Does it seem that we’ve been fighting floods forever? Pretty close. Residents along the Red River have been wrangling Mother Nature every 10 or 15 years since settlement began. Inevitably, Mother seems to have the upper hand.
In between flood emergencies, we generally turn on each other. Fargo-Moorhead and its neighbors have been sharing vastly divergent opinions of the F-M Diversion Project for fully 10 years. Sometimes it seems as if the bickering will never end … can never be fully resolved. No local issue has ever drawn in more head-butting stakeholders — town and country, businesses and homeowners, two cities, two counties, two states and the Feds — or attempted to temper more sizzling degrees of personal and civic self-interest.
Yet the record does show it can be done. Victory has been achieved before … and by nearly the same cast of impassioned characters.
Sixty years ago, draglines finally attacked the course of the tangled river and straightened out at least a few of its legendary kinks. In 1959, Fargo-Moorhead tackled the issue of containing the Red’s epic rampage in a victory that holds some lessons — and some hope.
The Red has been soaking Fargo-Moorhead’s feet ever since the cities’ sketchy, sweaty birth in 1871. By 1882, they were fighting the first of the floods that arrived like clockwork through World War I. After taking a break in the Dirty Thirties, the sluggish river returned with a vengeance in 1943. St. John’s Hospital (now Prairie St. John’s) stood on the bank of an oxbow that reached to Fargo’s Fourth Street; it had to be evacuated.
The river’s path was different then. South of Main Avenue, it took a lazy westward loop from its current course to the edge of Island Park, then back to Second Street. A generous finger of Minnesota pointed straight to the brand-new F-M Community Theater on Fourth Street South.
To no one’s surprise, epic floodwaters returned in 1950 and again in 1952. Streets ran deep on both sides of the river, reaching 5 feet on Broadway. Water stood hip-high on the main floor of Dommer’s Boathouse near Fourth Avenue Southwest in Moorhead, the beloved spot where fun seekers had been renting boats and canoes for decades to enjoy the river’s calmer moments. Hundreds of homes and business were swamped. Utilities were damaged and destroyed. The cost to both cities was enormous.
The soggy cities dreamed of a solution. Though their physical footprint was a fraction of today’s (Fargo with 38,256 people and Moorhead, 14,870) and embraced a far shorter stretch of river, temporary dikes didn’t do the trick. Yet no one could see the way to salvation. Ideas were tossed out, like scrapping St. John’s Hospital (which had had to be evacuated) and rebuilding on higher ground. Then they were systematically shot down — impossible, impractical, unaffordable.
At last, frustrated city fathers spotted a glimmer of light in Washington, where in 1950, the Disaster Relief Act empowered the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — to help deal with flooding. The two cities, which been fighting alone, spotted an ally. As the clean-up began in 1952, Mayor Murray Baldwin and the City Commission appointed a committee to work with the Army Corps of Engineers. It submitted its plan just a year later. The goal: to straighten out the critical snarl in the river that inundated downtown and speed the water on its way north.
And the outcry was instantly ferocious. Almost six dozen occupied homes would have to be demolished on both sides of the river, along with businesses and facilities dating back to the steamboat days.
Moorhead feared the more easterly channel, bounded by an enormous permanent levee on the Fargo side, would back up water onto its dependably higher, drier ground. City leaders fretted that downstream landowners would sue them if the amended flow of floodwaters caused damage to their farms. The beloved boathouse and swimming hole would have to go. Even the proto-environmentalists of the day had their say, decrying the removal of 200 trees from the riverbank.
But flood-control proponents persisted through six years of often-heated squabbling. The break finally came in 1959, when the recalcitrant North Dakota Legislature passed a measure specifically permitting Moorhead to sue the city of Fargo for any damages that might ensue.
By July, Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz would preside over the draglines that dug a new, straighter channel about a quarter-mile east of what had been Minnesota’s western border. They worked through the summer. At the end of October, the river’s flow was permanently diverted into its new pathway, and the blip of age-old former riverbed went dry.
Grandparents among us today still remember the sight: a mucky, barren depression punctuated by the old dam. Crowds gathered to see what they could see — submerged skeletons, perhaps? Submerged treasure? A stolen safe had been long rumored to be ditched down below. Police investigated, just in case. But to thrill-seekers’ disappointment, they spotted nothing but a rusty bicycle and a few corroded oil drums.
Meanwhile, the Corps also dealt with less controversial obstacles north of the Veterans Administration. One of three small adjacent oxbows was eliminated outright with crosswise excavation. The other two were fitted with weir dams that permit normal flow from day to day but divert high water to a straighter, broader path.
But besting Mother Nature by epic engineering wasn’t the end of the story then, as it hasn’t yet been today. By straightening the rerouted the Red River — the historic border between two states — 22.5 acres of what was still legally Minnesota was marooned on the wrong side. Not until the U.S. Congress approved an interstate compact in 1962 did the boundary shift east to the new riverbank.
Clay County’s loss was the city of Fargo’s gain. Remember that … and thank the North Star State next time your children sled on the Dike East or you park your car in the big lot east of the Stage at Island Park.
Sixty years ago, we won one. Two cities, two states and the federal government succeeded in not only taming a fraction of Mother Nature’s power, but untangling their competing interests long enough to redraw the map. Odds are, we can do it again.
(Thanks to archivist Mark Peihl of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and author Terry Shoptaugh, author of Red River Floods, for the research on which this is based.)