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Published January 24, 2011, 09:02 AM

Moving Towns, People to Escape the Water Nothing New Along Flood-Prone Red River

The people of Oxbow, N.D., face a vexing question posed by the ever-rising Red River: Should we stay or should we go?
Located in a relatively low spot right along the river, the city of 200 people 15 miles south of Fargo finds itself further threatened by a proposed F-M diversion channel that, if built as conceived today, would back up floodwater in their area.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

FARGO — The people of Oxbow, N.D., face a vexing question posed by the ever-rising Red River: Should we stay or should we go?

Located in a relatively low spot right along the river, the city of 200 people 15 miles south of Fargo finds itself further threatened by a proposed F-M diversion channel that, if built as conceived today, would back up floodwater in their area.

Although residents vowed at a recent meeting to stay and fight, some have said out loud that they’d be smart to accept flood buyouts for their homes and relocate to higher ground.

If they did, Oxbow would join a list of communities in North Dakota that have had to surrender to the whims of water.

The latest example is from a nearby subdivision, Briarwood, once known as North Dakota’s most affluent zip code.

But after the last round of flood buyouts in rural Cass County this year, Briarwood, which had a population of 112 in 2000, ceased to exist. Residents decided to go with the flow and leave.

Briarwood and Oxbow were developed mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, relatively dry decades that made building on the river, living next door to nature, attractive.

But the history of settlement along the Red River is rife with examples of plans altered by the petulant river.

One of the earliest involves a mission to serve métis fur traders near Pembina, North Dakota’s oldest settlement.

The mission, built in 1818, moved to the community of St. Joseph, located on the Pembina Hills, following a devastating flood in 1851.

The army would learn a similar lesson upriver, at Fort Abercrombie, established in 1858 on the western bank of the Red River in what became Dakota Territory to protect wagon trains migrating to western gold fields.

The fort’s original site was on a flat oxbow near the river. But the threat of flooding prompted the fort to move to higher ground only one year after it was built.

But even Fort Abercrombie’s higher location proved vulnerable at times of high water.

“We hear conflicting accounts as to the eligibility of the Fort,” a customs official in Pembina wrote in 1862. “One party asserts that it is now to the point of being overflowed, while others contend it is high and dry above the high water mark.”

For years, the only settlement along the Red River was Georgetown, Minn., established as a fur warehouse in 1859. Georgetown, built right along the river, weathered repeated floods, and moved to higher ground in the early 1880s, to be along the Great Northern Railroad.

Elsewhere, Devils Lake, which has risen 30 feet and quadrupled in size in less than 20 years, has forced the virtual abandonment of Churchs Ferry, N.D., where at least 27 families were forced to move.

Now, on the west end of Devils Lake, the town of Minnewaukan finds itself surrounded by water on three sides, and townspeople are getting help from the federal government to relocate the school and other buildings.

The Benedictine monks learned much earlier that Devils Lake can rise up. They moved a monastery south of Devils Lake in 1899 to Richardton, N.D., less than a decade after it was built, said Mark Halvorson of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

“That area’s all under water now,” he said of the original location.

Farther west, to help tame the Missouri River, the government built Garrison Dam, completed in 1953, creating a permanent man-made flood with Lake Sakakawea.

The reservoir swallowed towns, including Elbowoods, the principal community of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, devastating the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara by inundating their prime lands.

The town of New Town, N.D., was founded in 1953 to replace the doomed-to-flood communities of Sanish, famous for its rodeos, and Van Hook.

But along the Red River, flooding is a recurrent act of nature, as residents have become weary of battling in recent years.

In Fargo-Moorhead, floods have been a force for urban renewal, as Markus Krueger of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County pointed out.

Following repeated floods, for example, the Woodlawn neighborhood in Moorhead became Woodlawn Park after houses were removed from the flood-prone area south of downtown.

In fact, as recently as the flood of 1952, residents simply moved after a bad flood, rather than build sandbag barriers to protect against the river, as people do today.

“I don’t ever remember them sandbagging when I was young, Mavis Fredericks, a volunteer at the Clay County Historical and Cultural Society, recalled recently. “You just moved.”

Similarly, Viking Ship Park and the Hjemkomst Center were built on what once was a housing area called The Point, a neighborhood abandoned after the flood of 1969.

In Fargo, following repeated floods, 48 homes were demolished in 1959-60, and 17 across the river in Moorhead, to reroute the river to protect what now is Prairie St. Johns and Island Park.

Fargo and North Dakota gained 13 acres, including land for permanent flood levees winding through town.

“We go through periods of low water and people forget and build close to the river,” Krueger said. “In another 20 years, we’ll go through another dry period. Hopefully we won’t forget.”

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