MARQUETTE — Kanopolis Dam, which was built with the expectation of lasting for 50 years, has reached 70 years in operation and is still going strong.

Dan Hays, operations manager for the US Army Corp of Engineers at Kanopolis and Wilson lakes, spoke about the history of Kanopolis Dam at a meeting of the Smoky Valley Historical Association on Jan. 8 at Bethany Home.

"I think what makes us really unique is we were the first flood control project in the state of Kansas," Hays said.

Demand for flood control began after much of Kansas received 17 inches of rain in May 1903 — almost as much as the state had received in total rainfall for the whole year prior.

"Salina received 10 of those 17 inches in the last week of May," Hays said.

Those flood waters destroyed the town of Ellsworth and incapacitated six of seven railway bridges leading into Kansas City.

Topeka's south side flooded, leading to disastrous consequences.

"All the emergency services were on the south side and, with the flood, they couldn't get to the north side," Hays said. "There were fires on the north side. There were reports of structures that had begun to burn, collapsed into the floodwaters, and that debris was still traveling through Kansas City, engulfed."

In all, the flood of 1903 claimed 57 lives and left 4,000 people without homes.

"The flood was just unlike anything that had been recorded up until that time," Hays said. "...It was really following this event that we knew as a country that we needed to address flood control."

What was initially proposed was the Kiro Project, which was named after a small community northwest of Topeka. Kiro's citizens banded together to lobby Congress to allocate money for a large dam on the Kansas River near their city.

Their idea for a 160-square mile reservoir came with an estimated $45-65 million price tag, which reflected not only the cost of construction, but also of acquiring a significant amount of farmland through eminent domain.

The Kiro Project was scrapped in favor of a series of smaller dams.

"It made more sense to look at the primary tributaries that feed into a large river and try to control those tributaries rather than try to dam the main stem of the river itself," Hays said.

It was decided that the Smoky Hill, Saline, Solomon, Republican and Blue rivers would receive flood control dams and the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938 authorized the construction of Tuttle Creek, Milford and Kanopolis dams.

Kanopolis Dam was started and finished about 20 years before the other two, due to having the most local support. Construction on the dam started in December of 1939.

"The first thing they did at Kanopolis was build the tunnel," Hays said.

A mile-long tunnel through the dam was bored through bedrock to create a 14-foot tall horseshoe-shaped passageway through which water could be released.

Next to be built was the intake tower with its pedestrian access bridge. The start of World War II interrupted construction between 1942 and 1945, but work resumed in late 1945 to erect the dam that was 15,000 feet long and made solely of earthen materials.

"I think what's most amazing to me is that we built an embankment that's almost three miles long and we used equipment that didn't have hydraulics," Hays said. "...For many years after its construction, it was the largest earthen dam in the country."

Kanopolis Dam was finished in 1948 for a cost of $12.3 million.

"This was the first big water in the state of Kansas and there was a tremendous turnout for the dedication," Hays said.

The dam created Kanopolis Lake, which covers 3,000 acres of land.

"Some of the naysayers thought that the lake would never fill up, but it was finished in '48 and filled in '48," Hays said.

A flood came in 1951 and tested Kanopolis Lake by filling it to capacity. It is estimated that $1.6 billion in flood damages has been save over the years as a result of the dam's construction.

"Kanopolis is a workhorse when it comes to flood control," Hays said.

Not only was the project meant to serve the purpose of flood control, the lake provided a source of recreation, gave habitat area for fish and wildlife, serves as a water supply and impacts the water quality of the Smoky Hill River healthy by dilute wastewater disposed by cities downstream.

In 2019, Kanopolis Dam will undergo several rehabilitation projects such as replacing surface gates (which are used to control water release) and the metal screens that stop debris from being pulled into the intake tower. A contractor will remove built up silt and rock in the next few months and plans are in motion to replace piping in gutter system that redirects water overflow.

"Kanopolis is old and it's seen a lot," Hays said.

Having surpassed its projected 50-year lifespan, Kanopolis expected to be functional for at least 30 more years, bringing it to a century of use.

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.