The year 1913 had been a difficult weather year. Historians called it “The Great Flood of 1913.” By late November, farmers in Bell and Milam counties prepared for more floods. Sure enough, a second flooding whammy hit Texas in early December. Unrelenting rains caused the Guadalupe and Trinity rivers to swell; the Brazos and Colorado rivers joined to inundate more than 3,000 square miles of Central Texas. Bell County coped with three solid days of rains.
The Polk family didn’t worry about this onslaught of water because in the past Nolan Creek would subside as quickly as it rose. About 2 a.m. on Dec. 2, floodwaters rose above the floor of the Polk house. Yettie assured her husband that she and the children would be fine. The father took William Henry to secure the barn and the livestock. His plan was to return with a horse to move the family to higher ground. Suddenly, a wall of water careened down the creek, sweeping away a neighboring house. It then collided with the Polk house. William Henry and his father flailed in the swirling waters. They heard Yettie and the children scream as they plunged into the creek with the splintering house.
A passerby snatched William Henry from the swirls. The father clung to tree branches until he was rescued.
Onlookers on the creek banks were helpless to save the family. One by one, searchers found the children’s bodies. For the following days, hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the flood lines to find the mother’s body. A rescue party noticed a neighbor’s dog running into the drift, whining and agitated. No matter what the rescuers did, the dog refused to abandon his place. Finally, someone fetched a boat and floated out to the drift and the excited dog. There was Yettie Polk’s body, the children’s mother.
Three bridges spanning Nolan Creek crumbled, cutting off travel. Enterprising citizens strung a cable across the stream to ship food and medicine to opposite banks. Presumed dead also were a family of five camping on the creek banks and a man standing on the Main Street Bridge when it collapsed. Meanwhile, the grieving town closed for the Polks’ funerals and burials in North Belton Cemetery.
Nearly 180 people died in the statewide flooding. Bell County suffered about $5 million in damages, most of it in Belton. About 50 Belton families lost their homes.The father, William Charles Polk, later remarried and had more children, three of whom died young. His son, William Henry Polk, grew up to be a well-regarded plumber and family man in Bartlett until his death in 1988.
The Polk property became a city park so that the place of tragedy could now be a place of peace. Children’s laughter on the playgrounds replaced the anguished cries of the flood’s victims. Bell County experienced more floods throughout the century. These calamities became catalysts for new water management methods and for creating Belton Dam and its related lake.