The museum’s Water/Ways exhibit got an unplanned extension thanks to the events of the last year, which means it is still on display — at least for now. Stop by the museum at 530 N. Adams between 1 and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday to learn more about the history of Geary County’s rivers and major floods.
After a century of settlement in Geary County, it became clear that major flooding posed a serious risk to both lives and infrastructure, destroying countless bridges, ferries, homes, farms, livestock, and more over the years. The solution: Milford Dam.
While the flood-prone Republican River has always been a prime site for large-scale damming projects, talk of a dam near Milford became serious in the 1940s.
It was 1948 when a committee of Junction City Chamber of Commerce members, along with the mayor of Milford, visited the federal Board of Engineers to request a dam near Milford on the Republican River. In their address to the board, the committee pointed to the seasonal flooding of railway tracks and highways in Geary County and the threat of flooding to farmers to support their request. Acknowledging that the Board of Engineers had already recommended construction of the dam, the committee stated that, “In appearing here before you today it is not our purpose to provide factual information regarding rainfall, flood stages, losses or other similar information.”
Instead, the committee warned of what might come.
“The history does not say anything about the worry over floods which may never develop. Hardly a year passes that the Smoky Hill, Republican and Kaw rivers do not several times reach a point where it is touch-and-go as to whether or not there will be a disastrous flood. ... The greatest flood in the history of this area occurred in 1903,” the committee wrote. “Yet studies by the army engineers show that ... the proposed dam at Milford would have controlled the Republican River floodwaters in 1903.”
By May 1949, the Daily Union reported that “The Milford dam proposal, under consideration for the past several years, is slated to come before the House public works committee.”
The proposal met with opposition from some residents, local groups and politicians, including Congressman and Kansas Gov. William H. Avery. However, the flood of 1951 convinced many the dam was necessary, and the 1954 Flood Control Act authorized funding for the Milford and Tuttle Creek Dams.
Rumors flew as the dam project moved forward, and people in Milford wanted to know what to expect. “Knowing that Milford must be relocated or abandoned a city when the Milford dam is built,” a group of residents and city officials traveled to Republican City, Neb., in September 1960 to learn about their community’s relocation experience. Republican City was relocated in 1951-52 due to construction of the Harlan County Dam.
The Daily Union reported that the group was “impressed” by the visit. “In general they asked about business conditions, and whether or not the individuals were happy or dissatisfied as a result of their decision to relocate Republican City.
“Everyone in the Milford group reached the same decision that the citizens of Republic[an] City are happy they relocated. It was said they feel they have much more in their new town than they ever had before. They also pointed out errors and difficulties which can be avoided by the citizens of Milford should they decide to relocate.”
Early in 1961, the Kansas Senate authorized funding for the dam, and on May 6, 1961, Milford residents voted “by an overwhelming margin” of 97-8 to relocate the town site. They chose the site — north and adjacent to the original site — by a vote of 72-25. The “south site” was the other option, located near the Pleasant View or Halfway school. Thirteen voters said they were not willing to relocate to the new site.
As relocation plans moved forward, the Daily Union sought to put to rest some of the most troubling rumors circulating about the project. Among these was the concern that “Everyone living in the reservoir area must move before the dam is stated.” As the Daily Union wrote, this was “definitely not true.” The government planned to compensate property owners for the fair market value of their property, a process that would take place throughout the several years of construction to come. Furthermore, “some will be allowed to remain until the land is needed for clearing operations in the latter stages of construction of the dam.”
There were also concerns that the cemetery would be desecrated and that the government would sell cabin sites along the water line. The newspaper assured readers that the cemetery would be located to a new site by a qualified organization after a competitive bidding process, and that cabins would not be built without purchasing land from local landowners. A new cemetery was completed by the end of 1964, and remains took a few more years to relocate.
The newspaper also put to rest the rumor that “There will be a big lake for fishing and recreation by next year.” As the year was 1961 and the dam was not completed until 1967, the newspaper responded, “Well, hardly.”
The first house was relocated to the new Milford town site in 1963. It was owned by Richard Taylor, who was born in Milford in 1901 and later farmed in Riley for many years. Taylor purchased it from another local man, who had purchased it from the government — as the government’s land acquisition program worked at the time, the government paid market value to local property owners, then sold property to willing buyers.
With the Milford Dam project well underway, opposition shifted to other local dam projects. In February 1965, Hayes B. Beck, president of Lyons Creek Watershed Joint District No. 41, criticized the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce’s water resources council for endorsing local dam projects at Woodbine and Lyons Creek.
The State Water Resources Board had previously advised against the dam projects, in large part due to opposition by Beck’s association.
“Council members put on one of the most heartless performances I have ever seen,” Beck said. “They ripped those Water Resources Board people to pieces. It was similar to an elephant and a mouse in bitter battle.”
Beck vowed to continue fighting the dam.