Historic Flood of April 1965: Fact and Fiction
Historic Flood Prompts Foolhardy Act.
The Mississippi River is generally a sociable neighbor that quietly weaves in and out of our lives without much notice. But sometimes it’s a grouch. Sometimes it gets angry and agitated, and when that happens, you better watch out. People in the river valley in April 1965 learned that lesson the hard way. That month the river rose to a record height of 26.01 feet – 12 feet above flood stage – and unleashed its fury on homes, businesses, and anyone daring enough to test its boundaries.
It was a dreary and dreadful period. Dark clouds hung over the city for weeks, swirling like steam from a bubbling cauldron and constantly spitting rain. Cold drizzle fell on April 1 and precipitation continued all month. By the time the river crested on April 16 residents had been soaked 13 days. With each rainfall the river rose a little higher, grew a little more powerful.
Normally, the river is happy to accept rain and whisks it away without complaint but that year it was being taxed with record amounts of snowmelt from its vast watershed, the fourth largest in the world. The Mississippi drains rivers and creeks from about 40 percent of the continental United States, nearly 1.2 million square miles.
Much of the runoff affecting St. Paul was coming from upriver, including St. Cloud where residents were nursing sore muscles from shoveling massive amounts of snow the month before. That city was besieged with late winter storms and received 51.7 inches of snow in March alone, making it the snowiest month ever recorded. And then the rain came. Two inches fell the first two weeks of April. It melted nearly all the snow but deep frost prevented it from seeping into the ground so it rushed downstream in torrents.
In St. Paul, the river had become the talk of the town by April 12. It dominated front page headlines and people flocked to it like lemmings, crowding on bridges to view its immense power as it climbed ever closer toward their toes. That day the river was rising one foot every five hours and was filled with a variety of flotsam: logs, large ice chunks, even entire buildings. The home of Floyd Anger, Lilydale mayor and resident, fell victim that week. According to a written account by his granddaughter, one day the mayor’s home was knocked off its foundation, the next day it was floating down the road, and the day after that it was gone.
A large building at the St. Paul Yacht Club was also dislodged from its foundation. Fearful that it would swirl downstream like a rudderless arc and crash into a nearby bridge, the Club received the blessing of City leaders to dynamite the structure on April 13. Following the explosion, much of the building floated away in small pieces. That which remained burned and smoldered ethereally in a watery grave.
The next day President Lyndon Johnson toured the ravaged city and inspected the St. Paul dike, which was leaking like a sieve yet holding the river at bay, thanks to workers who had spent many days piling more and more sandbags on it. Standing in light drizzle, the President pledged the maximum amount of federal aid to assist with disaster relief and urged the nation to pray for the flood victims. At that point, the Red Cross said 18,000 had been displaced.
The river was also claiming lives. The first of nearly one dozen flood related fatalities in the state occurred on April 11 in St. Paul when a young man fell into the river and drowned.
Amidst the chaos and confusion, two youth hatched a foolhardy plan to canoe the raging river. Not much is known of the event – it garnered just one short paragraph in the Pioneer Press – but apparently two young men attempted the feat on April 15. That was the same day a small bridge to present day Raspberry Island gave way, washed downstream and crashed into a tangled mess around the Great Western Railroad Bridge. Upon learning of the joyride, brave public safety professionals climbed into a motorboat and began a high-speed chase after the canoeists, eventually forcing them off the river near Newport, about seven miles away.
It could be that the youth were from one of the defiant families living on the West Side. Before the crest, the Red Cross evacuated 140 families, but 43 refused to leave. Those people had grown accustomed to getting punched in the nose by the river every few years. Maybe they were canoeing to a friend’s house and got caught up in the enraged current. The lower West Side was under at least six feet of water and many were boating along streets they had driven on one week earlier. Or maybe those boys were simply thrill-seekers. Whatever the case, they miraculously eluded danger – even death – and walked away with an adventure tale of a lifetime.
Headlines from the days following the crest continued to proclaim the flood, but bore names of other cities: Hastings, Red Wing, Winona. As one community breathed a sigh of relief, another was battling the river, and another was holding its collective breath and bracing for the blow. Such is life in the river valley.
