Manitoba History: Review: J. M. Bumsted, The Manitoba Flood of 1950: An Illustrated History

by Val Werier
Winnipeg Free Press

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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J. M. Bumsted, The Manitoba Flood of 1950: An Illustrated History, Watson & Dwyer Publishing Ltd., Winnipeg, 110 pp., illus., maps, index. ISBN 0920 486 681.

This is the story of the worst natural disaster to strike Canada up to that time, and in the view of the American Red Cross, the severest in North America.

The Red River periodically overflows its banks in the spring, particularly in rural areas. People were accustomed to the threat of high water but no flood of major proportions had occurred since 1862. Furthermore, the flood of 1950 was no flash occurrence. It took two months to develop in a dramatic and cliff hanging fashion but no one in the initial period had any idea of the disaster to follow.

The dislocation of the flood was enormous; 80,000 people evacuated, some to other provinces; hospitals and schools were closed; damage estimated at more than $50 million; and more than 500 square miles of Manitoba inundated. The conditions and the times ($25 a week was a common wage) leading to the flood and how the weather and drainage system of the Red River Valley (110,000 square miles) conspired to create the calamity, is admirably documented by Dr. Bumsted. What brings this record to life are the excellent photos and the stories of thirty-four people caught in the prosaic and bizarre events of the flood. The people tell the stories in their own words, with the little details that give breadth to the account. This is the animation of history.

Flood waters at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine, 1950.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

One is a recollection of a woman when she was four and a half years old living in a farm community near Morris. “My dad lost a granary full of grain and many farm animals. They saved 400 baby chicks by putting them upstairs in the bedrooms. They would roost on the bed springs. My dad and my brother stayed behind to feed the chicks.” On one farm on the outskirts of Winnipeg were several mink ranches. The owners released the mink from cages rather than have them drown. Writes the farmer:

Since mink are excellent swimmers and my chickens were downstream, it was not long until some mink were arriving to dine on my birds. I, with the help of some flood-adjusted neighbours began to live-trap these mink. These operations led to the beginning of several embryo mink ranches.

As a reporter who covered the Red River flood in 1950 for the Winnipeg Tribune, one of the elements I draw from Dr. Bumsted’s book is the wholesome character of the Manitoba people. They volunteered by the thousands to spend long hours building dikes and to help others in distress. Manitobans, most of modest circumstances, contributed more than half the $10 million raised for the Manitoba Flood Relief Fund. Thousands of homes were evacuated but there was only one recorded case of looting. More than 2,000 homes were flooded above the first floor level. Writes Dr. Bumsted: “In a world still not fully recovered from World War II and caught in the grips of the Cold War, the spectacle of an entire city responding with courage to battle a natural—rather than a human enemy”—made news around the world.

There were such stories as seven female telephone operators, all under twenty-three, who were marooned in a small trailer. They had to use hipwaders to go outside. They worked around the clock to keep the lines of communication open.

“Operation Blackboy,” never revealed to the public, was to prepare for mass evacuation should the flood rise muchbeyond the level recorded of 30.3 feet above datum. At thirty-two feet “permanent deterioration of all services would have occurred.” The datum line is based on zero for the ice level of the Red River in Winnipeg in winter. The typical level in summer in Winnipeg is six to six and one-half feet above datum. The magnitude of the flood is illustrated by the fact that at 30.3 feet above datum, the level of the water was about twenty-four feet above normal. Dr. Bumsted’s account also illuminates another theme in the flood—the fact that there was no Canadian policy to be set in motion in the face of a natural disaster. Provincial and federal authorities dilly-dallied and were reluctant to declare an emergency even in the last weekend in April when “the Red River had gone completely out of control on the Canadian side of the border.”

There was failure too by provincial authorities to anticipate the problems and needs of victims of the flood. “The federal and provincial governments played ping pong with the question of assistance. Premier Campbell continued to insist there was no urgency to federal assistance.” The federal income tax department refused to allow an extension of time to flood victims “observing in good bureaucratic fashion that the population had months before the arrival of water to prepare returns.” In the end, an emergency was declared, the flood made international headlines and assistance poured in from around the world.

After the flood, it was the government of Premier Duff Roblin which went into action to prevent future disasters. A 29.4 mile floodway to divert water in Winnipeg from the Red River was completed in 1969. There was criticism of “Duff’s Ditch” as an unnecessary folly. But it has proved its worth in protection and peace of mind for Winnipeggers ever after.

I would like to add my own footnote which corroborates Dr. Bumsted’s fine history of the flood. On 20 May, 1950, after the crest reached Winnipeg, I set out with an RCMP “initial rehabilitation force” to check on marooned Red River towns. We sailed in a thirty-foot cruiser, which drew five feet of water. It was impossible to discern the bed of the river from the flooded countryside. The countryside was a lake and we sailed without impediment across farms and into towns.

The people had a great sense of humour despite the dislocation and hardship. Vic Moore, a customs official at the border town of Emerson told me this story:

I saw a man walking down the railway tracks carrying a pair of paddles. He said that as soon as he came to a place where people asked him why he was carrying the paddles he would settle down.

Canoe patrol of flooded neighbourhood during the 1950 flood.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 11 April 2010