Canada

The river that won’t stand up and fight

The Red River made even more frightening headlines in 1950 when it seemed ready to ravage most of Winnipeg. The late Ralph Allen was then editor of Maclean’s and for the magazine’s July 1, 1950, issue he wrote an evocative profile of the troublesome river. The following sketch has been condensed from Allen’s article.

Ralph Allen May 14 1979
Canada

The river that won’t stand up and fight

The Red River made even more frightening headlines in 1950 when it seemed ready to ravage most of Winnipeg. The late Ralph Allen was then editor of Maclean’s and for the magazine’s July 1, 1950, issue he wrote an evocative profile of the troublesome river. The following sketch has been condensed from Allen’s article.

Ralph Allen May 14 1979

The river that won’t stand up and fight

Canada

The Red River made even more frightening headlines in 1950 when it seemed ready to ravage most of Winnipeg. The late Ralph Allen was then editor of Maclean’s and for the magazine’s July 1, 1950, issue he wrote an evocative profile of the troublesome river. The following sketch has been condensed from Allen’s article.

Ralph Allen

One night when the 1950 Manitoba floods were nearing their crisis a tired man stood, on a dike in Fort Garry piling sandbags against the brown, limp, pungent flesh of the advancing Red River. Although the river was near the top of the dike, its aspect was far from menacing. Its speed at that point was less than a mile an hour. Its rise for the last 10 hours had been less than an inch. The river was not charging against the dike; it was leaning against it with the seedy, aimless air of a drunk hanging onto a lamppost.

The man looked anxiously at the dike itself. A grey and strangely gentle finger of water from the fat and flaccid Red had poked through its 25-foot base and started to pluck a pathway to the streets behind. The man dropped his sandbag, and with it a heartbroken curse: "The dirty S.O.B. won’t stand up and fight."

There were more learned explanations for the costly disaster which the most sluggish and undynamic of Canada’s rivers was visiting on its fourth largest city and on almost 700 square miles of its richest farmland. But no explanation better expressed the river’s character. It’s one of the few rivers in the world that can run wild while

practically standing still. It has engulfed, uprooted and bankrupted the people who live along its banks on an average of once a generation for the past 175 years and its victims still haven't found the means to catch up to it, much less to lick it. "If I had all the money in the world I couldn’t stop flooding on the Red River,” a top American engineer told me glumly.

As with most public enemies, it’s necessary to go right back to the womb to find out how the Red got that way. It was born sometime between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago. A glacial ice cap sat above its present drainage basin. As the glacier melted, it left behind a lake bigger than all the present Great Lakes put together. Geologists named this glacial hangover Lake Agassiz. The Red, its tributaries and Lake Winnipeg are Agassiz’ chief survivors.

For a few centuries the Red travelled from north to south. That it now pursues its waddling, somnolent course in the other direction is one of its two ancestral curses. The other is the flatness of the ground over

which it was left to travel. When the river is abnormally high, it just doesn’t move fast enough to get out of its own way. The early-melting waters from the south, loafing toward Lake Winnipeg, merge with more melting ice and snow as the thaw line creeps north. The water from the south and the water from the north start crowding for gangway and some of it gets chased right off the reservation.

In 1950 Winnipeg lost its valiant struggle on the dikes in all but a few sectors, but it lost so narrowly that Manitoba Premier Douglas L. Campbell and his technical advisers are hoping the answer will be found in a 22-mile bypass around Winnipeg—-in effect a second Red wide enough and deep enough to handle unaided the entire 100,000 cubic feet of water which flowed through Winnipeg every second during the 1950 peak. Whatever they do and whenever they do it, the Red will give them a chance to find out how good it is. Lake Agassiz’ lazy lethal offspring seldom bothers to hurry, but it always shows up sooner or later.