July 2018

By Ken Kopp, P.G., Water Rights/Source Water Specialist

ometime in the early morning

hours of Friday, May 4, 2018, a

low-head dam on the Big Blue

River, near Marysville in Marshall

County, gave way under the rush of

water flowing down the river following

heavy rainfall earlier that week. The

more than century old dam was one of

Kansas’ last relics of days gone by

when water power was a key

component to a community’s success

and viability. Dams like the one near

Marysville were commonplace across

Kansas. Perhaps some of the more

well-known examples are the Soden’s

mill dam on the Cottonwood River at

Emporia, which still stands as a

popular fishing attraction, and the

Bowersock mill dam on the Kansas

River at Lawrence, which began life

providing water power to the Jenny

Wren flour mill and continues

operation for hydro-electric power

generation. Much smaller communities

across the state such as Arrington,

Ozawkie and Muscotah were also

home to such dams which powered

various types of mills. An 1881

publication, “Reports on Water-Power

of the United States,” by the U.S.

Census Bureau details nearly a hundred

dams in Kansas, including a dam that

was constructed on the Delaware River

near Valley Falls that powered a

gristmill, woolen-mill, and a grain

elevator, as well as providing water to a

nearby railroad water tank for steam


The Big Blue River, the report states,

was well-suited for water power due to

its “good fall” and numerous exposures

of bedrock limestone, which provided a

stable foundation on which to construct

a dam in the stream channel. The report

also details several upstream dams on

the Big Blue River at the Nebraska

communities of Crete, Wilbur,

Caldwell, Beatrice, Blue Springs,

Barneston, and also Oketo, Kansas.

According to the census report, another

extensively developed water-power

project on the Big Blue River at that

time, was at Blue Rapids. A dam there

on the Big Blue River, downstream

from its confluence with the Little Blue

River, provided power to a gristmill,

woolen mill, paper mill, plaster mill

and a foundry. A wheel in the Blue

Rapids mill also pumped river water to

town. Downstream, the Rocky Ford

dam on the Big Blue River at

Manhattan was used to power a grist

and saw mill.

According to William G. Cutler's

History of the State of Kansas, Francis

J. Marshall established a ferry across

the Big Blue River in 1849, located

approximately nine miles downstream

from the current city of Marysville.

When the federal government later

opened a military road in 1850,

beginning at Fort Leavenworth,

heading northwestward to Fort Kearny,

Nebraska, Marshall was granted

permission to open a second ferry

upstream on that trail to capitalize on

what would likely be the bulk of the

emigrants and gold seekers passing

through that area on the way to

California. While a member of the first


Remnants of the Marysville dam on

May 7, 2018, facing downstream.

The more than century

old dam was one of

Kansas’ last relics of days

gone by when water

power was a key

component to a

community’s success

and viability.