“Disastrous year 1826” — floodway expansion to protect city from flood of greater magnitude

by Bruce Cherney

The Manitoba Clean Environment Commission is holding hearings on the potential environmental, socio-economic and cultural effects of the proposed $665-million expansion of the Red River Floodway.

At the hearings last week, several Rural Municipalities are expressing concerns that drinking water obtained from aquifers flowing under the floodway could become contaminated by flood water. A motion to postpone the hearings by the RMs of East St. Paul, St. Clements and Springfield was denied by the CEC on Tuesday.

It was the International Joint Commission that after the 1997 “flood of the century” advised the province to improve the floodway to expand its carrying capacity. The 48-kilometre floodway was built between 1962 and 1967 at a cost of $63 million, and has been in operation 20 times between 1969 and 2004. It is estimated the floodway has prevented $8 billion in losses over the years. 

In 1997, Ste. Agathe was inundated and Winnipeg came within a whisker of suffering a similar fate. Since then, the province’s dyking system, protecting rural communities in the Red River Valley, has been improved with the next step being the proposed floodway expansion to further protect Winnipeg.

Although the 1997 flood was enormous, it was actually not the worst flood in recorded history. The flood of 1826 was 40 per cent greater than the “flood of the century” and nearly two metres higher than the destructive flood of 1950. 

If a flood of the 1826 level was to be repeated today, the estimated damages would approach $5 billion. The floodway expansion is designed to protect the city from a flood of more than the 1826 magnitude.

Henry Youle Hind, writing on an expedition to the Red River, reported that floods had occurred in 1776, 1790, 1809, 1826 and 1852. 

“In 1852, the Bishop of Rupert’s Land estimated the breadth of the inundated country to be about 12 miles a short distance below Fort Garry (Winnipeg),” wrote Hind. “Although the flood of 1852 was not so high as that of 1826, yet its effects were very severely felt in St. John’s and St. Paul’s parish and about Fort Garry.”

Just like 1997, the 1826 flood was preceded by the vast accumulation of snow in the Red River Valley and surrounding countryside. The 1997 flood was exasperated by a massive weekend blizzard at the beginning of April.

Also, the seeds of the 1826 were set a year earlier with flooding of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The water remained high throughout the summer and the land became saturated by heavy rainfall.

Alexander Ross, a fur trader who retired to the Red River Settlement in 1825 and was an eyewitness to the flood of ’26, wrote in his book on the settlement of the “disastrous year 1826, one of the most fatal, both as to life and property, that ever befell Red River.”

The year had an inauspicious beginning, according to Ross, who said Metis buffalo hunters were starving on the plains. When Ross travelled to Pembina (North Dakota) in February, he found ample evidence of the plight of the hunters and assisted the Hudson’s Bay Company  to convey food to the starving people.

It was reported that a December 1825 snow-storm “such as had not been witnessed for years” and lasting several days, “drove the buffalo herds beyond the hunters’ reach, and killed most of their horses.”

The blizzard scattered the hunters about the plains with the result that some were never found. “Families here, and families there, despairing of life, huddled themselves together for warmth, and, in too many cases, their shelter proved their grave.”

Ross said some people were found on the plains in a state of delirium as they tried to reach Pembina. He reported that a mother with a child on her back was found just a quarter mile from the safety of Pembina. “This poor creature must have travelled, at the least, 125 miles, in three days and nights, till she sunk at last in the too unequal struggle for life.

Others resorted to eating their “dogs, rawhide, leather and their very shoes.” Ross said he encountered on the road from Pembina to Red River two people who had recently died, “and saw forty-two others, in seven or eight parties, crawling along with great difficulty.” Ross could only provide a mouthful of bread to those he met on the road.

A family buried for several days in the snow was dug out. The father died, but the mother and her two children survived their ordeal.

The total of lives lost was 33, according to Ross.

“Hardly had the colonists recovered themselves, after these exertions, when they were visited by another great calamity.”

“By the end of April 1826, all the preconditions for a large flood had been fulfilled,” wrote Scott St. George and Bill Rainie in a 2002 paper on the  causes of the flood published in the Canadian Water Resources Journal. “Following a large flood in the spring of 1825, the available storage in the basin had been filled to capacity by an usually wet summer and fall ... general thawing at the settlement was delayed until April 12 and several heavy snowfalls between April 17 and April 26 added to the moisture stored in the basin. The arrival of thawing temperatures did not occur until the end of the month and break-up of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was the latest on record.”

Ross said snow depth averaged three feet on the plains and four to five feet in the woods. He called the cold “intense” because it often was -45°F (the celsius and fahrenheit scales converge at -40°). Because of the bone-chilling cold, ice on the river reached 5-feet-7 in thickness (nearly two metres).

He said that the colonists were not alarmed that spring, which had arrived later than usual, until the flow of water increased because of high accumulations of snow had begun to melt.

David Jones, a missionary with the Christain Missionary Society and an eyewitness to the 1826 flood, wrote in his journal on May 1, 1826 that the settlers were wishing for warm weather, but when it arrived it made them apprehensive.

“Every creek pours in its tributary flood and the water has already overflowed its banks in many places ... The ice has not yet moved though elevated nearly up to the level of the banks and is unusually weighty being in general four feet (1.2 metres) thick ...” 

“On the 2nd of May, the day before the ice started,” wrote Ross, “the water rose nine feet (almost three metres) perpendicular in the twenty-four hours!”

