The 1950 flood in the Red River of the North and the Winnipeg River Basins
was the largest that had occurred in several decades and caused the greatest
damage that the flooded area had ever sustained up to that point. The
U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Water Resources Division,
Department of Resources and Development, Canada, published a Water-Supply
Paper in 1952 regarding the flood. Text from that publication is
Five lives were lost in the United States, owing to causes directly
connected with the floods. The dual peaks -- on upper river and tributaries,
one in April and the other in May -- of nearly the same size and the large
lake-like body of flood-water ponded between Grand Forks and Winnipeg were
notable features of the flood in the Red River of the North Basin. The flood
in the Winnipeg River Basin was characterized by the unusually large volume
of runoff and the lateness of cresting on the Lake of the Woods.
The spring floods of 1950 in the Red River of the North and Winnipeg
River Basins were caused by many factors so combined that nearly
record-breaking flood flows resulted. The important factors causing the
flooding were: (1) high soil moisture at breakup combined with frozen
ground, (2) above-normal accumulation of snow at breakup, (3)
later-than-normal breakup, and (4) heavy precipitation during the breakup.
Ice jams were an additional cause of flooding on a few of the tributaries.
Mid-March snow-surveys, made in the area by hydrographers of the United
States and Canadian services, showed that the snow pack north of Fargo, N.
Dak., had an unusually high water content and a runoff potential increasing
from west to east. A narrow band, extending from near Grand Forks, N. Dak.,
east-northeastward across the basin, had a water content of 5 inches or
higher. April 15 marked the beginning of rapid melting throughout the
basins; most of the snow was turned into water by the end of the first melt
period on April 24. A return of winter-like conditions until May 10 brought
more snow and set the stage for second flood crests.
The records of stage and discharge collected on the Red River of the
North at Grand Forks, N. Dak., since 1882 show that the important 1897 flood
slightly exceeded the 1950 flood in both stage and discharge. Records
collected by the Geological Survey and Corps of Engineers on the Red River
of the North show that the 1950 flood stages exceeded any previously known
from just below the mouth of the Turtle River to the international boundary.
Records for streams tributary to the Red River of the North between Fargo
and the Roseau River show, in general, that the 1950 flood events exceed
those of any known past floods. In the storage basins of the Winnipeg River,
Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake reached a stage comparable to that of 1916;
and the Winnipeg River discharge at Slave Falls exceed the highest
previously recorded maximum, which occurred in 1927. Records of floods on
the Red River at Winnipeg show that the 1950 flood did not reach as high as
stage as those of 1826, 1852, and 1861.
The first phase of the flood on the Red River of the North in 1950 was
the minor flooding at the start of the Red River at Breckenridge-Wahpeton in
late March and early April. The River at Wahpeton started rising on March
26; by the afternoon of April 2 it had reached peak discharge. Damage from
flooding in the Wahpeton area was nil or minor.
At Fargo, the April flood caused some minor inconvenience and damage on
lower Broadway. Pumps were in continuous operation to keep the Fargo City
Auditorium dry. It was estimated that 100 families, the majority in
Moorhead, Mn., had been forced from their homes by the flood as of April 5.
The water continued to rise at Fargo until April 7 when it reached a peak
stage of 21.2 feet. A flood almost as large occurred on May 12 as a result
of the second thaw.
Grand Forks-East Grand Forks
The Red River flood passed from Fargo downstream to Grand Forks without
going overbank. At Grand Forks the Red Lake River enters from Minnesota and
the flood waters of that stream, added to those of the Red River of the
North, created a flood situation at Grand Forks and downstream that was the
most serious to occur there since 1897.
Ample flood warning was given to the inhabitants of the area; R. W.
Shultz, Weather Bureau meteorologist, issued a forecast for a flood stage of
42 feet at Grand Forks on April 8. At that time, the river stood at about 27
feet at the Weather Bureau gage in Grand Forks. Official flood stage at
Grand Forks is 28 feet.
By April 7 some families, anticipating flooding, had moved from their
homes in the Lincoln Drive area. As the water's rose, the flood threat
became a reality, made ominous by the 6 inches of wet snow that fell over
Easter weekend; on the morning of April 10 the river was more than 3 feet
above flood stage at Grand Forks and rising. Cold weather of the period
April 10-13 slowed the rate of rise but did not stop it. Warm weather, April
15-21, caused a resumption of thawing and the river rose rapidly towards a
crest at Grand Forks. On April 14 about 18 families had moved from their
homes in the Lincoln Drive area and four families had moved from their home
in East Grand Forks. By April 17 about 60 families had been moved from their
homes in the twin-city area. The river reached the predicted stage of 42
feet on April 19 and then held to a small daily rise, finally cresting on
April 24. The flood recede slowly to a stage of 35.5 feet on May 3 and began
rising again for the second and higher crest.
