The Missouri River Flood of 1881

Missouri River flooding at Omaha in 1881, NSHS RG2341-898 (right).

Snowfall in the winter of 1880-81 was unusually heavy, not only in Nebraska but in the states to the east, with the first snow falling during the last week in October. From January through most of March there was particularly heavy snow, and the primitive roads became impassable. Railroads were blocked with snow and could be cleared only with difficulty. Farmers found that taking care of their livestock was a full-time job.

Then, during the last week in March, the temperature climbed. Water from melting snow in the Dakotas, north of Nebraska, poured into the Missouri River. On the night of March 29 the water began to rise in the town of Niobrara in Knox County. It rose two to seven feet and covered the first floors of houses with water. The cellars were submerged, and furniture and other goods were ruined. Horses and cattle were lost. The following summer the town was moved to a plateau about twenty feet above the floodplain.

Green Island, a Cedar County village of 150 people, was located on the Nebraska bottom, opposite Yankton, South Dakota. On Tuesday, March 29, the water began to rise and on the following day, a gorge of ice above Green Island broke. In two hours, every house except one was swept away. Many residents had been warned of the danger and moved their goods and livestock to higher ground. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

Missouri River flooding at Omaha in 1881. NSHS RG2341-337 (left).

Similar instances occurred all the way down the Missouri River. On April 23 at Omaha, according to the Omaha Bee, the waters had risen to a height of nearly twenty-four feet above the low-water mark. The waters began to recede on April 27, signaling the start of cleanup from a flood in which few lives were lost but in which property damage was heavy.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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