Dinner theater will share tragic story of 1896 Flood of North McGregor

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This photo, taken from the bench, reveals the devastation in North McGregor (now Marquette) following the 1896 flood. A dinner theater performance at the Marquette Community Center on Friday, March 27, will share the tragic history of the flood, which killed 28 people.

The 1896 flood was one of the area’s most devastating natural disasters. Five inches of rain fell in one hour in late May, sending a 20-foot-high wall of water down the Bloody Run valley from Beulah (which was destroyed) into North McGregor, washing away bridges, railroad tracks and homes.

March 27 event is part of Marquette 100th anniversary celebration

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

A March 27 dinner theater performance at the Marquette Community Center will share the tragic history of the 1896 Flood of North McGregor. A cast of eight members—decked out in period costume—will tell the story, while the audience enjoys a prime rib meal with all the fixings provided by the Marquette Cafe.

The event, which starts at 6 p.m., kicks off a two-day celebration recognizing the city of Marquette’s 100th anniversary (name change from North McGregor to Marquette).

The 1896 flood was one of the area’s most devastating natural disasters. Five inches of rain fell in one hour in late May, sending a 20-foot-high wall of water down the Bloody Run valley from Beulah (which was destroyed) into North McGregor, washing away bridges, railroad tracks and homes, and killing 28 people.

McGregor resident Joe Brooks developed the play based on months of research about the flood and its aftermath. The idea was sparked by his interest in mass burials.

“I was told there was one at St. Mary’s Cemetery [in McGregor],” he said. But what he originally assumed was a grave containing victims of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic was actually from the flood of 1896.

“No one knows who’s buried there or how many people are buried there,” he added.

So Brooks started digging—not in the ground, but through books and newspaper archives.

Much of the information came from author and poet Lorena Osborne Hunt, as well as witnesses living at or around Beulah at the time of the flash flood.

“These were first-hand accounts of where they were at and what they witnessed during the flood,” Brooks said.

The flood swept away several whole families, in addition to hobos and circus performers who were staying in the area.

“At that time,” explained Brooks, “the hills were cleared of trees, which were used for steam ships and locomotives. The water was not stopped by anything.”

“The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre is the point where the flood went through,” he added. The community’s bustling railroad operations, which were centered there, were halted for weeks.

Along with the spoken story, the dinner theater will also show dozens of photographs that were taken in the flood’s aftermath. They were all recorded at the Marquette Depot Museum and Information Center and McGregor Historical Museum.

“I don’t think people realize how bad it was until they see the pictures,” Brooks said. “People were buried four or five feet under debris. Some weren’t found for weeks or months. It was a very sad time.”

He hopes the event will give attendees new insight into Marquette’s unique history.

“This is a story about nature against man, and how people recovered,” Brooks remarked. “But it’s also about forgetting. Today, people have largely forgotten about it.”

As for Brooks, he’s still working to learn more. After all, he said, “I’m no closer to finding out [who’s buried in the mass grave] than when I started.”

Tickets for the 1896 Flood of North McGregor dinner theater can be purchased at the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce, Marquette City Hall or Marquette Cafe. Proceeds from the event will benefit programs in the city of Marquette as well as the McGregor-Marquette Chamber.

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