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A city submerged: Winnipeg and the flood of 1950

The Cree called it Miscousipi, Red Water River, and warned early settlers of its hidden capacity for destruction. The river flooded in 1826, forcing the complete evacuation of the 10-year-old Red River colony. But most settlers refused to give up. Winnipeg, the city they built on the Red River's banks, has braved disaster again and again – in 1950, 1966, 1979, and again, dramatically, in 1997.

For 51 days, Manitobans fight to hold back the rising waters of the Red. Norwood, East Kildonan, Fort Garry - one by one the dikes fail, until almost a quarter of Winnipeg is underwater. One hundred thousand people flee the flooded area, in the largest mass evacuation in Canadian history. These CBC radio news reports describe the evacuations of St. Vital on May 10, 1950, and Winnipeg itself the day after.

Almost 40,000 people flee Winnipeg on May 11. The river crests three days later at 12.2 feet above channel capacity.
By this time, about 5,000 Canadian army, navy, and air force personnel are engaged in the biggest peacetime operation in Canadian history. They man pumps, build and patrol dikes, and evacuate the residents. HMCS Chippawa, Winnipeg's Naval Reserve, becomes a vital flood-fighting command post. It coordinates the efforts of over 150 ships, including large naval whalers and cutters.

Over one million pounds of equipment and 1,200,000 sandbags are airlifted into Winnipeg from as far away as San Francisco. The Red River, usually about 150 metres wide, becomes a lake 65 kilometres wide and 100 kilometres long.
The flood damages 10,500 homes in Winnipeg alone. Water damages total $50 million - about $600 million in 1997 dollars.
. In the early hours of May 6, Manitoba suffered the only fatality of the 1950 flood. The main Fort Garry dike was breached at approximately the same time that the basement pump at 357 Kingston Crescent stopped working. Lawson Ogg went down to fix the pump and drowned when the flood waters rushed through the door of the house, filling the basement.

. Prairie dugouts provided islands of safety for farm animals during the flood. The dugouts, created during the Dustbowl years, are broad depressions in fields where rainwater and spring runoff are collected for times of drought. The dirt displaced to make the dugout is piled up on opposite ends of the hole, creating hillocks. These tiny hills were sometimes the only dry land for kilometres.
. CBC reporter Dal McKenzie reported seeing one dugout with 22 chickens, 8 cows, and 6 horses.

. Remembering the flood of 1950, Winnipegger Jan Goldman said, "My brother arrived [at our house] in a rowboat to take my husband and me to dry land...I was aware of a kind of awesome beauty...the thought suddenly occurred to me that this would probably be the nearest I would ever get to Venice."

. At the peak of the flood of 1950, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Martel of Flin Flon, Man. returned from a trip to the United States to find that the Winnipeg suburb of St. Norbert, where they'd left their children with a relative, was submerged. A CBC producer took the near-hysterical parents to the Winnipeg radio studios to prepare a plea for help. Within fifteen minutes of the broadcast, the studio telephone rang with news. Their children were safely housed at an evacuation centre.

. During the 1950 flood, CBC reporter Dal McKenzie hitched a ride on a plane taking mail to the flooded town of Morris, Man. The pilot used Highway 75 as a landing strip, although only a few hundred metres of road were still above water.
. On May 3, McKenzie took a boat out to Morris, where the flood was cresting. He reported finding nine people living on the second floor of the Bouchard house. Emily Bouchard was cooking on the range on the first floor in hip waders.

. In 1826, Manitoba suffered the worst flood in its recorded history, with nearly 50 per cent more water than the 1997 flood. At Fort Garry, on May 5, 47 houses - nearly the entire settlement - were carried away. George Simpson, the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company post, predicted the worst: "A calamity of the most unforeseen nature presented itself, one which I conceive to be a death blow to the colony."

. Simpson underestimated the settlers' stubbornness. Many stayed to rebuild. The 450 pioneers who did leave helped found what would become Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.
. A flood in 1776 may have been worse. One man reported sailing overland from Red Lake in Minnesota to the Red River Colony area.
. During a flood in 1897, two men shook hands in downtown Emerson, Man. One was in the second storey of a hotel and the other was in the pilot house of a steamboat on Main Street.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC News Roundup
Broadcast Date: May 10, 1950
Guest(s): Brigadier R. E. A. Morton
Reporter: Liston Burns, Norm McBain, Catherine McIvor
Duration: 10:14

Last updated: March 1, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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