The State Climatology Office-DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources at the University of Minnesota has since named the flood one of the top five most significant weather events of the 20th Century in Minnesota. It ties for fifth place with the Fridley tornado outbreak, which occurred that same year. Topping the list is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, followed by the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard, the 1991 Halloween blizzard and the 1997 Red River and Minnesota River floods.
A High Speed Canoe Chase
Frankie was lying on his bed when he saw movement outside his first floor bedroom window. He lifted his droopy eyes from the novel he was reading for his high school English class and stared intently through the dirty pane at the figure outside. Once it came into sharp focus, he popped up, ran to the window and pushed it open.
“What are you doing?” he said to his friend Ricardo, who was in a dented aluminum canoe, bobbing gently on the flood waters surrounding his home.
Ricardo looked at him with mischievous eyes and a wide, toothy grin.
“Wanna go for a ride?”
Frankie squeezed himself through the window and stood on the wide ring of sandbags surrounding his home on St. Paul’s lower West Side. Ricardo tossed him a paddle, which he used to steady himself against the gunnels as he climbed into the canoe.
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s check out the Yacht Club to see if that building is still burning.”
The two began paddling toward the club but paused when they passed a submerged car on a street they had walked down a thousand times. Ricardo slapped his paddle at the water near it and said, gruffly, “Hey, watch where you’re going you crazy driver!” Both snickered as they sailed past it and toward a bank of ominous clouds that swirled above and drizzled on them intermittently.
Before they reached the Yacht Club they traveled near Navy Island in the main channel and noticed the bridge to it was missing.
“Whoa,” said Frankie, “Look! The bridge to the island washed away.”
The malformed scene was like a magnet and Ricardo braced his paddle against the stern and steered them toward it. Frankie, who had been paddling along gingerly, became frightened when he noticed they were being swept up in the river’s violent current.
Suddenly, a voice boomed from a crowd of flood spectators on the nearby Wabasha Street Bridge. “Hey, you stupid kids, get away from there!” Just then, a fallen tree larger than their canoe rushed at them like a torpedo and smashed into their bow, nearly capsizing them. Dazed, each held tightly to the gunnels as the canoe spun around like an errant compass needle and drifted toward the main channel and a minefield of ice chunks and debris.
“Start paddling!” screamed Ricardo.
Frankie grabbed his paddle and they both started throwing powerful strokes at the river. A strong eddy beneath the Robert Street Bridge whirled them around but Ricardo adroitly corrected their path. Before long they rounded a bend and were shooting toward the wayward Navy Island Bridge, now entangled in brush around the pilings of a rusty railroad bridge. Upon hearing the whine of an engine, each glanced over his shoulder and saw a motorboat speeding toward them, weaving through the flotsam and bumping up and down on the chop. One of two grim-faced uniformed men inside the boat was waving frantically at them and pointing sternly at the shore. The friends fixed their attention on the river and paddled feverishly toward the riverbank but made little progress because they were forced to constantly dodge the myriad obstacles in their way.
The whine grew louder and soon the speedboat was directly behind them.
“Get to the bank now!” screamed the finger-pointer.
“We’re trying!” yelled Ricardo. An ice floe crashed into the motorboat, pushing it against the canoe. The driver quickly released the throttle to put some space between the two vessels and braced himself as his own boat rocked about. The men’s anger was now mixed with fear and adrenaline.
The chase continued until the river widened near the stockyards in South St. Paul and the boys were able to safely maneuver their canoe to the east bank. Once there, Frankie jumped out and clutched the bow firmly as the current swept the stern downstream. Before the arc was complete, Ricardo jumped out, splashed to the muddy riverbank and helped Frankie drag the canoe ashore.
The men in the motorboat weren’t able to land there so they continued motoring downstream to the next boat ramp. As they passed by one shouted, “You’re lucky you didn’t get killed!” and the other screamed, “Stay off the river!”
Frankie and Ricardo scrambled up the riverbank and splayed out in the tall sedges. Both were breathing heavily and their bodies were drenched from sweat, rain and river. The only sound each could hear was that of his own heart beating wildly. Neither said a word. They just stared at the dark clouds above. Drops of cold rain started to fall, hitting them and dancing on the river. They turned their heads, looked at each other and started to laugh.