The sign read “Continental Divide, 1619 feet.”
I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that sign while recently driving across the top of a small hill on highway 281 between Sheyenne and New Rockford. No lofty snow-capped peaks here. The sign of course identified the continental divide between the Sheyenne River which flows eastward near the town of Sheyenne and the James River which flows eastward on the north side of New Rockford.
As you North Dakota geography junkies all know, the Cheyenne River lies within the Hudson Bay drainage while the James River is in the Missouri River drainage which of course flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps like you, I have noticed similar signs on Interstate 94 between Jamestown and Valley City and also east of Harvey on highway 52, although I didn’t notice it the last time I traveled that highway.
To check the watersheds of the state, I took a quick look at the 3rd edition of John Bluemle’s The Face of North Dakota, published by the North Dakota Geological Survey. The Missouri River and its tributaries, which include the James River, drain 49% of the state.
About 38% of the state drains into Hudson Bay. The Hudson Bay watershed includes the Sheyenne River and the other tributaries of the Red River. It also includes the Souris River and the Devils Lake basin. Devils Lake is now a closed basin, but most North Dakotans and Manitobans are well aware that if the lake rises a few more feet it will drain into the Sheyenne River.
The continental divide between these two drainages generally follows the Missouri Coteau from the northwest corner of the state to south of Harvey. From there it runs roughly between the James and Sheyenne Rivers until dropping into South Dakota.
The remainder of the state, about 13% consists of landscapes with no integrated drainage system. This area is pothole country, and includes the Missouri Coteau, Prairie Coteau, and Turtle Mountain.
Look for these continental divide signs as you travel the state. You might even have some fun and stop for a photograph with a sign. No doubt many out-of-staters have done the same.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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