Emerson flood of 1897 — Red is one of the few rivers in the world that can run amok when seeming to stand still


by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
According to the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, an “Old Settler” claimed that the spring 1897 inundation would become the greatest flood in the history of the valley. He predicted that it would even surpass a devastating flood that occurred 15 years earlier, when the Red had overflowed its banks, flooding communities and farmland along its length with disastrous consequences. 
Although the plight of flood victims was quite evident to everyone in 1882 — 500 families were driven from their homes at Grand Forks — the Dakota Territory and Minnesota newspapers actually engaged in partisan commentary about the high water in rival communities that was heavily tainted by sarcasm. 
Reporting about the April 1882 flood, the Bismarck Tribune said: “Upon reaching Fargo, the flood put out the fires in the locomotive. The country between Casselton and Wheatland is a lake. The Grandin grain elevator, located on the river bottom, was almost out of sight Monday morning (April 10) ... We wonder if the citizens of that frog pond will continue to tell the immigrants that Bismarck is so dry that nothing can grow there.” 
“No, dear Fargo, our warehouses and dwelling places are not swimming over the prairie, and we do not have to wear rubber boots from March to May,” claimed the Brainerd Tribune, a Minnesota-based newspaper.
In response, the Fargo Argus commented, “There is nothing more soothing and drying than the tender expressions of sympathy and regret that are pouring in from every side ...”
Despite protests of being impartial observers, newspapers in Bismarck and Fargo traded barbs against each other, in turn claiming the high ground while expressing the opinion that the rival newspaper occupied the low ground. 
The Bismarck newspaper suggested that people from Fargo should abandon the flood-prone town and move to Bismarck, along the banks of the Missouri River, as the city was high and dry, year after year.
A Tribune editorial on April 21, 1882, commented that travellers should notice the difference between Fargo and Bismarck: “This soil of the Missouri slope is very black, rich and deep and just sand enough in it to keep it from assuming the consistency of muck.”
Furthermore, the Bismarck newspaper alleged that the only lots available in Fargo were “mud holes.”
An April 14 Tribune editorial said Fargo residents ought to come to Bismarck to dry their feet. “Poor Fargo!” the editorial ended sarcastically. “Bismarck feels so sorry for the poor thing.”
The bitter war of words between the two communities that raged during a natural calamity is explained by the politics of the day. At the time of the 1882 flood, Bismarck residents had high hopes that the Dakota Territory would become a state  — either one or divided into two (North and South Dakota weren’t created until 1889) — with their city becoming the state capital (Bismarck was named the capital of North Dakota), and they believed that Fargo stood in their way.
Meanwhile in Manitoba, newspapers refrained from letting their differing political inclinations interfere with their reporting on the spring flood.
Just four days after its official opening, two spans of the Broadway Bridge in Winnipeg were swept away by a massive ice jam on April 19, 1882, when the Red River rose 26 feet above its normal level.
The Winnipeg Sun reported on April 24 that water flooded the west side of Main Street all the way to Dufferin Avenue. Shanty Town, situated on the Hudson’s Bay Flats (today’s The Forks), was also inundated with water. On the north side of St. Boniface, nearly two-metre deep water forced people to abandon their homes and move their furniture to higher ground.
Eventually the water receded, but Red River Valley residents feared that another disastrous flood would always be just around the bend in the river. 
As they well knew, floods are a fact of life along the Red River, which lazily meanders for 883 kilometres from its confluence at Wahpeton to its delta entering Lake Winnipeg. The river flows within the basin left when glacial Lake Agassiz, formed by the meltwater from a massive ice sheet, drained for the final time 8,400 years ago. Remnants of the drainage are lakes Manitoba, Winnipeg and Winnipegosis in Manitoba, as well as Lake of the Woods in Ontario and Minnesota, and numerous rivers and smaller lakes.  
The legacy of the Ice Age and the draining of the glacial lake is a flat, fertile valley in the 116,000-square-kilometre Red River Basin. The “flat as a pancake” basin has a south-north gradient of a mere couple of centimetres per kilometre of its length. And it’s actually getting flatter as the ground beneath rebounds every year in response to the relief of not having a three to four kilometres thick glacier pressing down upon it — a process known as isostasy.
“The Red is a young, crooked river that hasn’t had enough time to cut much of a path across the lakebed (formerly occupied by Agassiz),” wrote Ashley Shelby in her book, Red River Rising. “Its channel is so poorly defined that it seems to be a withering animal in a state of extreme discomfort: hairpin turns, oxbow lakes, stretches where water seems unable to get up a head of steam. In places, its current is so sluggish that the river seems not to be flowing at all, to be a river of dark glass.”
