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The Mississippi Flood of 65 -- Part 2

Living in a Community of Floating Homes

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The Mississippi Flood of 1965 —Part 1

By Marc Hequet
(From the March 1994 issue of Big River.)

In Mississippi flood lore, the icy inundation of 1965 is unrivaled. A continent conspired against river dwellers that year. Only one thing is worse than wrestling with a berserk river: wrestling with a freezing cold, ice-chocked berserk river.

Very heavy snowfall piled up in early 1965 as prolonged deep cold delayed the melt. Even March was extreme: It was the coldest March since the Red Wing (Minnesota) Daily Republican Eagle began keeping records; the most snow of any March since 1951; the most moisture of any March since 1956. It was the first time in Red Wing's recorded history that temperatures in March hadn't made it out of the 30s. The ice giant locked the Upper Midwest in its embrace. Minnesota and Wisconsin prepared for a glacial deluge. The first towboats of the season didn't make a run at Lake Pepin until April 4. Each dash into the ice pack netted less than a barge length of open water. The tows gave up, except to hunt down and bust up stray floes broken off from the main pack, lest the renegade ice crash into marinas. Pepin's ice cover was three miles wide, 20 miles long, 20 to 40 inches thick, "hard and blue É the greatest hazard recognized here," warned the Wabasha County (Minnesota) Herald.

The big river was to be taken very, very seriously. "Anyone slipping into the raging current, wouldn't have a chance in the cold water," the Herald warned. Would Lake Pepin's ice move downstream en masse? That could give little Wabasha a bashing. As rising waters crept around the hamlet, residents stuck to business -- including swearing in a new mayor. "I would like to leave you with a little more money and a little less water," quipped the outgoing mayor, "but I find that hard to do."

On the Mississippi 50 miles upstream from Minneapolis an ice jam rising 24 feet over the river broke up when it rammed a series of ice breakers above the Sartell Dam. Broken ice jams mean instant flooding downstream. Residents of Fridley, a northern Twin Cities suburb, fled their homes after one such ice dam gave way.

Dynamite broke up an ice jam at Granite Falls near the headwaters of the Minnesota River. On the Blue Earth, a tributary of the Minnesota, water backed up by ice stood six feet deep on the Blue Earth High School athletic field. Demolition crews dynamited the pack, sending water downstream to Mankato.

When winter finally moderated, spring came with a vengeance. Early April rains in the upper Minnesota Valley measured an inch and a half in some places. "This," said Minneapolis Weather Bureau meteorologist Joseph Strub, "is what we were afraid of." Water poured into streams until they climbed out of their banks. Travelers on U.S. 169 between Mankato and St. Peter, along the Minnesota River, reported water seeping into car doors as they sprayed through low spots in the road. Far to the west, an eight-year-old farm boy drowned when he fell into a swollen creek near Marshall, Minnesota. At Jackson, near the Iowa border, a riveter working on a new bridge plunged into the swollen, frigid Des Moines River. Workers watched helplessly as ice chunks closed around him.

Where the Mississippi and Minnesota thundered together, below St. Paul's confining bluffs, the torrent spread to nearly a mile wide. Dozens of industrial buildings and hundreds of homes stood in six feet of water. Hastings evacuated 250 families, and the Vermillion River boiled freely past suburban-style ramblers.

"Bob Brown hasn't seen anything of his car since he parked it on the low road just north of the Kellogg bridge," the Wabasha County Herald reported. It became mired as he tried to back it out. Another car tried unsuccessfully to tow it. By the time a tow truck arrived the stuck vehicle was under water.

More was on the way. At the big bend of the Minnesota, Mankato was besieged. More than 7,000 people out of a population of 25,000 fled their homes. "No power can control this river," lamented Mayor Rex Hill. He pleaded for more sandbaggers. Thirty miles downstream half of Henderson's 700 residents fled. The town was trapped by backed-up water. Building a dike was useless. "We have decided to let nature take its course," said Henderson newspaper editor Leonard Blashko. "It's a hopeless task."

The rain stopped -- but warm and sunny weather hastened the snow melt. The big thaw started in earnest, and winter's leavings mingled with the destruction of spring. Floodwater black with eroded topsoil churned over the Vermillion River Falls alongside the Peavey Co. mill in south Hastings. The black water roared into the Mississippi, where clashing ice floes shot geysers of splashwater tens of feet into the air.

Up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries, college and high school students left classrooms to toss sandbags. Red Wing reported a volunteer shortage. At Central High in Red Wing, boys 16 and older were let out to sandbag. Another 50 doughty lads from the State Training School were welcomed into sandbagging service at the Red Wing lock and dam. At Stillwater, Minnesota, the state prison sent 50 convict volunteers to join the sandbag battle against the St. Croix River. "Most of us have families, too," said a con.

It was hard work and dangerous. A young St. Paul flood worker on the dike toppled into the icy Mississippi. Exhausted volunteers stumbled along the banks after him. A lifeline landed close but he was too numb to seize it. Another worker hauled on a life vest and plunged in. The kid yelled for help as the rescuer paddled to within 30 feet. The kid went under. Nobody knew who he was.

At Red Wing, a Navy helicopter lowered a veteran local dynamiter, Fred Kunde, in a life vest to a huge ice sheet threatening the city's Industrial Harbor. Kunde had never been off the ground -- not in a plane, certainly not in a chopper. He had met the pilot just moments before. "I hope he's good," Kunde muttered. On the ice pack, he lit five-minute fuses on three charges and was hauled, dangling, back up.

The blast apparently weakened the ice. Next day, the sheet moved out into the main channel, driven by winds and high water. Leftover floes snagged power poles, knocking them at angles. Bay City, Wisconsin, hunkered behind a huge gravel dike to protect riverside homes from ice chunks.

At Lake Pepin, ice was beginning to move out. "A large pressure area seemed to explode near the center of the lake during the night, pushing debris onto the surface of the ice," reported the Red Wing Daily Republican Eagle. Ice, winds and water smashed riverside cottages.

By April 15, the Red Wing crest forecast was upgraded to 20.5 feet. "I think we could live with it a few days," said Howard Moore, head of Red Wing Milling Co., "if it would just quit rising."

When the Mississippi finally crested around Easter Sunday, April 19, river towns breathed a huge sigh of relief. Easter strollers marveled at the broad torrent from the vantage point of Red Wing's Hiawatha Bridge, only five years old but closed to motor traffic for fear its pilings would be scoured out or mangled by ice. In Hastings, E.G. Pinke took a boat to his machine shop to carve the high-water mark in the old stone building erected in 1864. The 1881 and 1952 high water marks still showed, but they were both under water.

At Stillwater, grateful residents erected a sign with an Easter lily in their 5,000-foot sandbag heap, naming the lifesaving structure "Teen-agers' Dike." Someone quickly revised that to read "Teen-agers' and Convicts' Dike" to commemorate help from the city's young people as well as from its prison inmates.

© 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.