To understand the battle at Tuttle Creek you need to know just how bad the flood of 1951 was in Kansas.
There’s an amazing British Pathe newsreel (https://youtu.be/FTXV9plm7ck) that was filmed in 1951 after pounding rain caused flood waters to sweep down the Kansas River from near Manhattan and into Kansas City, swamping Emporia, Salina and other parts of the state.
The film is dramatic. Cars float by in Topeka, rail cars disappear under water in Kansas City, dozens are rescued by boat in Manhattan. And it’s right near Manhattan that our flood story turns contentious, a little dangerous, and decidedly Hollywood.
By all accounts the Blue Valley of Kansas was happy and peaceful. It was not only beautiful but also had some of the most productive farm land in Kansas. By 1951, some families had been farming there for three generations.
The valley gets its name from the Big Blue River. Its headwaters are in Nebraska, and it flows south until it meets the Kansas River right near Manhattan. It’s part of the greater Missouri River basin.
While that was ground zero for the ’51 flood, the fact is flooding in a number of river basins around Kansas had been a problem the federal government had been fretting about for a long time.
After years of research, interupted by World War II, the government came up with something called the Pick-Sloan plan. It was named after Lewis Pick and William Sloan, both men with roots in the Army Corp of Engineers.
It was a massive plan, calling for 107 dams, 1,500 miles of protective levees, 4.7 million acres of irrigation systems, and 1.6 million kilowatts of electric power thrown in to boot, all at a staggering cost of $200 million. The project today would cost $2.7 billion.
That investment, the government said, would prevent the kind of devastating floods that swept down the Kaw in 1951. Those floods killed seventeen people, and a half million more were displaced. It caused almost a billion dollars in damage. Some people called July 13th, 1951, the day the waters started to rise, Black Friday.
With all the devastation, you’d think everyone would want to try and control the rivers to mitigate flooding. But in one part of Kansas, just the opposite happened.
“The Tuttle Creek Story” is an amazing bit of propaganda filmmaking financed by the people of the Blue Valley as they fought the federal government’s plan to dam up Tuttle Creek and create the Tuttle Creek Reservoir.
In the end, of course, the dam would be built and the reservoir is now the second biggest artificial lake in Kansas. Ten towns disappeared in the process and some 3,000 people lost their homes, farms and businesses.
The people did not go down without a fight, though. They hired a Hollywood producer named Charles M. Peters to produce "The Tuttle Creek Story". Peters would also produce a similar land rights film in San Diego with famed directors Cecil B. DeMill and Frank Capra.
"The Tuttle Creek Story" artfully contrasts the gorgeous fields and down home looks of the Blue Valley residents, with ominous marching boots, made up scare headlines and dark music. The movie wants you to believe the federal government is invading this bucolic valley for some nefarious but undefined purpose.
There are reports at the time of some residents who went to work for the corp being harassed and some tense moments between residents of the Army Corp.
It wasn’t obvious how the Blue Valley residents found movie producer Charles Peters, there seems to be no documents or news stories pointing in that direction. But then we stumbled across a movie called "The Fallbrook Story", with an introduction by Cecil B. DeMill of all people.
The Fallbrook Story involves water rights near San Diego when the federal government moved in to gobble up land to build Camp Pendleton, the massive Marine Corp base. The film was directed by Frank Capra in 1952, just a year before "The Tuttle Creek Story", and produced by Peters.
They sure feel the same.
"The Tuttle Creek Story" is not 100 percent propaganda. The residents also suggest other ways to control flooding. Stop the water where it falls, the film preached.
But. the dam is built, of course, and in 1963 the lake starts to fill. And more than 50 years later, it turns out the Tuttle Creek warriors maybe were right.
Countless millions of people have swam, boated and fished in the reservoirs created by the Sloan-Pick plan in Kansas. But half a century later they need some tending too, some very expensive tending to.
Right now the state is spending $25 million at the John Redmond reservoir near Burlington to dredge it of silt. That reservoir supplies water to the Wolf Creek Nuclear power plant.
Rex Buchanan, who runs the Kansas Geological Survey says most of these lakes will need dredging so the silt doesn’t fill in big chunks of the reservoirs and dramatically lower the water capacity.
If this story reminds you of, say, Cliven Bundy in a stand off with the Bureau of Land Management, well, I thought that too. And while there is a clear distrust of the Army Corp, the notion of citizens armed with rifles staring down government agents just doesn’t seem possible in 1950s Kansas.
"The Tuttle Creek Story" had its premiere in Randolph, Kansas on September 18th, 1953. It showed continually in two schools from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Some 6,000 people saw it on that day.
The Blue Valley residents did manage to stop the project for a couple of years. But in the end no film and no amount of community organizing could keep ten Kansas towns from disappearing to the bottom of the Tuttle Creek Reservoir.