In his book, The Manitoba Flood of 1950: An Illustrated History, historian J.M. Bumsted, wrote that “the land crossed by the Red River ... constitutes an ancient glacial lake upon which the river and its tributaries have been unable to carve channels wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the volume of water at flood periods.”
The valley is so flat that floodwaters seem to slowly build up momentum before creeping across the land. 
The Red is  “one of the few rivers in the world that can run amok while practically standing still,” wrote Vera Kelsey in her book, Red River Runs North!
The only “sudden” floods occur when an ice jam quickly appears and blocks high water at spring time, causing the river to flow over its banks and inundate adjoining land. The same result occurs when a breach in a manmade dike or sandbag system occurs, as happened at Winnipeg in 1950 and  Ste. Agathe in 1997 —  sandbag barriers were overwhelmed and breached by water beginning on “Black Friday,” May 5, while Ste. Agathe was flooded when strong winds drove water around and behind a temporary diking system.
In 1882, the Argus called the flood-prone Red River Valley, the “Venice of North Dakota.”  Winnipeg newspapers also often used the Italian city as an analogy for what occurred during floods on the northern side of the 49th Parallel from 1882 to 1897. 
While the flood of 1882 struck savagely throughout the Red River Valley, the flood of 1897 unleashed an even greater menace to communities and people living along its length.
“When snow melted in the spring (of 1897), a great flood spread along the Missouri, James, Sheyenne, and Red rivers,” wrote North Dakota University history professor Elwyn B. Robinson in his book, History of North Dakota. “It swept away property, drowned many deer, inundated towns, covered twenty-five blocks in Grand Forks, damaged bridges and made a lake thirty miles (48 kilometres) wide and a hundred and thirty miles (208 kilometres) long in the Red River Valley. Families and livestock huddled on the tops of haystacks.”
The flood forecast by the “Old Settler” arrived at Wahpeton, where the Bois de Sioux River and the Otter Tail River join to form the Red River, and crested on March 31, two-foot-eight above the high water of 1893 (U.S. Geological Survey: Red River of the North Flooding — 1897). By April 1, the railway tracks between Fargo and Wahpeton were covered in spots by water and rail traffic was suspended. By April 2, the Buffalo River overflowed, creating  a large lake between Glyndon and Moorhead. The Sheyenne River was reported as slowly rising at Valley City on April 3.
The Manitoba Free Press reported on April 7 that a strip of land six blocks long and four blocks wide had been covered by water the previous day at Fargo.
The Red at Fargo crested on the morning of April 7 at the 34.2-foot stage (since flood levels are commonly recorded in feet and inches, these measurements have not be converted to metric), exceeding the high levels of 1871, 1873 and 1882. 
On April 10, the Grand Forks Herald said, “With the vast amount of water flowing along the east border, and the lake covering the south part of Third, Fourth and Fifth streets, Grand Forks yesterday presented a sight as beautiful as the conditions were threatening.” 
The losses to the flood were even greater on the other side of the river at East Grand Forks in Minnesota.
At Halstad, Minnesota, along the Red River, the steamboat J.L. Grandin broke free of its mooring and floated downstream. The steamer finally came to rest on land far from the riverbank after the flood waters receded. No attempt was made to salvage the vessel and it remained for years on dry land until its timbers rotted away.
What was known then, and still holds true today, is what happens south of the border in terms of flooding has an effect downstream, as the Red flows north into Lake Winnipeg. 
By April 6, it was noted in Emerson that the river had risen by six inches during the past 24 hours, and was rising at a rate of two inches an hour. Four days later, the Red was continuing to rise. With the news arriving in town about Grand Forks, the citizens of Emerson were anxious about their own fate. Two days later, the water was within two feet of the high water mark and still rising.
“Just now every person is preparing for the flood,” according to an April 12 private letter from Emerson (Free Press, April 14). “A few people think we will not have any, but it looks this morning as if we will have it and pretty soon too. The water in the Red River is about the same height as it was on the 20th April, 1893, when the traffic bridge was carried away and great quantities of ice passed down the stream. The water has risen about five feet six inches since Saturday night (April) and still increases at the rate of two inches per hour. About four inches more will bring it up to the Alexandria block floors and there is now every probability of a repetition of 1893.”
By April 15, there was four feet of water covering Main Street in Emerson and all businesses had about two feet of water on their floors. With the water level 18 inches higher than the great flood of 1882, Emerson was completely inundated with water by April 22, and at Morris, the water had also entered the town.
“Scattered along the banks of the Red between Winnipeg and Grand Forks are said to be many sheds and smaller buildings caught by the high water north of Fargo (Free Press, April 23). Yesterday one of the floating residences put in an appearance near Winnipeg. The building was a good sized one, and was turned bottom side up. It drifted ashore near the St. Mary’s cemetery in Fort Rouge.”
