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Looking Back: City has interesting relationship with Sheyenne River

Several feet of water floods the pioneer village at Bonanzaville following a torrential rain that hit West Fargo in 1975. The storm overwhelmed the Sheyenne River forcing it to leave its banks, finally cresting at 22.37 feet. Submitted photo

As the threat of another potential record flood season grows closer, it seems appropriate to examine the history of West Fargo's relationship with the Sheyenne River.

The river played an integral role in determining where the town's settlement began. Originally, a watering stop for cattle and a steam locomotive refilling station along the Northern Pacific Railway, the settlement grew when a meat processing plant was erected along with company built houses for the plant's employees.

Despite being developed around the river, West Fargo has always fought with the wildly unpredictable Sheyenne. The river overflowing its banks was a common occurrence in the spring or after a torrential rain. Many long-time West Fargo residents can recall when the area resembled a mud filled swamp. Elevated boardwalks were often the only way to reach some houses in town and sportsmen could occasionally be seen duck hunting from boats on the edge of town.

The government began seriously studying how to control the Sheyenne River during the 1950s, resulting in the construction of a dam upstream from West Fargo near Kindred. However, concerns surrounding the dam combined with continued flooding prompted the Army Corp of Engineers to recommend that levees and diversion channels be built to protect Horace and West Fargo. Construction on the project was completed by 1993, in time for another major flood on the Sheyenne River.

Since the Sheyenne Diversion's completion, the West Fargo area has experienced eight major floods where the river rose above twenty-one feet. The highest crest recorded on the Sheyenne in West Fargo was 28.77 feet in 1996 (only information for post-diversion levels was available from NOAA). By comparison, the river level during the floods of 1997 and 2009 was just under twenty-three feet.

Of course not everyone in the West Fargo area was happy about the Sheyenne Diversion. Residents north of the city are left unprotected and are forced to deal with the problems experienced where the diversion reconnects with the river. By contrast, the area between Horace and West Fargo protected by the diversion became more desirable to developers and the city began expanding southward at an ever increasing rate.

Throughout the city's history, West Fargo has experienced the joys and hardships of living adjacent to an often unpredictable river. Despite taming the river in the city's core, the Sheyenne continues to dictate West Fargo's growth and expansion.

Nevertheless, without the Sheyenne River providing geographic and economic incentives for the railroad, West Fargo may have never existed at all.

(Andrew Nielsen earned his bachelor of arts degree in history from Minnesota State University, Moorhead; and for the past six years has served as curator at Bonanzaville. Nielsen will be providing occasional columns featuring historical narratives as they relate to buildings and artifacts maintained at the Pioneer Village.)