The estimate is that the water level rose by a total of eight metres between May 1 and 5.

Ross said no one had before witnessed such a massive rise, commenting that even the “Indians were startled.

“On the 4th, the water overflowed the banks of the river, and now spread so fast, that almost before the people were aware of the danger, it had reached their dwellings. Terror was depicted on every countenance, and so level was the country, so rapid the rise of the waters, that on the 5th, all the settlers abandoned their houses, and sought refuge on higher ground.”

The settlers fled to the high ground at Stony Mountain, Birds Hill, Sturgeon Creek and Silver Heights. Some were transported by HBC staff using boats.

“The (HBC) forts (at The Forks) now stand like a castle of romance in the midst of an ocean of deep contending currents, the water extending for at least a mile behind them, and they are thereby only approachable by boats and canoes,” wrote HBC employee Francis Heron, another eyewitness to the flood.

One man who had placed his bed atop a haystack and had a substantial reserve of food on-hand to ride out the flood, awoke in the middle of the night and found himself and haystack floating toward lake Winnipeg.

After the people were conveyed to safety, “the first consideration was to secure the cattle, by driving them many miles off, to the pine hills and rocky heights.”

A mass of ice was dislodged by the rapid flow of the Red River and borne towards Lake Winnipeg. The ice flow carried away portions of the riverbank along with trees.

Ross said the area became like an inland sea with few dry spots remaining. To save their household contents, people were forced to break holes in the roofs of their homes and carry them away by boat.

“While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing, and every description of property, might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain, to be engulfed in lake Winnipeg.

“Many of the buildings drifted along whole and entire; and in some were seen dogs, howling dismally, and cats, that jumped frantically from side to side of their precarious abodes.

“The most singular spectacle was a house in flames, drifting along in the night, its one half immersed in water, and the remainder furiously burning.”

The year-old St. Paul’s Middlechurch at Image Plain (Main Street and Hwy. 9) was completely destroyed by the flood. Meanwhile, St. John’s (Upper Church) was left relatively unscathed.

The Church Missionary Society members at St. Paul’s tried to save their property by placing it atop the roof of the church. They also built a platform to serve as a refuge if the flood persisted. The flood became too dangerous and they joined their neighbours in fleeing its path. They took refuge at Snake Indian Hills (Stony Mountain), pitching tents. According to Sarah Tucker (died c. 1859), the author of The Rainbow in the North, the missionaries and their congregation were in an encampment of 130 tents and “many Indian wigwams.”

Reverend William Cockran, the minister who served the congregations at St. John’s and St. Paul’s, and his wife were among those forced to flee the flood to Stony Mountain.

“The glass windows (of St. Paul’s) were driven out by the current,” reported David Thomas Jones, a missionary who helped build the church just a year previously, “the seats were shattered and mostly carried away, the pulpits swept from the foundation; the doors battered down, and all the plastering washed off.”

While riding in his boat with a group of men, Ross witnessed one man fleeing the flood waters by tying two oxen together and placing his wife and four children upon their backs. “The docile and terrified animals waded or floated as they best could, like a moveable stage, while the poor man himself, with a long line in his hands, kept before them, sometimes wading, sometimes swimming, guiding them to the highest ground.”

In making his own way to safety, Ross and his men rowed their boat to a barn and spent what he called “a miserable night” in the company of 50 others. With the waters still rising, they were forced to flee the barn. In boats and canoes, they rode out the flood for two days. High winds whipped up waves so the make-shift flotilla made its way to the banks of the Assiniboine River (Silver Heights).

“Here, on a patch of high ground, we found a dense crowd of people, and among others, the rascal de Meurons (soldiers hired by Lord Selkirk in 1817 to protect the colony), who, it was well known, hardly possessed an animal of their own, and yet were selling cheap beef all the time.”

Ross, disgusted with the alleged cattle rustlers, again took to the water and “took up our quarters on the delightful banks of Sturgeon Creek (west of Silver Heights), where we remained in peace and quietness till the water began to fall.”

He said provisions became scarce, but the de Meurons “fed them with our own beef” at an inflated price. “These were the boys that had been brought to the country to restore the settlements to order, and keep peace!”

The 1826 flood nearly destroyed enthusiasm for the colony among the settlers. The first to leave were a party of 234 de Meurons and “every idler and other people averse to Red River,” according to Ross. The “idlers” were sped on their way with free provisions provided by the HBC which apparently shared Ross’ distrust for the de Meurons. They left the colony on June 24 for the Upper Mississippi Valley.

George Simpson, the new governor of the HBC, wrote in his journal that he considered the flood “an extinguisher to the hope of Red River ever retaining the name of settlement.”

Ross said the Scot settlers were not easily discouraged and resumed work on their farms — the fourth time they had to start all over again during their tenure in the colony established by Lord Selkirk in 1812.

The perseverance of the settlers and the departure of “the dross” was the commencement of a new era in the settlement, according to Ross.

“Before the year 1830 had passed, the colony was completely re-established, and more promising and thriving than ever. In this brief interval of two or three busy years, no less than 204 new houses had been built, besides more enclosures made, and barns erected, on sites far more eligible, and secure from any future rise of the water, than those which the flood had destroyed.”

Another consequence of the 1826 flood was the HBC’s decision to relocate its administrative centre to higher ground at Lower Fort Garry near Selkirk.