Albert Cavalier and John Oldfield arrived in Winnipeg from Pembina, North Dakota, on April 21 after paddling by canoe for 21 hours. Along the way, they made stops at Emerson, St. Jean Baptiste and Morris.
“They confirm the reports that have reached here of the inundation of wide areas of land on both sides of the river” (Free Press, April 22).
“They saw houses in Emerson that could only be entered by the second storey windows; and along the river many settlers are unable to go more than a few yards from their houses ...
“Between Morris and Emerson there is water on all sides as far as the vision can reach, the scene presenting the aspect of a lake studded with islands.”
The two men correctly predicted that the settlers between Winnipeg and St. Jean Baptiste would suffer as much from the flood as those further to the south.
At Pembina, a similar humanitarian effort was made to resupply the town as was the case in Emerson. Pembina Mayor Judson LaMoure had in desperation wired Washington, D.C., for assistance, saying: “The storm of yesterday in connection with the flood has left over two hundred people destitute along Red River in this country. Aid is needed at once. Can anything be done? The local committee is unable to render sufficient aid.”
The first effort to relieve flood victims was by the steamer Ogemawn on April 10, but ended in failure when the vessel encountered a massive ice jam 20 kilometres below Grand Forks. Ice penetrated the vessel’s hull, springing leaks that couldn’t be stopped. Captain Hayes ran the steamer into shallow water, preventing it from sinking in deeper water and enabling it to be later repaired and refloated.
Washington sent the steamer City of Grand Forks, under the command of Captain Bruce Briggs, north to the imperilled town. On April 12, the steamer arrived at Pembina, and similar to the Assiniboine’s feat at Emerson, sailed down Pembina’s Main Street. Captain J. Elton brought the same steamer back to Pembina three days later to provide more supplies.
“The trip was an eventful one,”reported the Grand Forks Herald on the latter relief effort, “and by the timely distribution of the supplies furnished by the businessmen of the two cities (St. Paul and Minneapolis) much distress was alleviated.”
Supplies were distributed at cost to farmers who could afford them and given away for free to those who could not.
“Forty-four families were thus aided comprising nearly 350 souls ... In many cases whole families had been perched on the tops of their barns for nearly a week ...”
“The low-lying district from the Snake River to Pembina is appalling,” Captain Elton said after the trip. “It is one vast sea of desolation, wreck and ruin. In some cases the steamer was as much as two miles (3.2 kilometres) from the river channel. Barbed wire fences interfered materially with navigation across the prairies but ... families were supplied with provisions, and considerable stock has been rescued.”
The steamer captain said there were three confirmed cases of people drowning due to the flood. 
Another death occurred at Morris, where a woman drowned.
Meanwhile in Winnipeg, the city had been preparing for an anticipated flood. But Colonel Henry Noland Ruttan, the city’s engineer, expressed the opinion that the city wouldn’t suffer a flood,
although there was likely to be “some wet cellars.”
“The Red continues to rise but so slowly as to make many believe that this year will see no particular damage in the city from water” (Free Press, April 27).
While water was only slowly rising, the flow in the Red was extremely swift and  as a result eroded riverbanks. Periodically, a six-metre section of riverbank along the St. Boniface side of the Red would fall into the river.
“The high wind blowing last night transformed the river into a raging sea and waves rolled up against the shore with great force ... Elm Park (on the Winnipeg side of the Red) is almost entirely submerged and some gentlemen who were down that far in a boat yesterday moored their craft to the roof of the refreshment booth.”
On Monday, May 4, the Free Press reported in an article entitled, Flood excitement Over, that Winnipeg had escaped the wrath of the flood that had ravaged communities and farms to the south. Little local flood damage was recorded, according to the newspaper.
“It is now demonstrated that the flood at Emerson, Morris and other points due to local conditions and the present experience should satisfy anxious Winnipeg people that an overflow at points down the river does not mean that the same state of affairs will exist here.
“The high water mark of 1892 was not reached, that year the Red River getting up 23 feet above low water level. The high water mark of 1892 was not reached by more than two feet.”
The 1892 flood paled in comparison to the havoc created by the 1882 and 1897 floods, as the ’92 flood did not inundate towns such as Emerson in Manitoba.
In the communities south of Winnipeg, the 1897’s high water was receding by the end of April, which meant that another rescue mission was no longer necessary, and the worst of the flood had passed. 
The Free Press on May 17 reported that the bridge at Emerson over the Joe River had finally been repaired and rail traffic to the community restored. The first train for several weeks arrived at Emerson on May 15, ending its isolation from the outside world.