The History Of The Red River Floods


Jerry Bernath

The people living in the Red River valley have had to copewith many floods. The Red River has been a menace for a long time past.It still is and will remain to be such until something is done about thesituation. Some inhabitants of homes in the Red River Valley may have seenone or two floods. But the people that have always lived here have seenquite a few floods. There have been a total of about nine major floods inrecorded history, but the water has risen over flooding stage somo 20 differenttimes. The major floods in recorded history range from the flood of 1826to the flood of 1966.

The first recorded flood of Canada was in 1826, almost1 1/2 centuries ago. And in the records of Winnipeg, Manitoba, this floodis the worst in the history of Canada. In May 1826, the river rose to 37feet in height. This was a full 19 feet over flood stage.

Because there were only records of the serious the early days, there are no recorded water levels until 1852, since1826. This was the second major flood. In the year 1852, the river wentout of its banks and flooded the prairie for several miles on both sidesof the river. The water continued to rise until it was at least three andone-half feet above the ground around the St. Boniface area. During thepeak of this flood the whole country was submerged from Minnesota to Kildonan.The city of Winnipeg was completely under water, and the nearest dry landwas four miles from there. The flood remained at this height for at leasttwo weeks.

The facts of these two floods are so presented that youcan clearly see the similarity of these floods to that of the 1950 flood.The one main feat-ure of these floods is that they all remained at heightfor quite some time.

The third main flood in Canada was in 1861. This floodwas the last major flood for about 20 years to come. The water rose to aheight of about 35 feet, 15 feet over flood stage.

Although the 1826 flood is the largest recorded flood there is some possibilitythat there was an even greater flood somewhere around 1776. The followingquote explains this.

"The late Mr. Nolin, who was one of the first ad-venturers in these parts, assured the writer that when he first entered the Red River in the year 1776 the flood was still higher than on the present occasion; he having sailed that way as he declared, from the Red Lake River, round by way of Pembina, and down towards the colony; the whole country, therefore, being under water, and the river appearing to him rather like a lake. Indians likewise mention a flood about the year 1790 and the natives now on the ground affirm that in 1809 the water rose unusually high."

There wasn't too much damage done by the earlier floodscompared to the later ones, because not as many people were directly involvedin them, and very small areas were under cultivation. The estimated damageof the 1852 flood was 25,000 pounds sterling. True, the valley was coveredwith water, but few lives were lost.

Another flood occurred in 1882. This flood came to a heightof about 26 feet. The city of Emerson, Manitoba, which was once a very largeand prospering city, was completely demolished by the 1882 flood. Many largebuildings crashed into the threshing waters, and when it was all over withthere was hardly anything to look at.

Percy Kneeshaw, a resident of Pembina, North Dakota, saidthat a captain Gregg came to Pembina with a steamboat. He helped peoplealong the river near Pembina with this steamboat by moving their cattleout of the flooded area. This was greatly appreciated by many of the people.

This flood was also recorded in Grand Forks, North Dakota.The water there reached a peak of 48 feet. The flood stage there is 28 feet.Therefore, the flood of 1882 was a full 20 feet over flood stage there.

In 1897, my grandfather, John Bernath, came to the UnitedStates from Canada to farm. He was going to homestead a piece of land. Thesame year he came there was a terrific flood. One of the worst floods inthe recorded history of the United States. The water rose to an evaluationof 50.2 feet. John's house sat on big rocks during the flood and it is agood thing that it was because the water was splashing up against the bottomof the house. If the house hadn't sat on those rocks it would probably havefloated away. However, this farm was, and still is the highest point onthe Red River from Grand Forks to Winnipeg. The river bank was just a fewyards away from the house but the water did no damage to it.

