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 Mississippi Flood of 1965 :
Part 1

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The Mississippi Flood of 1965 – Part 2

By Rob Drieslein
(From the April 1994 issue of Big River.)

During the early days of April 1965, residents on the banks of the Mississippi downriver from Lake Pepin anxiously monitored the river's rampage to the north. On April 6, the Minneapolis Weather Bureau predicted a crest of 16 feet at La Crosse, nearly double the current eight-foot stage and four feet above flood stage. The next day, ice jams smashed into the lock and dam at Dresbach, Minn., and Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles declared the La Crosse area in a state of emergency.

The crest became like a living presence that valley dwellers feared yet longed for, because its passing meant the beginning of the flood's end. It slowly worked its way downriver to Alma, Wis., where Front Street residents evacuated their water-filled homes as the river poured over the locking chamber and roller gates at Lock and Dam 4.

The Mississippi River caused headaches for Buffalo County Highway Commissioner Bergie Ritscher, who dealt with flooded Highway 35 between Alma and Fountain City, Wis. The heavily-traveled corridor paralleling the river conveys tons of commodities every day, and Ritscher detoured traffic over the ridges to maintain the flow.

"It didn't go real well. We had truckers on those little town roads making wrong turns and getting lost," he remembered. "It's hard to visualize now, but that was a very stressful time."

High water threatened substation switches at the Dairyland Power Cooperative's generating plant in Alma, according to The Winona Daily News. Retired plant superintendent, Julian Nelson, recalled building a dike around the structure and renting pumps, which ran round the clock, to save it.

Flood waters surging through Indian Creek, past the Whitman Dam (5), drove a third of Cochrane's 458 residents from their homes. Ritscher, now Alma's mayor, said Cochrane was inundated with water and residents traveled by boat through the village's streets. Local farmer Kenneth Averbeck watched workers build a dike, seemingly overnight, on his property to prevent Cochrane from becoming the Mississippi's new main channel.

Just downstream, in Fountain City, 11 families and 10 businesses were evacuated when five feet of flood waters crossed North Shore Drive. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' boatyard in Fountain City became the focal point for area sandbagging efforts. It hired 1,372 men to fill sandbags and reinforce Lock and Dam 5A. Before the waters receded, the boatyard would issue more than a million sandbags.

The Battle for Winona

Wally Voss, lockmaster at Lock and Dam 5A, below Fountain City, fought with hundreds of others to strengthen the dam's spillway, on the Minnesota side of the river. Time was precious, and the river was rising faster than sandbags could reinforce the dike. If flood waters overtopped the structure, Winona and its 26,000 residents would be underwater.

For a few precarious days, all eyes watching the great flood of 1965 focused on Operation Eagle, the effort to save Winona. In preparing for the worst, mayor Rudy K. Ellings ordered the evacuation of 1,035 residents who lived in low-lying areas. More than 6,000 people worked on flood control during the emergency. They fought frantically at the near hopeless dike-building tasks.

They got an unexpected break during the night of April 16, when the river's 18.8-foot water level suddenly dropped eight inches. The Burlington and Green Bay Railroad bed – downriver on the Wisconsin side – had broken. The constricted flood waters spread across the 4,000-acre Delta Fish and Fur Farm, relieving pressure on the dike upriver.

"We were lucky," Voss said. "That bought us time so we could sandbag."

The river continued rising until it crested on April 20, at 20.75 feet – 7.75 feet above the flood stage and 2.85 feet higher than the previous high set in 1952. The dike held. The evacuated residents returned to their homes on April 22, and the city watched the water recede.

Were the events of April 16 a lucky break or an impossible coincidence? Rumors immediately started that someone had dynamited the Burlington dike to save Winona. Jim Stoltman, an alderman at the time, told the Daily News in 1990 that foul play never occurred. The constant wave action of the raging river needed no assistance.

"That dike gave way by itself," he said. "It was an act of God, really."

