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Account of flood in 1858 Rings With Pluck of Pioneer Children


An incident of her early life--and not a pleasant one is recalled by Mrs. Seenith Bryan Smith of Lewis, a survivor of the flood of 1858, which claimed the lives of six Franklin township residents. This cloudburst on the night of July 3 of that year brought Jim creek in Franklin township out of its banks and the swollen stream carried away two cabins occupied by the Prall family.

Nelson Prall, his wife and their two children and the 2-year old son of Tom Prall were drowned while Mr. and Mrs. Tom Prall who lived in the same cabin with his cousin, Nelson Prall, escaped death in the swirling waters by climbing a tree. The sixth victim of the flood was Henry Baldwin, a carpenter, who drowned the following day in an attempt to reach his home by swimming the swollen stream.

Bodies Buried in Field.

After the water had receded, the bodies of the victims were found strewn along the banks of the creek and were buried in a grove on what is still known as the Magee place. This burial ground may be seen just east of the old stage road that ran from Des Moines to Council Bluffs in those days. The nearest cemetery was at Lewis and could not be reached because of the swollen streams in the county.

In the southwest corner of the farm now occupied by Glen Walton lived Dan Bryan, his wife and six children, the eldest of whom, Josephine, was 14 at that time and the youngest, Dan, was a year old. The Bryan cabin, built of logs, with puncheon floors and a clapboard roof made from slabs three feet long, split from logs and hewn smooth with a small log to hold them in place, was located a hundred feet from the stream. The father was a carpenter employed in the vicinity still known as Gaylord's grove.

During the night of July 3, Mrs. Bryan was awakened by the storm and upon opening the door of the cabin, she found the rain coming down in sheets and the water already rising around their humble abode.

Three Children Lost.

She awakened the hired man, who took 4-year old Zach in his arms and ran, calling to her to follow with the other in hopes of reaching the hill near the home before the water became too deep to wade. Mrs. Bryan took Dan in her arms and Anne by the hand, bidding Josephine, the eldest daughter, to follow with Seenith, 9 and John, 6. She waded out into the overflow water from the creek, but by the time she reached the rear of the house, the water was waist deep. Thinking the other three children were close behind her, she called to them continually, but the roar of the water and the crashing of the thunder drowned her voice.

With difficulty she reached two trees and with the aid of an ash barrel, got both children up in the tree, but as she called to the others to hurry and clamber into the trees, she discovered for the first time that they were gone, so she climbed into one tree with the two other kiddies. She scanned the water around her, but the inconstant flashes of lightning revealed nothing but the nearer approach of the swirling water under the tree in which she hoped she had found safety.

With the rain beating down upon her, Mrs. Bryan held her position in the tree until after 3 o'clock in the morning, when the rain ceased and the swollen stream began to recede. Descending from the tree, she walked with her tired little ones through the mud and water up the hill east to the Magee home. Once she looked back at her cabin, which had stood because doors in opposite sides had been left open, allowing the mud waters to rage unhalted through it.

Found Safely in Cabin.

Reaching the Magee home, Mrs. Bryan rejoiced to find the hired man there with little Zach.

Now, to get back to the three children left behind, and to the really thrilling part of this strange story of pioneer life.

Had Mrs. Bryan looked into the cabin that morning she would have seen the three children perched high on the joists of the unfinished home, but she feared they had drowned and she could not bear to think of again entering the little cabin.

The children started, hand-in-hand, to follow their mother, but, frightened by the water, they turned back and ran into the cabin. As the water continued to rise, they climbed from their bed to a table. Here the steadily rising waters again menaced them and through the heroic efforts of Josephine they succeeded in perching themselves on the joists of the home, where they passed the night, watching the turbulent stream as it continued to pour its overflow into the cabin.

Where the logs did not meet well, chinkings of wood had been driven in and these the children pulled out so they could see out into the storm as the lightning flashed. They watched the black foaming water and the trees as they waved and bent in the violence of the storm.

Heard others in Stream.

Once they heard voices and a dog's voice--the Prall house was being swept down the creek past the Bryan home with the two Prall families in it.

Striking a bank of the stream, the house was torn to bits. The occupants climbed to the roof and rode it until it struck a tree, throwing them into the water, Nelson Prall could not swim and gave up all hope when forced to take to the roof. Taking one child while his wife held the other they sat with their arms around each other, awaiting their fate--which was death in the black water surrounding them.

Tom Prall was an excellent swimmer, however, and when the house went to pieces, made ready to fight for life. Seizing a 2x4 within his reach, he made his wife put her arms around it as an aid in keeping afloat and with his 2-year-old son on his back, he got his family over to a tree into which they climbed.

Saves Wife-Loses Child.

Safety seemed assured but a log twisting past in the stream around the tree caught the wife's skirt and pulled her from the tree. In rescuing her, Mr. Prall dropped his son, who was drowned. The grief-stricken father and mother remained in the tree until the storm had abated and the waters gone down and then made their way to the Magee farm a half-mile distant.

Neighbors searching for the bodies of the missing went past the Bryan cabin and their voices having awakened the three sleeping children, the searchers were amazed to see Josephine, a forlorn looking little girl, appear in the doorway.

Through the chink holes in the walls, the children watched the receding waters and saw the stars come out again, so they climbed from the joists which had offered them safety during the deluge and crawled, into the wet bed to get warm and wait until daylight before leaving the home.

The father, away from home during the storm, fearing for the safety of his family, started at daylight to walk the ten miles to his home, but was forced to swim some seven miles to reach it. Baldwin, who was accompanying Bryan, was drowned.

Jim Creek Flood 1858

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Transcribed by Eileen Reed, November, 2017 from The Atlantic News Telegraph, Atlantic, Iowa,
Saturday, October 4, 1930.

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