After John had the homestead rights on our present farm,he moved to St. Vincent, Minnesota, just on this side of the river fromPembina, North Dakota. He lived there for quite some time. He was livingin St. Vincent at the time of the 1916 flood. My father, Jim Bernath, wasfive years old at the time of this flood, and he can still remember goingfor a boat ride with a neighbor. He recalls that he walked just acrossthe highway where he was living and the water was almost up to the top ofthe road. The man who had given him the ride had no motor because no onehad ever heard of such a thing. They rowed all around the flooded partof St. Vincent. Dad also recalled going to Emerson with his mother. Heremembers walking on planks in the streets. The 1916 flood was about 11feet over flood stage in Winni-peg but it never got into Grampa's housein town It was just a minor flood for Winnipeg, because the water didn'tget too high there.

Well, the water had settled down now for some time. Thepeople who were directly involved in some of the floods were always consciousof the fact that almost any year they could have another flood. The peoplewere not worried at all in l937 because there was a drastic drought in l936.: This caused the level of the river to drop sharply. The maximum heightof the Red River in l937 was three feet in Winnipeg. Dad was 26 years oldnow, and farming him-self. He said that in l937 the water at our home placewas so low he walked all the way across the river in regular four buckleover-shoes. This drought was causing a lot of problems to the farmers.Dad's cattle kept going across the river, but they wouldn't come acrossit the other way because of the current, or some other odd reason. So Dadhad to take them along the North Dakota side of the river to a bridge toget them back across. All the farmers were hoping for their crops.

They got their water all right, in 1948. But now it wasn'twanted. The flood of 1948 was one of the worst in the history of the floodsin the United States and Canada. Not in the amount of water, but in destruction. This was due to the great number of people in the area in 1948 comparedto the other high floods. The flood of 1948, at that time, was the mostdevastating in the history of the Red River Valley. Although the waterof the 1948 flood did-n't reach the level of the 1897 flood, the damagewas many times greater. In 1897 such implements, such as tractors, pick-ups,combines, etc, were not even heard of. The roads weren't nearly as goodeither. And the few bridges that did exist consisted of a few cheap planksbolted together. The machinery was costly and it was damaged extensively. Many steel bridges were washed out, and high-ways took a terrible beatingfrom the fast moving waters. Five counties in North Dakota asked aid fromthe Federal Government so as to rebuild bridges and highways. Just thisalone cost $25,000,000.

The flood-stricken Red River Valley was declared a disasterarea by President Harry S. Truman. During this flood it would not be exaggeratingto say that all the houses in St. Vincent, Pembina, and Noyes were in water..Only the houses on high ground wore spared. Most of these had water in theirbasements. The ones that didn't have water in their basements were theones that lived quite some distance from the river. Our home on the farmhad water in the basement, but one could walk down there with hip boots.

My parents, Jim and Dora Bernath, stayed on the farm allduring this flood. They had a gas stove and gas refrigerator and also anoil burner. So they were well equipped, comfort-wise. The water in 1948never got into the yard proper, but some forty or fifty yards to the south,the water reached almost to the granaries. But before the water even cameclose the grain was hauled out just in case.

Emerson, Manitoba, just across the international line wasbuilt several feet below sea level of either Pembina or Noyes. Here thewaters of the Red River filled every principle business area to a depthof about six feet. The Emerson Custom House was standing in two and one-halffeet of water. The high water forced many persons from their homes also.

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, the water raised to a maximum heightof approxim-ately 27 feet. This would place the 1948 flood about eighthin the amount of water Winnipeg had in all its floods. The 1948 flood wasn'ttoo hard on the city of Winnipeg, however.

The 1948 flood was the worst flood in the sense of destructionof property. That is up to that date. But in 1950 the picture changed. The flood of 1948 was no longer the worst flood. Now it was the 1950 flood. This flood was made by the thousands of tons of snow that had fallen beforethe spring thaw. Roads were blocked all over the county because of theterrific amount of snow. The total amount was 81 inches.

