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The Red River Valley Flood of 1950

I was too young to experience the Red River Valley flood in 1950, but I learned so much about it through watching movies. I love movies and always have because our family used to watch 8 mm films ever since I was very young, movies that my father had taken with his 1947 Bell & Howell camera years ago. I was enthralled with the black and white…sometimes fuzzy…images on the screen that would jerk and wiggle. The stories that my dad told to accompany those images enthralled me.

He had movie film of me sitting on my Goofy bed in my chenille bathrobe when I was four, talking on a plastic phone that I had gotten for Xmas. There was another segment showing my grandfather climbing out of the driver’s seat of his black Model T Ford and walking around to the grill to crank it up to start the engine as it was parked in the snow in front of the Pembina prefab house. 

Grandpa had to yank that crank a few times to get the engine running and the automobile would vibrate before it started humming. It surprised me that both my grandfather and grandmother had driven that Model T Ford across the farmlands through the winter snow from Hampden, North Dakota, all the way Pembina which must have been over a hundred miles. And Dad took movies of me playing in the snow and of all the snow drifts … and the floods we had almost every year when the winter snow melted.

The Red River Valley flood of 1950 was by far the worst. The flooding was so bad that the Army Corps of Engineers took reels and reels of 8mm movie film, showing the high water levels and the devastating damage to the small towns and cities along the river, probably to present to government officials in relation to building dikes along the river route in the future to guard against it happening again. My dad bought a couple of those reels showing the flooding in Pembina, adding them to his home collection to show us later when we could understand what had happened.

I remember watching those fascinating movies in Park Forest while I sat with my sisters in our pajamas on the radiant heat tile floor of our house, sitting on pillows and crunching on popcorn.  I liked that kind of flooring because it was warm when I stepped out of bed in the morning. The  radiant heat would melt the snow in a twelve inch perimeter around the outside of the house foundation during the winter, allowing flowers to grow in the open space, whether the temperatures were in the single digits or even in the minus degrees or not.. The blue petals of the crocus looked really pretty against the white snow.

As Dad prepared to show the films, I watched him go to the closet, pull out the box with the movie projector in it as well as the movie screen plus the box of movie film and carry them into the living room to set them up. He positioned the movie projector on a small table facing the screen, chose a movie reel to watch, carefully threading a reel of 8 mm film into the projector paths and over the lens. Turning the projector light on, he adjusted the image size to match the screen frame by moving the table closer or farther away; then he would motion for Mom to close the curtains and turn out the lights.

My sister and I always checked to make certain we could see our hands in front of our face … which we could because it never got that dark, but we had to be sure just in case. When he switched on the projector itself with a loud click, the film began moving past the lighted opening with a whirring sound as frame after frame of jerky images of that famous flood appeared on the screen in front of us. Even with all the water on the ground, I could see that it was raining because the skies were gray and dreary with lots of clouds.

I learned later that the story behind this particular flood was that the harsh winter of 1949 and early 1950 produced a record snowfall … and a record snowmelt…causing waters to rise over ten feet in the streets and in the homes. The Pembina population of 650 people was reduced to 144 by migration because of the flood … and we were one of those migrants, having to relocate temporarily to Minneapolis.

On the screen, it showed that there was water … water everywhere … and not a drop to drink! Those words could not have been more appropriate for the remaining people that stayed behind in the town of Pembina, North Dakota, in the spring of 1950 when the Red River rose to flood stage and beyond.

When Dad received the official disaster warning of rising flood waters at his work, he made plans to try to save our furniture by piling the items high on tables and boxes, so they would not get wet. We had a one story house; but those with two story houses carried furniture and belongings up to the second story of their house, so they could hunker down to live, waiting until the flood waters receded … or so Dad told us. 

While my mother, my sister, and I went to Minneapolis to wait out the natural disaster, my father stayed behind to help the army and the Red Cross with search and rescue as well as food and water delivery in Pembina. The movies showed the Army Corp of Engineers moving through town in boats and those old funny looking Army Ducks they called them that traveled on both land and water to rescue people stranded in trees or marooned on the roofs. 

We watched as the army motorboats would pull up to the window of a house to deliver food and water in boxes and large cans to the brave souls living safe and fairly dry on the second floor. Sometimes when the boats passed, people would hang out of the windows and wave at them like it was a celebration or party or something … but this was definitely no party.

The back story was that the snow from the Great Blizzard of 1949 and 1950 didn’t start melting until April of 1950 and the authorities sent out notices of flood stage emergency to every city and town along the Red River. My later blog writing research showed that the floodwaters crested at a record level on April 8th reaching 42 feet at Grand Forks a hundred or so miles south of Pembina, receded temporarily below flood stage, and then crested at a higher record level on May 12th.  

