River and Creek

Massive Flood Struck Sartell in 1965

By Kaye Wenker Sartell Newsleader May 11, 2007

(The following information was compiled from newpaper files and sources at the Stearns History Museum with the help of John Decker, assistant director of archives a the museum. Additional information was provided by Jerry and Joyce O’Driscoll, Paul Brenhaug and Anna Marie Zakrajshek)

In April of 1965, the week beginning on April 10 was one of much activity and tension in the Village of Sartell as the water level on the Mississippi River was continuously rising. Melting from record snowfalls that year and major ice jams created havoc on the waterway. Volunteer firefighters, Sartell police, sheriff’s deputies, Sauk Rapids Auxiliary Civil Defense police, residents and students all worked together during the week-long flood danger. Below is a recap of some of the events that took place throughout that week:

Sunday April 11: Hwy 10 (now known as Benton Drive) north of Sartell was covered with 13 inches of water. Traffic had been rerouted except for trucks with enough clearance to get through the water. Three young men brought out their skis but were turned away by authorities for safety reasons.

Monday April 12: Local townspeople began sandbagging the Mississippi River front Monday evening. About 300 feet along the river front had been sandbagged to a height of three and a half feet. Highway 10 was closed to most traffic as the water was up to 36 inches in some spots. Some heavy diesel trucks were able to get through but most of the traffic was rerouted across the river through the west side of the Village of Sartell. Water was running down the tracks southward into the river, with the water level about 5 inches deep at the highway crossing to the west. A semi-truck was stalled on Highway 10 in more than three feet of water. The service-station personnel were forced to use a boat to hook up to the truck filled with groceries.

Tuesday April 13: As a precaution, sandbags were placed about 3 feet high for about 1,00 feet above the dam and past the Dezurik Corp. Public school classes were dismissed. Children were free to go home but were able to remain at the school for their safety as the school is built on top of a hill. Ice continued to hold on the Watab Creek, and officials expressed concern for the bridge across the creek between the grocery store and the village fire department. As a result, fire trucks were standing by on both sides of the Mississippi River in case of fire. There were concerns that either of the bridges could be taken out by the ice and water. The Pine Point area was completely cut off from higher ground. Ten residents of the Point were evacuated after they moved their furniture and belongings to upper levels of their homes.

Wednesday April 14: Residents were advised to leave their homes along both sides of the Mississippi River as the water built up behind two large ice jams north of Sartell. Authorities said there wasn’t much else that could be done. It was reported that an 8 to 10 foot wall of water built up behind an ice jam a mile and half north of the dam, and that the water was also rising behind a second ice jam near the Pine Point are. Hundreds of sightseers were there to watch as tons of grinding ice made its way to the dam. Some reported when the first of the ice crashed out of the gates into the spillway below it stirred a cold wind, like the output of a giant air conditioner. There was a sudden drop in the temperature below the dam and the smell of fresh water as the Ice started breaking as it went over the dam. The first went through the dam about 3 pm pushing a large mass of ice onto the roadway. A witness stated if a car had been there at the time, it would have been crushed. The second ice jam started coming through at about 6:30 pm. Hundreds of residents and visitors watched as one of the ice jams, towering 25 feet, broke with a mighty roar. The Sartell bridge was closed to traffic because of damage from the surge of ice. Several of the bridge ties had been broken. A village sewer line under the bridge was torn away by the ice, but a water line that was near it stayed in place. Sheriff’s deputies stopped pedestrian traffic across the Watab bridge while a village truck made several passes through the roadway to clear the large masses of ice that were pushed onto the roadway by the raging waters. Village employees were pulled away from sandbagging efforts to help direct traffic as hundreds of people came to see. The residents breathed a little easier after the two large ice jams broke up and swept over the dam.

Thursday April 15: Traffic was heavy on the west side of the river. Spectator-filled cars crept bumper-to-bumper into the Village on the North River road to see the ice filled river.

Friday April 16: While the residents waited for the Mississippi River to crest, they kept busy reinforcing the sandbag dike, which extended from the dam north to past the Presbyterian church. Sandbagging was also done below the dam in the lower areas at the Watab bridge. The Civil Defense rescue was called to the village with men, a rescue truck and equipment. They worked into the early evening and were to remain on call over the weekend until the danger passed. Traffic was heavy through the village. The Sartell police received assistance by auxiliary police and were working in shifts to allow only authorized personnel into the water area.

Saturday April 17: Traffic was still heavy through the village as the water was still high and the large ice chunks were still floating by. By Sunday evening, after the crest had passed and the danger subsided, the numbers of sightseers dwindled.

Monday April 19: St. Regis Paper Co. officials reported “some 36,000 cubic feet of water a second flowed over the company dam as the Mississippi crested. The Sartell water level was marked at 1,015.0 feet on Sunday, about 1.4 feet above the normal pool level. The St. Regis resident manager at Sartell said the greatest flood danger here occurred at 6:30 pm Wednesday.” A representative from the Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to come to the village to discuss plans for a permanent dike. The Sartell Civil Defense director said the CD unit in Sartell does not have any actual members nor has it been organized formally yet. The need for a CD unit has now been seen so organization will begin soon.

The flood of April 1965 was preceded by a record winter of snowfall, the heaviest since 1904. The Minnesota Weather Almanac reported a record snowfall for the 1964-1965 winter season was more than 80 inches. Two additional records were set that years as well: March 1 recorded 14.5 inches as the one day maximum snowfall extremes in inches. Also, that winter the record of 51.7 inches made the monthly maximum snowfall extremes for March. There were two major snowstorms in March. The early snowstorm of March 1,2 and 3 added 22 inches of new snow to what was already on the ground. After that, the St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm dumped additional fresh snow in the area for a recorded total of 57.1 inches for the month. Retired Sartell Chief of Police Jerry O’Driscoll remembers: “The flooding caused a huge mess and a lot of excitement in Sartell, but everyone worked together and we survived the crisis” Anna Marie Zakrajshek who has lived on the Mississippi River just south of the dam since 1951 and in her present home on the river since 1956, remembers working at the post office as her two co-workers joined the sandbagging efforts. Postmaster Earl Axeen lived near the river just north of the Dezurik Co., and the Watab Creek ran along Janette Weis’ back yard. They were both busy filing sand bags. Zakrajshek said there was a lot of tension in Sartell at that time. Her husband Tony was working at the St. Regis Paper Co. in the hydro plant, which was below the level of the river. The family was so relieved when they saw him walking home for dinner that day. The water was high, and their back yard was full of large ice chunks that took bark off some of the trees as the ice floated by. The ice completely took out the raspberry patch in the yard. “It was quite a day,” Zakrajshek said. “People came from all over to see it because on the radio they repeatedly said you won’t believe it until you see it.” She said cars were parked all the way down the river road, and people were running toward the dam to see the water and ice.