More than 225 families had been forced from their homes in Grand Forks
and East Grand Forks by the flood crest on the Red River of the North, as of
April 20, according to the Grand Forks Herald. The Riverside Park and
Lincoln Drive residential areas of Grand Forks were badly flooded, although
the Grand Forks business district was not troubled except for wet basements.
Water got into the underground tubes carrying steam heating pipe through
Grand Forks and the vapor, which rose from manholes as the water touched the
hot pipes, had to be carried in tubes about 10 feet above street levels to
permit unobscured view of traffic. The appearance of these makeshift
chimneys with vapor pouring from the top was especially weird at night.
The second flood crest came on May 12 and multiplied the damage of the
April crest; many families packed up precious belongings and moved from
their homes a second time. Supply of electric power and city water was not
interrupted at Grand Forks at any time during the flood although inference
was with normal operation at both the water treatment plant and the power
plant was common. Traffic into the city from the north and south was
impossible because of flooded main highways. The water did not recede below
flood stage until June 4. Although the 1897 flood reached a higher stage it
did not last as many days; in 1950 the river was officially above flood
stage at Grand Forks from April 9 to June 3.
Grand Forks to Winnipeg
The Red River of the North below Grand Forks resembled, for nearly two
months a series of lakes rather than a river. The descriptions of the floods
in the small communities along the river between Grand Forks and Winnipeg
were almost alike: the story of evacuation of personnel and prized
belongings was repeated again and again in the United States and Canadian
towns. All towns located along the Red River between Grand Forks and Emerson
were seriously flooded. The population of Pembina, N. Dak., normally 650,
was reduced to 144 by migration due to the flood. Below Oslo, Minn., the
dual peaks of the flood upstream were merged into one long flat crest that
moved on downstream in that form, the flood becoming serious at Pembina and
Emerson about the third week of April. The small Canadian communities
located between the border and Winnipeg were flooded continuously for weeks.
Winnipeg, a city of about 300,000 , is the largest urban center in the
flooded area. The description of the flood sequence at Winnipeg merits
detail. An epic fight to save as much as possible from the flood began on
April 21 and ended about June 1. Volunteers and military personnel working
on dikes and utilities became a familiar scene.
The flood crest passed from the northern limits of Winnipeg into Lake
Winnipeg without going overbank. At the time of the crest only about 2 1/2
square miles of city land was under water owing to the hasty erection of
earth and sandbag dikes. It was estimated that 80,000 people of greater
Winnipeg left their homes because of flooding or threatened flooding. The
main business district of Winnipeg was not flooded, but disruption of
utility services hampered activities.
U.S. Geological Survey, 1952, Floods
of 1950 in the Red River of the North and Winnipeg River Basins: U.S.
Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1137-B, 212 p.
Links to Additional Images of Red River of the North Flooding
North Dakota State University Fargo Flood Homepage
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Flood Reconnaissance Photographs
USGS Flood Related Publications
North Dakota Water Resources Images
U.S. Geological Survey at Work Images
Hazardous travel on Highway 1 in Oslo, MN, May 1950
Oak Park Lutheran Church Northeast of Oslo, MN
Photo taken May 14, 1950 by Rev. G. W. Mathre
Oslo, MN from southeast
Photo taken May 14, 1950 Rev. G. W. Mathre
Oslo, MN from north
Photo taken May 14, 1950 Rev. G. W. Mathre
Water over the road 1 1/2 miles east of Oslo, MN (seen in
Photo taken May 11, 1950 by Rev. G. W. Mathre
Only the "Soo Line" tracks and a small portion
of high river bank were above water at Oslo, MN
USGS Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 4
Red River of the North resembles a huge lake during the
1950 flood, air view taken looking north from Oslo, MN
Courtesy Lee-Evanson Studios, Grand Forks, ND
Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 3
PDF File - Map showing area of 1950 floods in the Red River of the North and Winnipeg River basins.
USGS Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 9
PDF File - Map showing water content of snow on ground as of March
USGS Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 10
PDF File - Map of area flooded by the Red River between Grand Forks
and Winnipeg, April-May 1950
USGS Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 11
PDF File - Map of Red River of the North and Winnipeg River basins in
the United States and Canada showing location of flood determination
USGS Water Supply Paper 1137-B Plate 12
Area flooded in 1950, Fargo, N. Dak., and Moorhead, Minn.
Area flooded in 1950, Grand Forks, N. Dak., and East Grand Forks, Minn.
Map showing flooded areas in greater Winnipeg, April-June 1950.