Compared to a raging tornado or a blinding blizzard which deliver their destruction in hours or perhaps minutes, the Mississippi River flood of 1965 moved in slow motion. It crept in, rising slowly day after day, forcing officials to revise again and again their predictions of when it would peak and when it would recede.
After the worst had passed, the Red Wing Daily Republican Eagle, on May 12, published a special 36-page edition dedicated to “The Great Flood of 1965,” referring to the event as “The Silent Siege.”
That siege had been the product of several factors that created the perfect flood, according to the National Weather Service. Starting in late November 1964 and lasting through Christmas, temperatures averaged three to seven degrees below normal, and through most of that time, there was no snowfall throughout the region.
With no snow as insulation, those early cold temperatures drove frost deep into the ground. A series of winter storms in March 1965 dumped heavy snow, as much as 30-40 inches on average throughout the region.
“March of 1965 was one of the coldest Marches ever recorded in both Minnesota and Wisconsin,” wrote the National Weather Service on ITS site at www.weather.gov/arx/flood1965. “These colder temperatures prevented the gradual melting and runoff of the snowpack.”
Eventually, the snow melted and kept the Mississippi River at high levels until that was further enhanced by high waters coming into the Mississippi from the Minnesota, St. Croix, and Chippewa Rivers.
The final blow came when 2.5-3.5 inches of rain fell during the first two weeks of April.
“Normally the rain would sink into the ground,” the National Weather Service explained. “However, with the frozen ground the rain had no place to go other than into streams and rivers. In addition, the rain melted the abnormally deep snowpack, resulting in even more water.”
The flood of 1965 set record levels for more than half the length of the Mississippi River. Measurements at sites from 100 miles north of Minneapolis to Hannibal, Missouri, surpassed previous records by several feet at most locations from mid-April to early May.
“The Mississippi River crested at St. Paul at 26.01 feet on April 16, and the St. Croix River crested at Stillwater at 94.10 feet on April 18, 1965,” according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “The next closest record at Stillwater is 1.8 feet lower at 92.30 feet in April 2001.”
The bridge at Hudson, Wisconsin, was one of few bridges remaining open, and officials said that if the water raised one foot higher, that bridge would have closed, according to the Hudson Star Observer in 2008. Highway 35 in Hudson was closed and sandbag crews were working around the clock.
In Hastings, Minnesota, the Vermillion River overflowed and left 300 people homeless, while in Mankato, 500 people were evacuated by the National Guard after an ice dam broke and dumped floodwaters into the Minnesota River, according to the La Crosse Tribune.
The National Weather Service reported that at Lake City, Minnesota, the river crested at 22.18 feet on April 19, eclipsing the previous record of 19.17 feet on April 18, 1952. Record levels were set on the same day in Wabasha and Winona, and water remained within three feet of flood stage through mid-June in all three locations.
It had been a slow process, building over weeks, to produce the record flood levels, but the anxiety was not over. Floodwaters ravaged homes and businesses. People who had been evacuated wondered when they would be able to go home, if ever. Many roads were still blocked.
The May 12 special edition of the Daily Republican Eagle reported that in Red Wing, “the river reached its historic crest of 20.89 feet at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, but its siege upon the area was far from over. After cresting 6.89 feet over flood stage and four feet over the previous record high, the river began a withdrawal almost as dramatic as its rise.”
The waters receded over days and weeks, leaving behind a path of destruction that would take months or years to repair and restore. The National Weather Service reported that the flood caused $225 million in damages with $173 million happening along the main stem of the Mississippi River.
The fearful buildup and the agonizing retreat of the 1965 flood left many people devastated. The Daily Republican Eagle wrote that “for thousands of Mississippi River bank residents the word flood will bring to mind 1965. And a combination of the two will bring a shudder to all who witnessed the massive silent siege.”