropriate places in Kansas City and to keep track of them to assure the appropriate machines were returned to TWA in good time. That assignment lasted about four weeks as there were over 150 motors involved.

Of course, the airplanes out on the line that were flyable were flown away before the water came in, but there were several planes still outside and in the hangars that got pretty well soaked. Many, many hours were spent cleaning and restoring them. Probably the worst job of the whole clean-up process was to get someone to go into the refrigerator room in the dining building just south of the hangars and haul out the stinking collection of spoiled meat -- and it really did stink!

With the overhaul Base out of commission, the work of keeping the airline supplied with serviceable spare parts and engines was farmed out to several of the larger TWA stations on the system. I recall that several engineers were assigned to CHI, LGA and LAX to provide manpower and technical assistance to the troops on the line.

Things eventually got back to normal, but the event will never be forgotten by everyone involved in an almost superhuman effort to keep the TWA’s head above water and maintain safe, reliable service to the passengers, shippers and operating crews who depended on us.

Keith Horton (1941-1983) served with Technical Services in Maintenance, Engineering and Field Maintenance at MKC and MCI.

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