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Flood history

History of Early Floods in the Red River Valley - April 1897

-excerpted from "Climate and Crops: Minnesota Section", U.S.Department of Agriculture

"Some of the oldest inhabitants of this section, in view of the present flood situation, are recalling a statement which was frequently made by Pierre Bottineau, the noted guide and scout, a large portion of whose life was spent in this vicinity and who at one time resided at Red Lake Falls. It was to the effect that people would live to see the day when water in the Red River would reach the level of the prairies on either side.

In this connection a bit of ancient history is decidedly interesting. J.W. Bond, the historian, who came to the Red River Valley in 1851 for the purpose of treating with the Indians for the Red Lake reservation, says they found the valley desolate and barren. Everything was drowned out by the inundations of the river, which had occurred for several successive years. In this book published in 1853 he says of this section: "Along the course of the river, both banks within the margin of the stream, are covered with the thick growth of drowned-out willows, while farther back on the prairie, fine large trees, majestic oaks and elms, are in the same condition; and now stand towering aloft like high, giant skeleton sentinels throwing out their dry leafless limbs across the water as if to guard its passage. Each tree is marked at the height of about 30 feet above the water, by the heavy drift ice during the freshets. In some places the timber merely skirts the river, at others it extends further than the eye can penetrate; and no prairies being visible for miles, all is a desolate solitude of dead and dying skeleton trunks of leafless trees.

No farming whatever is being done here on account of the annual floods in the valley for three years past, the waters having risen to the height of thirty-one and thirty-three feet above the low water mark, flooding all the country and inundating houses at this place (Pembina) to the depth of two or three feet. The ground is destitute of grass, with tall, rank weeds three and four feet in height abounding.

The heaviest floods known in the country occurred in 1824, 1825 and 1826. The last year the water rose sixty-six feet in height and the whole country was completely drowned out.

This produced such universal distress that many of the most wealthy and influential citizens left Selkirk in consequence and made an overland journey across the plains to St. Peters and Galena, near which last place they settled. In 1825 the snow fell the 15th of October in great quantity and remained on the ground. Still more fell during the winter, which was one of the coldest which had passed for twenty-five years. The snow melted suddenly about the last of April. The water had already risen in the streams as high as the banks when the ice, which had scarcely diminished in thickness, was dragged away by the violence of the current, and taking a straight course, rooted up trees and demolished edifices and whatever found itself in its way.

The fish, the principal resource of the inhabitants at this season of the year, were dispersed in this immense extent of water and the fisherman were not able to take them. The bison that were ordinarily found in abundance near the river Pembina went away, and about fifteen persons who had calculated on this resource perished from hunger. The waters did not recede entirely until the 20th of July; when some persons risked sowing barley, which came to maturity."

A similar condition of affairs did not occur again until 1852. Then "the water rose a foot higher than in 1826 (sixty-seven feet above low water), and the losses occasioned by it are still greater." Fencing, grain and property of all kinds was washed away and destroyed."