Surely April is a month of great duality in the state of North Dakota; after a long winter, residents are relieved to see the first signs of spring, but, unfortunately, these signs often include spring flooding. One of the worst floods on record occurred during the spring of 1897; the flood was so great, and the damage so terrible, that it was used as the “measure of other Red River floods” for decades after.
Very early on, many realized the flooding that year would be bad. The Fargo Forum reported on March 15th that, after the horrendous winter, the valley would most certainly witness the greatest flood in its history, even surpassing that of 1861. Titled “The Coming Flood,” the article claimed the “entire valley was flooded from Big Stone Lake to Winnipeg, a distance of more than 300 miles.”
Within days, it became clear that the prediction of a frightful rise in the river would prove correct. On March 31st, the river crested at Wahpeton, inundating the railroad tracks between that city and Fargo. Within a week, the river crested at Fargo, and around noon on this date in 1897, the Red crested at Grand Forks, bringing water up to 3rd Street and flooding Demers Avenue in East Grand Forks.
By mid-April, it was reported that the stretch of river from Grand Forks to St. Vincent was up to nine miles wide, causing ninety percent of the farmers within five miles of the river to lose everything. The water teemed with the carcasses of drowned livestock. Although the water completely submerged the town of Emerson, Manitoba, by the time the floodwaters reached Winnipeg, they had dissipated so much that no flooding occurred.
So, just how high was the flood of 1897? It’s difficult to say, since a flood gauge was not established until 1901. Some records suggest that the river’s crest north of Fargo exceeded 40 feet, which would indicate a level higher than that of even 1997.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Dill, Joseph (ed.). 1988 North Dakota: 100 Years: p. 10. The Forum Publishing Company: Fargo, ND.
The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. Thursday (Evening ed.), April 22, 1897; p. 1.