The movies taken from small planes flying over the region showed that floodwaters covered farm fields, turning hundreds of square miles of land along the Red River Valley into an enormous lake with only the occasional house or barn roof and a tree here and there poking through the surface. The motion of the plane on the screen made my stomach lurch when I remembered the time Dad took me up in his bi-winged, two-seater that looked like a Wright Brothers plane … and we swooped, rose high, and dove over our house in Pembina with Mom waving outside far below. He actually did a couple loop-the-loops and I threw up, but that’s another story. 

Apparently, the floodwaters lasted from April 8th to June 3rd, which was a longer period of time than any other year in decades. Even Winnipeg, which had built the dikes to divert the floodwaters, suffered tremendous damage that year. On May 8th, 1950, the north flowing Red River reached its highest level since 1861 and eight dikes protecting the city gave way causing four of the eleven bridges to be destroyed. 

Around 70,000 people out of a population of 300,000 had to be evacuated because of the rising waters and the flood caused Lake Winnipeg to expand into an enormous lake covering 600 square miles of farmland. So, it seems the Flood of 1950 spared no one, not even Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Before we left for Minneapolis, I remember watching my father pile the old stuffed rocker on top of the table along with boxes full of bedding and other items. He stayed behind to help out the troops with flood rescue, while he sent my mother, my sister, and me to Minneapolis to the Delta Hotel where we stayed until the flood waters receded along the Red River almost three months later. 

My grandparents managed the Delta Hotel in downtown Minneapolis during the winter months as a way to escape the harsh winters where they lived in Hampden, North Dakota, a small farming town of maybe 200 people at most during the good times, with a grain elevator near the railroad tracks.

We joined them at the hotel and stayed in the city where we were safe. I remember that hotel was made of large carved stones and had steep steps up to the front door. On a trip to Minneapolis years later, I wandered around the downtown area and actually found that old hotel. Surprisingly, it was still being used … but had another name. 

I fondly remember a midget … or as she would be called today, a little person …who lived at the Delta Hotel. Her name was Elda and we could just about look each other in the eye when we talked. I thought that was cool because straining to look up at normal people all the time was tiring – like they were all gods or something. 

Elda took a liking to me, maybe because she never had children of her own and she would buy me Jane Russell and Dorothy Lamour paper dolls to cut out and play with because she knew I liked paper dolls and movie stars. In fact, Elda would sit down and cut out the paper doll clothes with me and pretend she was talking to Jane Russell while I answered as Dorothy Lamour. She was my favorite flood friend that I saw every time the Red River overflowed.

By the time we got back to Pembina and our little Ikea house, Dad had cleaned up most of the mud and gunk, but Mom and I had to finish later anyway. Those waters backed up into every house and the mess it left behind was appalling – yards and yards of gooey gunk and muck stuck to the walls and a thick muddy carpet covered the floors. After the flood waters receded, I remember returning to our Sears Prefab house and having to help Mom scrub up the remaining slop – literally. It stunk like poop and made me want to vomit. 

You see, the whole town used outhouses, so that filthy flood water would have been full of human feces and waste as well as mud, sludge, and garbage, not to mention dead animals.  It did occur to me later that, since the Red River flowed north, Pembina got all the junk and muck in those flood waters from both Fargo and from Grand Forks, which made me think of our neighbor to the north in Manitoba as well.

Winnipeg, who was probably technologically advanced enough to have a sewer system in place, got dumped on by all the American garbage, dead trees, car and tractor parts, a roof or two, dead cows, old mattresses, rotten food, tires, rags, and lots and lots of human waste from all those stinky outhouses along the river south of them. I figure that’s the real reason why they built those dikes early on – to avoid getting stuck in a mucky mess made of Yankee shit … and suspicious miscellaneous substances that will never be identified. 

Many of the Pembina migrants returned to their homes when the flood waters went down and began cleaning up the nasty mess just like we did because those houses were their homes and they had no where else to go. If a house had been inundated with water like that today with toxic mold left behind in the walls and floors, the authorities would have declared the house uninhabitable, leaving the homeowners homeless … but that did not happen back then.  

Any health issues related to the toxic mold was not addressed as such because I don’t think the medical profession understood the health dangers of mold in those days. People merely survived and lived out their lives in their homes, managing as best as they could through each harsh winter and every flood in the spring. A few years later, we moved to Chicago and did not have to deal with Red River Valley floods anymore, only storm drains clogging up during a hard rain that usually flooded the streets. Boots on, my sisters and I would go out to play in the water on the road, even though that was probably also contaminated with pesticides from property runoff.