The flood of 1950 will be remembered by everybody thatlived in the Red River Valley for as long as they live. The water roseto a level of about three and one-half feet over the evaluation of the 1948flood. Therefore, the river widened several miles farther in many places,and the water backed into low lying areas, such as: ravines, coolees, andhollows. This caused great disaster for many people. The damage of the'50 flood was much greater than the '48 flood. Many parts of Kittson Countywere under 20 feet of water.. County Engineer Jack Schmit estimated damageto the county road system in conjunction with the county disaster reliefcommittee. His report as of May 20th was as follows:

County F A S system.. 44,350.00

State aid roads.. 42,750.00

County aid roads 135,300.00

Township roads 114,610.00

Village streets 5,492.00

Grand Total....... $342,502.00 (2)


This total does not include the Hill, St. Vincent, Clow,Hampden, and North Red River townships, which Schmit said would raise thegrand total 20-30% higher. Thus bringing the figure to approximately $828,815.56. These townships not yet listed in the total were the most highly developedtownships.

The water in the Red River in 1950 was raising about two feet daily. Thiscaused many flash floods, which came in the middle of the night. The FrankCleem residence, about two miles from our farm, was taken by surprise inthe night time. They were awakened with a start when they heard the watersrushing towards their farm. They had to make a quick move for fear thewater was going to sweep the house off the foundation. This was the casefor many people living on the river. This was due to the low lying areain which these people lived. Our neighbors, just a few miles away, wereamong the hardest hit. The water in their yard was right about eightfeet deep. My father went ever with the boat and he and the neighbors steppedinto the top door of the barn from the boat to feed the neighbors chickens. Their homes were demolished. The wind got up and blew water in big wavesthrough the yards, carrying big logs. These logs did a great deal of damage. They took out many windows and knocked the lumber off the outside of thehouses.

While all this was going on the water continued to risein our basement. The water never did get to the first floor of the house. But it did get within eight inches from the floor. This was due to thefact that we are living on the highest spot on the river. That is, thatclose to the river bank. The house is standing about 20 yards from thebank right now. It was a little further away but the water from previousfloods washed the bank away. However, we do have a cement retaining wallnow, which keeps the water from washing away the bank.

The water at its highest, spread out of the banks aboutone-half mile at our farm, and a little more than three miles south of usthe water was some 20 miles wide. About a mile and a half south of us thewater was about 10 miles wide. For living as close to the river as we dowe are very fortunate not to have been flooded out. The only thing we everlost of any value was an old hay rack, which got hung up in a tree acrossthe river. That is more than you can say for a lot of other people. Aboutsix miles from our farm a man lost a newly built shed that came to a totalof $8,500. In 1950, $8,500 was an awful lot of money. Another man losta granary that was full of wheat. Many lost machinery and enormous amountsof cattle.

During the 1950 flood Dad had to haul out grain throughmud and water, but it was all hauled before it was too late. The waterin the yard, other than where the house was, was about two and one-halffeet deep. Dad had a brooder house full of baby chicks moved out in thefield, so as the water couldn't reach it. Every morning he would go outand move it again so the water couldn't float it away. When the water wasat its highest the brooder house was up to the edge of the county road runningby our place. The waters current, instead of being strongest at the edgeof the river bank, was strongest on the opposite side of the house. Itwas so strong at times, that no one could walk in the yard with hip boots.

The folks stayed on the farm the whole time, with exception of one night. They had been to Hallock for groceries, and when they got back the waveswere so high they didn't dare start into the yard with the boat. All theother time they tied the boat to the rail on the step so it wouldn't floataway.

Meanwhile, Grandmother's house in St. Vincent was standingin about three feet of water or more. Grandma and my uncle lived in theupstairs all the time, and to go any place they had to wade through allthat water. The rest of the town was standing in a lot of water too. Thehomes closer to the river were in about two more feet of water than my Grandmother's.

