The Spring Of ’66

A few weeks ago, I noted the 43rd anniversary of the greatest blizzard of my lifetime, the Great North Dakota Blizzard of ’66. 

Of course, all that snow had to go somewhere.

The Army Corps of Engineers had put up a dam on the James River – the longest un-navigable river in the world – in the fifties, which put a stop to the frequent floods that had plagued the city when that shallow, muddy river had gotten even the faintest surge of water.  But Pipestem Creek – which joins the James in Klaus Park, on the west side of Jamestown, under the Fort Seward bluffs, a place that was the city’s original reason to exist since its days as an Arikara camp since time immemorial – had no dam at the time.  And so the spring runoff pushed the Pipestem – and the James, south of the confluence – over their banks.

I was three at the time.  Dad spent a couple of nights sandbagging.  I remember worried conversations about the sandbag line protecting downtown (also our neighborhood, although our house was on higher ground) being more fragile than people would have liked.

And best of all?  I remember the National Guard putting its command post or supply dump or something across the street from our house, in the yard in front of Trinity Hospital.  Skids of sandbags, trucks full of sand, front-end loaders and, best of all, an amphibious DUKW “Duck” truck congregated there, with streams of guys coming and going at all hours. 

A few years later, the Corps finished a dam over the Pipestem.  And that was the last flood Jamestown saw.

Until now. The immense snowfall this year – more than the usually-dry state, more famous for wind than snow, has seen in a generation – is causing flooding even in Jamestown.

Of course, as a blizzard pounds the state, the flooding is everywhere.  An ice dam on the Missouri River, at its confluence with the Heart River, is  hbacking up water into Bismarck and Mandan.  The National Guard and, believe it or not, the Coast Guard tried to blow the jam open earlier today; we’ll wait to see what happens.  In the meantime, another huge ice jam north of the city threatens to let spill another deluge into Bismarck.

Of course, Fargo is frantically sandbagging against a crest that is  supposed to be higher than 1997’s epic flood; in Grand Forks, which was largely destroyed in ’97, the crest is expected to be competitive with the epic of 12 years ago.

All the while, a blizzard is thrashing the state.

There are times I miss the place.  I wish I could be there now.

8 thoughts on “The Spring Of ’66

  1. One thing I don’t understand:

    Why doesn’t NoDak (from state funds) or the federal reps/sens (trying to bring home the “bacon” – ahem) just spend 10, 20, 30 million and build a freaking DAM or LARGE CONCRETE CHANNEL and just do it RIGHT instead of wasting millions of dollars in on earthen berms and levees that wash away when the floods overflow the banks, and tens of millions on insurance payments paid out to homeowners who can’t bear to leave the areas stricken by the flood that comes





  2. I surprised that you didn’t mention the flood of the Spring of 1969 . . . isn’t that the one that really got the ball moving on building the Pipestem Dam? Of course, I wasn’t in Jamestown yet; we were still in Minot, a city having its own issues with water in the Spring of 1969 (see [i]The Mouse That Roared[/i] in one of the issues of National Geographic from that summer). My memory might be a bit cloudy on this.


  3. Probably the only memory I have of my grandfather was pulling bullhead out of the James river, but that was in ’65. We moved to Las Vegas just after that when my father got back from Viet Nam.

  4. The spring of ’69 was completely obscured by the summer of ’69.
    That was the year I got I got my first real six-string.
    I bought it at the five and dime.
    Played it ’til my fingers bled.
    Those were the best days of my life.

  5. Mitch,
    rumor has it that the Corps has told the folks that if the James River damn water level rises to the point that the overflow spill way begins to function, that the cavitation caused by the (I guess never to be used) overflow design has a good potential of shaking the damn apart! Tell your dad to head for the superdome!
    We’ve deployed EPLOs to the EOC, began IAA (Incident Awareness and Assessment) flights, and are sourcing SAR assets to the state.

  6. Buq^2,

    Doh. I think I mixed up my years. It was ’69, not ’66.

    Face plant.


    Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers?

    The rumor when I was a kid was always that the Jamestown Dam was never designed to actually withstand maximum capacity, and that the design of the emergency spillway was faulty. I always chalked that up to rumors.

    I need to do some poking around on this. Oh, yeah – and talk to Dad…

  7. Spot on. They work for the Defense Coordinating Officer – DCO (generally an Army O-6) activated by NORTHCOM

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