But to this day rumors persist in the Winona and Trempealeau area that God had nothing to do with destroying the dike. Winona may have escaped serious flooding because of the incident, but the city's gain came at a long-term loss to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, which bought the fur farm in 1979. The flooded waters overrunning the area had deposited tons of thick, muddy silt into the backwater area. The silt provides a poor substrate for aquatic vegetation, an important food source for wildlife. Refuge personnel blamed the poor substrate, in part, for the failed attempts to establish wild celery in the refuge during the mid-1980s.

Coulee Region Woes

Farther downriver, the Trempealeau Lakes became part of the Main Channel when the river worked its way through the 50 cottages along the river's normal shore. The high water mocked residents who had raised their floodplain homes in the Birch Acres and Trempealeau Lakes area following the 1952 flood. Water levels quickly covered the additional cement blocks underneath the buildings and reached the ceilings of several seasonal residences.

On April 15, as the crest approached La Crosse, businesses along the city's Causeway prepared to protect their property, according to records from the La Crosse Tribune. That night and the following day, portions of the Causeway disappeared beneath the water, rerouting traffic for two weeks. On April 16, Roland Fischer, 55, of La Crescent, Minn., disappeared into the Mississippi's West Channel and became the area's first flood-related fatality.

Three days later, when a 75-foot section of dike on La Crosse's north side broke, water from the Black River flooded 25 homes. National guard and police patrols swept the area by night and day, watching for looters, the Tribune reported. When asked what he would do if anyone gave him trouble, guardsman Duane Gerke said, "We've got orders, if anyone wants to fight, to use the bayonet if necessary, as a last resort."

Water washed out the earth beneath a 250,000-gallon Texaco storage tank containing 107,000 gallons of gasoline. The tank tilted about 10 degrees, but didn't collapse. With the smell of gasoline heavy in the air, officials ordered no smoking west of Copeland Avenue.

"God, can you imagine fire moving along this crest?" said a police officer assigned to emergency guard duty near the tank.

Before the water crested at 17.9 feet on April 21 – almost six feet above flood stage – 214 homes in the La Crosse area suffered flooding, most on French Island and the city's north side.

Downriver, officials in Prairie du Chien, Wis., couldn't move an elderly couple who refused to leave their home on Wednesday, April 21. "I've lived in this house for 10 years," said Mrs. Sam Ferris. "And I don't intend to let a little water drive me out."

Volunteers from as far away as Madison and Milwaukee assisted with sandbagging and odd jobs in the historical river town.

The river eventually crested at 25.57 feet at Prairie du Chien, seven feet above flood stage, and flooded a large section of the city, leaving one-fourth of the town's 5,600 residents temporarily homeless. Police Chief Donald Lyons told the Tribune on April 23 that water was so high that garages were beginning to float and houses were shifting downstream in the current. The same day, a fisherman caught three catfish with setlines on a flooded street.

Further downstream, in Cassville, Wis., seepage damaged nearly 60 percent of the little village's homes. Pumps drew sewage out of manholes because the sewage plant was shut down. Bill Whyte, Cassville's current village president, said high water had closed the village's north entrance, so ridge dwellers traveled the long way to enter town from the south. Whyte remembers moving his furniture to the attic when eight inches of water covered his floor.

The Aftermath

Damages following the flood staggered the small communities. Buffalo and Trempealeau counties estimated damage at $1.5 million, mostly in the Cochrane and Trempealeau area, and La Crosse alone tallied another $1.2 million. Winona eventually spent almost $2 million creating its dike system to prevent such turmoil from happening again.

When the flood's crest passed St. Louis, on May 8, and disappeared into the wide, southern Mississippi River channel, 19 people upstream lay dead. Forty thousand people had been homeless at one time or another, and the cost of damages reached $200 million. Volunteers wiped their weary brows, shook their heads and turned to the massive cleanup job.

In the nation's capital, Wisconsin senators William Proximire and Gaylord Nelson were busy drafting flood relief legislation. And, as in the atermath of the flood of 1993, editorials began popping up in the nation's newspapers during the weeks following the flood questioning the wisdom of human settlements in a floodplain.

@April 1994 Big River

When he wrote this story, Rob Drieslein was a reporter for the Winona Daily News. He now lives in the Twin Cities area.

 Mississippi Flood of 1965 :Part 1

© 1994 Big River

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River newsletter. for more about the river.


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