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Cafe Clock

Clock from 1903 flood

Submerged under seven feet of floodwater in a small Kansas City café, this clock quietly documented the rising tide of one of the most destructive events in the history of the central plains.

In early May of 1903, a steady rain began to fall across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. When it wasn't raining, mist hung in the air. For days the rain fell. Severe storms, with hail and tornadoes, added to the misery. By the end of the month, rivers and streams were overflowing. The water raced from western Kansas to the Kansas River, which carried it to Kansas City. Along the way, the water submerged towns, knocked out bridges, and destroyed crops.

Kansas City was hit particularly hard. Straddling the border of Kansas and Missouri, the city is also located at the convergence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. Local residents call the land near the juncture the West Bottoms. Largely an industrial area, the Bottoms was the home of the rail and stockyards, packing plants, factories, warehouses, and mills. Hundreds of poor immigrant families lived there. The Union depot also stood in the Bottoms, and restaurants, cafes, and saloons serviced its travelers.

On May 20, 1903, the Missouri River near the West Bottoms was 12 feet, nine inches deep. Eight days later, a weather forecast printed in the Kansas City Star newspaper predicted "another spell of bad weather" that would "test the patience of the people of Kansas City and its vicinity." A weather observer predicted thunderstorms and stated, "Of course there will be high winds, but not of the kind that wreck towns and kill people."

The forecaster was correct in his prediction of rain, but not in the loss of life. Rivers swollen from previous rains continued to rise with the new round of storms. By May 30, the Missouri was 25 feet deep. The next day it was 35 feet deep. The Kansas River was between three and five miles wide along its entire course. In the West Bottoms, the rivers ceased to exist independently and instead formed a sort of inland sea.

Union Avenue in Kansas City, with Johnston's cafe at far right

With no levees to stop or redirect the water, it flowed freely into the West Bottoms. Work ceased at factories and mills. Livestock held in the yards drowned or were swept away with the tide. Trains could not access the city because the rails were under water and all but one bridge over the Missouri were gone. Seven feet of water flowed into the Union depot. Streetcars were inoperable. Public utilities such as gas, water, and electricity were out.

Residents hesitated to evacuate the area. Some had no place to go, and others couldn't bear to leave their homes. They were also confident that this flood would be no worse than others they had experienced. As one reporter put it, "The river front population has a way of adapting itself to the temporary inconveniences that arise from the irregularities of the Missouri." This flood, however, was more than an irregularity, and many realized it was too late only when their homes were completely submerged. Stranded on rooftops and in trees, their only hope was rescue boats operated by friends and neighbors. In the end, 19 people died.

A week later, the water receded and clean-up began. Residents and business owners returned to properties buried under four inches of mud. J.A. Johnston, the owner of a café across the street from the old Union depot, found his business' clock. According to the hands, the clock logged its last minute on Tuesday, June 3, 1903, at 9:22 in the morning. Johnston reported that the water in the room where the clock hung reached a depth of seven feet, two inches. The water line is marked near the bottom edge of the case. He donated the clock to the Kansas Historical Society in 1906 and it remains in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cafe Clock

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2008

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.