The 1921 Flood

Written By: nppladmin - Mar• 12•21
Originally posted to on March 12, 2021.

Nearly 100 years ago, on Monday, June 13, 1921 at 2:00 pm, the south two piers of the South Platte River Bridge collapsed. This event impacted travel, trade, and supplies between the city and the south end of the county for months. The bridge was less than 5 years old and constructed at a cost of $40,000 with the State of Nebraska paying 50%. In today’s dollars, the cost of construction would have approached $700,000 according to So why did the bridge collapse?

A major storm with multiple cloudbursts in Colorado had drenched nearly the entire state from June 2-7. All areas of the Arkansas and South Platte River Basins received an average of 3.8 inches during the storm. Silver Lake, in the South Platte River Basin, received a whopping 10.88 inches of rain according a government document published in 1948 called “Floods in Colorado” by Follansbee and Sawyer. The Arkansas River flood is the most talked about to this day, nearly wiping Pueblo Colorado off the map and out of existence. But the South Platte River flood is what impacted Nebraska.

In Lincoln County, the South Platte River was still a bit swollen from normal snow melt, and this historic storm water from Colorado was quickly turning the shallow stream into a roaring current. Four employees of the county were standing on the first piers to collapse when the bridge failed. Three made it off in time but a fourth, John Walker, went down into the churning water. He grabbed one of the piers and held on until a line was thrown to him and he was pulled to safety. Just before the collapse, several sight-seers were lining the bridge and had just moved off the two piers. It’s amazing no lives were lost.

A third pier that was sagging, finally gave way at 8pm. A fourth collapsed at noon the next day. And a fifth pier was expected to go at any time. It was reported to have 24 feet of water running under the south end of the bridge at the time of the collapse and water 28 feet deep was measured at the north end of the bridge. In Sutherland, two spans of a bridge there over the same river collapsed at midnight. These events were reported by The Evening Telegraph on June 13 and June 14, 1921.

Within a day of the collapse, the strong current had also washed out the north approach to the bridge and the remaining upright piers had no bank access. Farms and workers stranded on the south side of the river became the focus of supply and rescue operations. A 16 foot boat was constructed within 48 hours of the initial collapse. The boat had a 3.5 hp gas motor with oars for backup, and was able to carry over 1,000 pounds of cargo. Mail, food including milk from the Experimental Station, supplies, and passengers were ferried across.

In the aftermath, a spicy article penned by Keith Neville targeting Governor McKelvie and Mr. George Johnson, the State Engineer, appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star on January 20, 1922. This was a rebuttal to an article that appeared January 17, 1922 in The Nebraska State Journal accusing former governor Neville of misstatements and false accusations during his address to the democratic state central committee. Evidently original bridge construction plans drafted by the State Engineer called for 20 foot width with pilings driven to a depth of 40 feet. After the flood, it was determined by the State of Nebraska that the bridge was 16 feet wide and most pilings were driven to 20 feet and none driven to 30 feet depth. The State claimed that if the bridge was constructed as originally planned by the State Engineering Board, it would not have failed. Mr. Neville claimed that the State drew up plans that narrowed the channel from 1/2 mile to 600 feet and increased pressure from a more narrowed channel was the cause of the collapse. In reality a historic storm, narrowed or un-buffered channel, and a less beefy bridge likely all played a role in its early demise.

The “new” concrete bridge that collapsed was built during World War I and completed in 1918. The concrete bridge replaced an adjacent wooden bridge that was constructed in 1872. When the new bridge was built, the original cedar pilings that supported the first wooden bridge were left standing in the river and can be seen in the background of the pictures of the failed bridge. At the time the permanent re-building of the concrete bridge was being discussed in late 1921, the new Lincoln County Courthouse was also beginning construction. The wooden pilings left in the river from the 1872 bridge were pulled up, found to be in great condition, and re-used as support pilings under the foundation of the courthouse according to the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune on December 9, 1921. It took over a decade to complete construction of our current courthouse, but that’s a story for another day.

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