Disastrous 1969 Spring Flood Recalled by Minot, North Dakota, Residents

By Kim Fundingsland | April 11, 2019

A geyser of water surging through a gopher hole threatened to burst a natural dike in the city. A man who sought much needed sleep following endless hours of sandbagging was abruptly tossed into the air. A group of about 30 angry residents, shovels in hand and intent on cutting away a dike, were stopped by authorities.

The above events occurred during the 1969 flood that ravaged Minot and other communities along the Souris River, the Minot Daily News reported. It was an April never to be forgotten by those who experienced it.

Fortunately, the water spouting from the railroad embankment south of Harley’s Service Station never eroded away the natural dike that, for a time, was protecting several homes. It was in Tierracito Vallejo, immediately west of Minot, where a concrete floor exploded through carpeting and tore a couch in half, such was the pressure of water in the saturated ground. Nearby the Souris was quietly flowing several inches beneath the top of protective sandbags.

Citizens saying that dikes in certain areas of the city raised the level of water elsewhere, were adamant about leveling the playing field by breaching dikes they believed were causing additional harm to their neighborhood. It took police intervention to stop them.

At the time it occurred, the 1969 flood was the greatest natural disaster to ever strike Minot. Citizens were caught unaware by a surging flow of water in the Souris River, then predominantly known as the “Mouse.” In a matter of a few days terms like “cfs,” or cubic feet per second, and “acre feet” became as well-known as a home phone number.

The winter of 1968-69 didn’t seem unusual. Snowfall reached over 40 inches, the most in 47 years, but there was little concern that spring runoff would do little more than cause some localized trouble. That trouble would multiply daily under the warm temperatures of early April.

On April 7, 1969, the first indication of water problems seeped into the city. The Robert Wiley residence on the city’s east edge was flooded despite modest sandbagging efforts. Curious onlookers, unaware that they would later be victims of floodwater themselves, flocked to the area, gawking and taking pictures.

By the end of the following day the total number of families displaced by rising water from Burlington to Minot had reached 18. The culprit was the Des Lacs River, a small and winding stream flowing through a valley to the northwest of Minot. Snowmelt carried rapidly down steep coulees was the reason for the unexpected surge of water.

The visual message of what might yet come began to take effect for Minot residents living along the Souris River. The Des Lacs entered the Souris at Burlington, but its history was one of quick rise and fall. Not in 1969 however.

The early flooding in Minot and Burlington was caused only by localized runoff. No water was flowing out of the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge at Kenmare, which is fed by the upper end of the Des Lacs River drainage.

As a precaution, diking and sandbagging efforts began to accelerate in the city. At first many dikes were built around individual homes, city blocks or small neighborhoods. The construction was poor, especially by today’s standards. Often dikes were little more than long piles of dirt that could easily be washed away by flowing floodwater.

Just two days after the flooding of the Wiley residence the headline in the Minot Daily News read: “Relentless river winning fight with man.” Still, it didn’t seem massive flooding such as had never been experienced in the city’s history was yet to come. Lake Darling, which holds back Souris River water, was still comfortably 6 and one-half feet below spillway level.

Public officials were happy to announce that the Souris had crested on April 10. Three-hundred homes along the river had been affected by high water and an estimated 2,000 people displaced but, with the crest reached and water receding, residents of the valley could finally relax. The welcome respite was short-lived.

Two days after the crest was declared and many thought the battle against rising water had come to an end, city officials announced that a “new flood” was on the way. The expected onslaught would be unlike anything ever experienced in the city.

Within two days Lake Darling had filled with runoff cascading from southern Saskatchewan, from places above Estevan and from Moose Mountain Creek. Canadian officials had earlier warned that the snowpack was deep and substantial runoff was likely. Now it was a reality.

Water began flowing over the Lake Darling spillway, completely unchecked. Any possibility of slowing down the menace lurking above the city was gone. A volume of water never before seen in the valley flowed freely into the Souris River Basin below the narrow reservoir. Compounding the problem, the overflow level at the Des Lacs NWR had been reached too.

The number of people forced to evacuate by mid-April was estimated to be 12,000 from more than 1,700 homes. Volunteers, more than 1,000 from Minot Air Force Base alone, helped people move out of harm’s way. City schools were closed too, which freed up several thousand potential volunteers. The city auditorium became a storage facility for hastily moved furniture and other belongings. Working day and night, a massive dike was constructed on North Broadway to prevent the city from being cut in two by rising water.

Though greeted with a certain amount of measured skepticism by citizens who had grown weary of a long flood fight, a glimmer of good news came on April 18 when it was announced that inflow at Lake Darling was less than outflow. Finally, it seemed, the rampaging Souris was about to settle back into its banks.

As devastating as the 1969 flood was, both financially and mentally, the flows in the Souris at that time were far less than what would occur in the crippling flood of 2011. The peak flow in the Souris in 1969 was believed to be about 7,000 cfs. In 2011, peak cfs was measured in excess of 26,000 cfs. Of course, the Souris looked much different in 1969 than it did in 2011.

There was no diking system along the river in the city in 1969. Flows of 3,000 cfs topped riverbanks in many areas, flooding homes and businesses. It wasn’t until several years later that a diking and a channelization project was completed in the city. The new dikes, which were never constructed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifications, nevertheless were believed to protect the city from as much as 5,500 cfs.

Following the 1969 flood Minot residents and officials proposed a variety of flood prevention measures, including the raising of Lake Darling Dam and the building of a Burlington Dam. Opposition to the proposed Burlington Dam was so great that the idea was shelved. However, Lake Darling Dam was raised and the release gates improved in 1976-77.

Lengthy negotiations with officials in Canada eventually resulted in the construction of two dams to provide flood protection for the Souris River Valley. Rafferty Reservoir, on the Souris at Estevan, Sask., was completed in 1991. In 1995 the Alameda Reservoir, since renamed Grant Devine, finished construction near Oxbow, Sask. Moose Mountain Creek flows into Grant Devine.

Damage in the Minot region due to the 1969 flood was estimated to be about $4 million. In 2011 the damage estimate exceeded $100 million.

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