The Flood of 1947

By 1947, the Bottoms had already been subjected, on several occasions, to sudden and devastating floods. At the low-lying point of convergence between the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers, the Bottoms was the site of concentrated industry and business, a hub of transportation, and most important, home to many working-class people. In 1887, 1896, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1918, heavy rains caused the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Rivers to exceed their banks and spill into the Bottoms, forcing the evacuation of families, an interruption of business, and a suspension of rail services.

Images from just a few of Battle Creek's many floods

Adams & Smith destroyed by the 1896 flood.
The Michigan Central yards in the 1904 flood.
The Bottoms in the 1908 flood.
South Jefferson St. in the flood of 1918.

Extent of the 1947 flood. [Click on image for larger view]

As those that preceded it, the flood that began on April 5, 1947, came suddenly and with little warning, even if flood conditions had been ripening for weeks. Throughout March of 1947, the region around Battle Creek had experienced unusually heavy snowstorms and low temperatures. As a result, heavy rains on April 2 fell upon frozen ground. Rather than evaporating or absorbing into the ground, rainwater, mixed with residual snow, drained directly into the swelling Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Rivers. At approximately noon on April 5, the day before Easter Sunday, the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers spilled over their banks and onto several streets, including Southwest Capital, Liberty, Hamblin, and McCamly.

On the afternoon of April 5, few people in the Bottoms realized that a serious flood was approaching. As water began moving down various streets, many assumed that rain from earlier in the week had overfilled the sewer pipes. Others assumed that the fire department was flushing hoses.

In his account of April 5, Fred Morris captured the unexpected and rapid nature of flooding in the Bottoms. On April 5, a young Morris and his brother were returning home from the Rex Theater when they sighted water gathering around the Grand Trunk Station and Michigan Carton. As many children and adolescents, Morris and his brother were exited at the prospect of playing in the water. “We said, oh neat, we can wade the water,” Morris recalled. [] “And loe and behold, the water followed us home.”

By late afternoon, most people in Battle Creek had heard radio reports about rising waters and realized, as Melvin Evans put it, [] that the “flood was headed towards the Bottoms.” By 10 p.m., flood water several feet deep was moving down Washington Street and engulfing houses in the Bottoms. At midnight, as water began pouring into basements throughout the Bottoms, the Fire and Police Departments, with the help of volunteers, started evacuating people from their homes, using the hill leading to Upton Avenue as a docking point for rescue boats.

In most cases, evacuees stayed with relatives living in areas of Battle Creek unaffected by the flood. In other cases, flood victims sought assistance from the numerous voluntary organizations that mobilized to provide shelter and supplies for displaced people. On April 5, the Red Cross established a disaster relief committee, as well as several shelters that remained in operation for 12 days. On April 5, the Hamblin Community Center also opened a temporary relief station, where many evacuated families spent the night sleeping in chairs and on the floor. The following day, staff members at the overcrowded Community Center began referring flood victims to shelters established by local churches, including the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, First Congregational, Tabernacle Church, First Presbyterian, and Mt. Zion, AME. Between April 5 and April 19, Percy Jones Hospital supplied local shelters with blankets, mattresses, and cots. At shelters, volunteer nurses from Grey Ladies and Nurses Aide Corps provided around-the-clock attention to individuals needing assistance. Individuals and businesses throughout Battle Creek also donated food, clothing, towels and other necessary to flood victims.

1947 Red Cross Flood Report[Click on image for larger view]

In the week following April 5, industrial production and business in the Bottoms came to a virtual standstill. Waters in the Bottoms reached a maximum depth, according to some accounts, at the intersection of Liberty and Washington. Photographs of nearly submerged cars suggest that, near the Ralston-Purina plant, water was almost five feet deep. On the first day of the flood, some business owners stacked sandbags in front of their storefronts. In most cases, sandbags provided little defense against the flood, and water filled the first floors of many businesses. At the Goss Printing Co., a foot of water forced employees to remove desk and file cabinet drawers to prevent damage to paper records. For almost one week, factories in flooded areas remained idle, and many businesses in the Bottoms remained closed. With the Michigan Central yards partially submerged and the Grand Trunk Railway surrounded by water, train service was infrequent at best.

Flood waters reach Bullock's Sundries, at S.W. Capital.
Goss Printing payroll department gets inundated.
Ralston-Purina, with flood waters at their peak.

Fortunately, the currents of movingwater in streets in the Bottoms were fairly weak, and the flooding caused little structural damage to businesses and residential homes. Nevertheless, city officials and Bottoms residents faced daunting challenges related flood clean-up. Most importantly, the flood created a number of public health and safety concerns. On April 9, one day before evacuees began returning to their homes in the Bottoms, The Enquirer and News issued health warnings about the dangers of disease, electrocution, and food contamination. As ordered by city officials, returning residents destroyed any food that had been left behind, including canned and bottled food stored in basements. Recalling salvage and clean-up efforts, Evelyn Atkinson remembers [] opening the door to her family’s flooded basement and hearing the sound of “bottles hitting each other” – the sound of her mother’s preserves “floating around in the water.”

From a public health standpoint, conditions in the Bottoms remained potentially hazardous for more than one week. While streets remained flooded, the Fire Department was unable to pump stagnant water out of basements. However, on April 12, the levels of the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Rivers began to drop and remaining pools of flood water started to disappear from the streets. Immediately, city workers began draining residential basements, decontaminating streets with lye, and conducting house-by-house inspections of electrical and heating systems. By April 19, Battle Creek’s Department of Public Service had set 51 overturned outhouses back on their foundations and inspected over 300 homes in the Bottoms.

The 1947 flood profoundly influenced the direction of urban planning in Battle Creek. Most important, it influenced a comprehensive flood-prevention project, the Cement River Project, which involved deepening and widening the channels of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers. In a more immediate sense, the displacement of people, as well as the financial losses sustained as a result of the flood, underscored the City’s need for an early flood warning system. On April 10, 1947, Mayor William Bailey took the first steps towards establishing such a system by hiring William Husted, a city fireman and meteorologist, to monitor the levels of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers. Within days, Husted had installed water level gauges on damns and bridges in Battle Creek and upstream from the city. Over the next few years, Husted and other city officials used the gauges to chart the relationship between precipitation, ground conditions, and the levels of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Rivers. Their goal was to develop scientific methods for identifying flood conditions. Presumably, fears of flooding lingered in the minds of many for quite some time. As Katherine Walker has noted [],“After that flood, and every time it would rain, we would all go to the bridge there on Washington, right there just behind, across Hamblin and look at the gauge in the water to see how high the water was.”