Published in the April 29, 1985, Clinton Herald
Many people living in Clinton today were not witness to the Great Flood of 1965 — many were not even born during the April that threatened the entire River City area.
Those that were on hand probably will never forget the scenes, and tales have been retold from parents to children and friend to friend through the 20 years that have passed.
Nonetheless, the trials Clinton and nearby communities were forced by nature to face deserve to be looked at closely these many years after the fact.
Within municipal government in Clinton, Public Works Director Eugene Niebuhr, city engineer at the time, handled much of the task of determining how to keep the Mighty Mississippi under control.
For city officials the task was time-consuming and nerve-racking.
When first responding to the question of his most vivid memory of the flood, Niebuhr said, "I remember a lot of sleepless nights."
Clinton's Mayor at the time was Harold Domsalla.
His council was composed of Dexter Eaton, Harold Ebensberger, Byron Starr, Darline Gordon, Frank Sattizahn, Lowell Phillips, Clarence "Pete" Smith, Darrell Smith and Therol Petersen.
The actual cost of the city for flood control efforts ran into the hundreds of thousands and city records indicate expenses paid in a single two week period in early April 1965 included $21,641 paid to Allied Structural Steel, $7,618 to Schneckloth Excavating Company for cleaning ditches and culverts and more than $4,100 for crushed stone for re-surfacing a few of the many city streets damaged by flood waters.
"It was quite an experience," Niebuhr said, bringing forth a diary in which he chronicled the days from April 8, 1965, through June 1, 1965.
"On April 8, the city was told by the Corps of Engineers to expect a 22 1/2 foot flood. That was more than six feet above flood stage," Niebuhr said.
"The first thing we did was have a meeting with Mayor Domsalla, Civil Defense Director Mark Barnes and myself," Niebuhr said. "There were other city officials there but right now, I can't remember exactly who else was at that particular emergency meeting. There were a lot of meetings in the next few weeks."
"We had to figure out what to do because the predicted flood stage was higher in comparison to the flood of 1951, which was a bad one," he said.
I prepared some topographical maps and chartered what a flood stage of 22 1/2 would do to the city. We went out and tried to alert everyone we could about what could happen," he said.
"After the maps were completed and we were able to see what a 22 foot flood stage could do we determined that the worst part would be that there would be a current flowing through it and through a major portion of Clinton," Niebuhr said.
"On April 9 we had a meeting with the manager of the V.A., the Red Cross and Col. (Eugene) Coffman of the Corps of Engineers. For the next couple of days we put maps up so people could see what to expect if something wasn't done," Niebuhr said.
"We worked from very early in the morning until very late at night all through the weekend. Then some councilmen and Mayor Domsalla asked me for recommendations of what to do," Niebuhr said.
"I knew we had to keep the First Avenue pumping station and the river gate operating. In other areas, particularly South Clinton and Lyons, there were sewers that directly opened into the river. We knew we could build temporary levees, but there still would be a problem," he said.
"The city council discussed it on Monday when the river was already over the 16 foot flood stage," Niebuhr said.
City hall was deluged with petitions requesting flood relief and during of the Clinton City Council on April 12, 1965, Domsalla was able to inform the council that access to South Clinton would be kept available through the South 4th Street Subway.
Domsalla and other city officials knew the area would be troublesome as the flood waters continued to rise.
On that evening in mid April 1965 residents and businessmen in South Clinton learned access would be available through the South 4th Street subway at all times and more pumps would be installed when, and if, they were necessary.
By April 15, 1965 a special city council session was held.
The stated purpose of the meeting, according to records in city hall, was to decide what to do to protect the major portion of Clinton from flooding Mississippi River waters.
To that end, the council supported Niebuhr's recommendation to construct a dike along the railroad tracks, two feet high from 9th Avenue North to the Gateway Bridge on 8th Avenue South.
The temporary dike was designed to keep flood waters from entering the city.
An official to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in attendance at the meeting, is quoted as stating the City of Clinton would be remiss if a diking attempt was not made.
During the special session the city council adopted a resolution declaring an emergency situation and instructing that Domsalla was "authorized, empowered and directed" to take such measures determined advisable and necessary.
The mayor was also given the direction to delegate authority as deemed expedient to protect the inhabitants and the property of Clinton and to preserve peace and order within.
"After the council approved it, we went in and set grades and determined what route the levee would take," Niebuhr said. "We worked all day that week to build one levee on 21st Avenue and another along the tracks."
"On the 19th of April, the Corps revised its prediction and said the crest would be 24 feet. That kept us working real late. Some nights we didnt' get home at all. We were working with contractors at that time," Niebuhr said.
"We believed we could handle the area with the levee, but other areas, with open sewers were a problem," Niebuhr said.
On April 21 representatives of the Corps of Engineers, state and federal governments came to Clinton to observe the situation first hand.
"It was like a war — in a way it was a war," Niebuhr said.
"George Kerr (city electrician at the time) and National Guardsmen went out to reinforce the levee around the pumping station. There was a phone at the station so George and I were able to keep in contact," Niebuhr said.
"The levees were temporary and we were greatly concerned about what would happen if there should be a break. After the levees were up thee were a few leaks that started to show up," Niebuhr said. "We had a bad storm on the 23rd and the levee near Allied Steel was almost breached. That came awful close to being lost."
"On April 28th the river crested. We had some helicopters that came in so we could really see what was happening," Niebuhr said. "That was the only way we could make accurate inspections."
"We had some real bad problems at 21st Street and at the Car Barn Ditch. We had boils coming up through. There was a lot of porous ground underneath the temporary levee that allowed water to come through," Niebuhr said.
"At this time we had street crews putting sand bags in and trying to keep streets open. Highway 67 was closed and we had to re-route a lot of traffic because 2nd Street was covered with water in some places," he said.'
"We had the sewage treatment plant in operation at that time and we knew it was essential to keep that running," Niebuhr said. "I didn't have anything to do with that operation, but the people who worked at the sewage treatment plant had to get there by boat because it was completely surrounded by water. Sometimes they just stayed there overnight."
"Finally on May 6th Kerr and the Guardsmen were able to come in from the pumping station, We were then at the 22 foot flood stage," Niebuhr said.
"It seemed like a very long time between April 8th and almost the first of June that year," Niebuhr said.