Grand Forks, North Dakota, was among the hardest hit. The water rose very high, wrecking home after home. Then the water subsided,and people had begun moving back in. But the worst was yet to come. Manypeople had already cleaned their homes, repaired them, and freshly paintedthem, when the water began to rise again. The people evacuated once more,and the water rose a full three feet higher than it did the first time. This was very heartbreaking to many people. After spending much time,money, and effort the water really made a mess of things, and the peoplewere faced with all this work over again.

My Aunt and Uncle's home in Crookston, Minnesota, was floodedby the Red Lake River. It was a flash flood, and they didn't even havetime to clean out their basement. However they did get the furniture movedupstairs before the water got in the house. At the longest the water wasin the home 12 hours.

After the 1950 flood the engineers started to find waysof preventing the floods on the Red River. They thought they could do somethinglike straighten the river from Winnipeg to Grand Forks. But this provedto be too costly an idea and it would take too much time. By the time theythought the idea through it didn't seem too practical. However, there wasa big drainage ditch started somewhere near Winnipeg. The dirt that wastaken from the ditch was used for diking. This ditch is supposed to helptake the water out of the river faster.

However, the ditch was not completed in 1966 when it floodedagain. The water rose to about 10 feet above flood level in Grand Forks. This flood wasn't as bad as 1950 by a long shot, but it was bad enough. The winter of 1965 brought the snow from a terrible blizzard. It lastedfor three days, and when it was over there was a tremendous amount of snow.In places the snow was so deep that trains couldn't even run. The onlyway of travel was by snowmobiles. These were widely used in looking forpeople who were lost or stuck in the blizzard. In our front yard therewas an 18-20 foot snow bank, which could not be seen over. We have shelterbelts run-ning along the road, and the snow filled them up, and then continuedthrough the yard. If we wouldn't have had the shelter belts we might reallyhave had a drift running through the yard.

We are not the only ones who had snow. Almost everybodyhad their fair share in 1965. This was the major reason of the flood of1966. Grand Forks was hit hard again. They sandbagged where they could,but the water raised so fast they couldn't sandbag all over.

Sandbagging operations were going on in Hallock, Minnesota,also. The Two Rivers that runs through the low lying part of town was risingrapidly. School was let out in Humboldt, Minnesota, so as we students couldgo and help sandbag. The water was rising at about the same rate as thesandbags were going up, but the water never got over the top of them.

We had our own little sandbagging operation going on athome also. We did not move any electrical circuits or the furnace fromthe basement. Therefore we would have water in our basement. But we havean outside drain for a shower, and we plugged that so the water wouldn'tcome in. But it was seeping somewhat so we began to sandbag. We had tocarry all the sand bags down one by one. This was a little work, but itwas well worth it.

The water never got very high in the yard. Only aboutone and one-half to two feet. This again was better than some neighborswhose homes were wrecked again. Everybody living near the river had totake all of their machinery out of the yards, and haul their grain out. Again we did not lose anything by the flooding of the river.

Through the history of the Red River floods the farmershave been doing an exceptionally good job in raising crops. With all thefloods washing away good topsoil there have been some tremendous crops. This shows that the water did not really hurt the growing power of thefertile land in the Red River Valley Basin.

This topic was especially interesting to me because thesefloods walk hand-in-hand with the history of this farm since my Grandfatherhomesteaded it to the present. With all the bad floods this farm has notyet been hurt a bit. And it is about as close to the river as you can get. The farthest building on the farm away from the river bank is about 80yards, and the closest is the shop which is about 12-15 yards away. Assaid before the house has never been damaged, and we sincerely hope it neverwill be.


(1) Notes on Red River floods with Particular Referenceto the Flood of l950. Manitoba Dept. of Mines & National Resources

(2) The Red River Rises to Recorded High. Kittson CountyEnterprise May 31, 1950 Vol. 69 No. 2


(1) Notes on Red River floods with Particular Referenceto the Flood of l950. Manitoba Dept. of Mines & National Resources

(2) The Red River Rises to Recorded High. Kittson CountyEnterprise May 31, 1950 Vol. 69 No. 2