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SHSND Home > North Dakota History > Unit 7: Pretty Good Times on the Prairie, 1945 > Set 5: Floods & Blizzards > 1950 Flood - Introduction

Unit 7: Set 5: Floods & Blizzards - 1950 Flood - Introduction

Introduction | 1966 Blizzard | Hazel Miner | 1950 Flood | 1997 Flood | Activity

Introduction | Pembina Flood Photographs

In 1920, Representative Douglas M. Baer of North Dakota brought the Red River of the North to the attention of Congress. In his speech, he requested $25,000,000 in funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan for flood mitigation on the Red. He argued that the Red had routinely destroyed the Valley’s wheat crop. Along with ND State Drainage Engineer Herbert A. Hard, Baer pointed out that flooding in 1915 had resulted in $15,000,000 in agricultural loss; the two floods of 1916 had cost $20,000,000; and the 1917 flood had cost $15,000,000 (a total of $537 million in 2008 dollar values). Baer’s proposal for controlling floods on the Red included ditches, channel improvement, and impounding dams on the Red’s tributaries.

Though some minor improvements were made, and Baldhill Dam was built on the Sheyenne River in 1950 to help control floods on one of the Red’s largest tributaries, and a succession of engineers and water development councils have discussed the problem for decades, the Red still floods frequently. Flooding along the Red is often severe because the valley is entirely flat so farm land, towns, and rural homes are all at risk.

Hydrologists and weather forecasters look at 5 conditions to create a severe spring flood.

  1. An unusually wet fall preceding winter. This leaves the ground saturated and little room for further moisture to be absorbed.
  2. An unusually cold winter. Deeper frost is slow to thaw and prevents the ground from absorbing moisture.
  3. An unusually heavy accumulation of snow during the winter.
  4. A late, cool spring, with a sudden warming trend. A late spring allows for further accumulation of snowfall and cool temperatures prevent periodic thaws. Sudden warming means a rapid melt of the winter’s snow.
  5. Heavy rain throughout the river’s drainage area during the thaw. Warm rains not only add to the moisture levels, but also melt snow rapidly.

Early in April 1950, the Red was rising to flood stage. The flooding began to reach Pembina on April 17. The temperatures had reached 50 degrees earlier in the week. By April 20, floodwaters covered the railroad tracks and undercut the railroad ties. The main road, Highway 81, was under water in several places. The water kept rising and reached a crest of 51 feet 8 inches on April 30, nearly 10 feet above flood stage and exceeding by one foot the previous flood record set in 1897. Eighty homes (283 people) were evacuated; some houses collapsed under the pressure of water against the foundation. In addition, the Pembina city well cracked leaving the water supply contaminated.

In May, heavy rains again caused the river to rise. Army duck boats arrived to remove residents and their belongings. Some buildings were protected by sandbags, but the locker plant, which had remained dry during the first flood, began to take on water in spite of its sandbag dike and plastic lined walls. On May 13, just before the flood’s crest, Red Horse Johnson, owner of the Pembina Locker Plant, had to ship the contents of 400 frozen food lockers to Fargo until the waters receded. The Coast Guard transported the food by boat to the Great Northern Railway which took the goods to Fargo.

The second crest exceeded the first crest reaching 53.125 feet on May 13. As the waters slowly receded, the residents of Pembina held a parade of Army and Coast Guard boats and small motor boats led by a man walking through the water in his Shriner’s garb. American flags brightened the parade which was held on Armed Forces Day, May 20.

The flood of 1950 was one of the worst on record in terms of record crests and water quantity in the stream. The Red was above flood stage at Grand Forks from April 9 to June 4. The damage amounted to nearly $31,000,000 (worth $269,000,000 today). Pembina County recorded the highest property damage and the most individual families experiencing loss. Seven people were injured in Pembina County, and one died in Grand Forks County.

Once again, North Dakotans adapted to the periodic trials the climate presents. The parade at Pembina suggests a strong spirit of cooperation among residents to cope with the inevitable floods of the great river.

Ramsey and Skroch
Baer’s speech, SHSND Mss 20850

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