Red River: Prairie Sea
The Great Flood of 1950
The huge drainage basin of the Red River will always be an inland, prairie
sea waiting to happen.
The shallow valley and broad expanse of flat land beyond the river's basin simply cannot
contain much rising floodwater. The drop in elevation from where the river enters Canada
to its discharge into Lake Winnipeg is a mere 60 metres — not enough to carve a deep valley
channel. Agriculture has made the situation worse by eliminating natural prairie grasses
that could hold back rainwater and snowmelt. The heavy clay soil itself absorbs very little
Finally, the Red flows northward, from the relatively warmer states of South and North Dakota
into the colder climes of Manitoba. The consequence is that the early spring runoff — water
from rain and melted snow in the South — is likely to bump against ice jams lingering in
the late winter of Manitoba.
The worst flood of all in 1950 was not because the waters were any higher than they were
in the big floods of earlier years. The original Red River Colony had been wiped out by a
flood in 1826, and another flood in 1852 forced the evacuation of Winnipeg. The cause of
the increased damage in 1950 was not the river itself. The damage was really the responsibility
of property developers and governments that had spread the city across the river's natural
floodplain, placing more buildings in the path of disaster. Before 1950, it had been almost
100 years since Winnipeg last had been submerged, and people, forgetting about the river's
ability to flood, were more concerned by the prospect for financial gain.
There was not even a flood disaster plan in place that spring of 1950 when natural conditions
conspired to swell the Red River over its modest banks in southern Manitoba.
Heavy rains had soaked the valley the previous fall. Snow was late in arriving, leaving
the ground unprotected from the bitter cold. Thick layers of frozen muck would last until
spring, leaving the meltwater no place to go except into southern Manitoba's rivers.
In mid-April a surge of warm air invaded the region. The sudden break up of ice in tributary
creeks caused massive jams in the Red River. Fast-rising floods spread through farms and
villages south of Winnipeg.
Fear hit Winnipeg when news that a wall of water one metre high had flashed through the
town of Morris at 3 a.m., forcing evacuation of the entire population. The Canadian army
deployed amphibious troop carriers to move people to safety. Farmers without routes of escape
killed their livestock to save them from starvation or drowning.
Students joined adult volunteers in raising improvised dikes made of cloth sacks filled
When the waters finally subsided, people returned to homes, offices, and factories that
were no longer safe to enter. The devastation finally convinced the population and its politicians
that Winnipeg had to adjust to the reality of life in a floodplain.
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