Flood of 1881


The winter of 1880-81 brought heavy snow to the entire Missouri River Basin. It was a hard, long winter for many settlers. Blizzard conditions as early as October and heavy snow throughout the winter months left as much as 11 feet of snow in some communities. Above average temperatures in the upper basin began melting the snowpack earlier than usual, and by mid-March in the spring of 1881 water began flowing downstream while the lower Missouri River still had ice several feet thick.

A resident living at the town of Yankton, SD, reported that the river had fallen by a foot overnight, which he took as certain evidence that an ice gorge had formed upstream.  Another individual upstream near Springfield, SD reported that “the river rose eighteen inches during the night, thus making a rise of four feet since two o’clock yesterday afternoon.” An ice dam near Bon Homme, SD, some 15 miles west of Yankton, had allowed the river behind it to swell to nearly 2 miles wide and fill the valley from bluff to bluff.

Opposite Yankton, SD, the town of Green Island was lost in its entirety including the homes of 200 people within a couple of hours after breakage of an ice dam about two miles downstream of Yankton. The town of Yankton was flooded and 2 steamboats lost, but damage was not as severe as in other communities. Figure 1 shows Green Island’s former location prior to the 1881 flood.

Green Island

Figure 1. The community of Green Island was located across the river from Yankton, SD. The town was destroyed in the flood of 1881 and was never rebuilt.

Further downstream, another ice dam had formed downstream of Vermillion, which was situated at the foot of the bluff in 1881. Prior to the flood, the Missouri River flowed through a channel near the old Vermillion town site. The river behind the ice dam began overflowing its banks around 11:30 at night sending frigid water and massive chunks of ice through the town. Vermillion was flooded in less than an hour and it was reported that 60 buildings were destroyed that night. Figure 2 shows the new channel cut by the Missouri River during the flood. Prior to 1881, Vermillion was located just below the bluff on the banks of the Missouri River. Even though the new channel put the river much further south, the town decided to relocate onto the bluff after the destruction caused by the flood.

Missouri River Channels

Figure 2. The Missouri River cut a new channel during the flood of 1881. The dotted line shows the former river channel. The old Vermillion townsite was located just below the bluff on the banks of the Missouri River.

The ice dams and subsequent flooding in the spring of 1881 resulted in the loss of thousands of cattle, lives were lost and entire towns were destroyed. The flood forced the town of Niobrara, NE to move to higher ground, the town of Vermillion to reestablish on the bluff and the community of Green Island was lost forever. Towns further downstream were also devastated. Omaha and Council Bluffs received word from upriver that Yankton had seen a thirty-five foot rise and warning downstream basin residents that flooding was imminent. The city of Omaha built temporary dams around businesses in the downtown area but they did not hold and the river swelled to five miles wide, covering all of the lowlands in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.

Flood in Omaha

Figure 3. Flooded lumber business on Missouri River bank between Douglas and Farnam Streets, Omaha, Nebraska.

Flood in Omaha

Figure 4. A one-story building in the foreground and smokestacks in the background at Omaha, NE, flooded by the Missouri River in 1881.