'51 dominated the first century of flood history

Residents view flooding in St. Peter in 1879. They are on the east side of the river with two grain elevators in St. Peter shown in the distance. Photo courtesy Nicollet County Historical Society

When Mankato was organized in 1858, the town grew up on the bottom of the valley, hard up against the river. Settlers faced their first big flood in 1881. At the time, North Mankato was 17 years away from being incorporated.

The 1881 flood — which still ranks fourth in all-time history for its river level of 28.2 feet — inundated relatively small portions of the town, which was largely built on higher ground.

For more than a half-century after that flood, residents escaped major flooding. But area communities were rocked by back-to-back flooding in 1951 and 1952.

In this special section of The Free Press, we look at the history of flooding up to 1965 — the year in which perhaps the most significant flood in local history happened. Next week a section will focus on the 1965 flood. A week after that, a special section will focus on the floods since '65. 

March 1951 was colder than average, causing a slow melt of the snowpack. April and May saw the Blue Earth and Minnesota rivers overflow their banks, leaving relatively little damage in Mankato but heavy flooding in North Mankato.

Belgrade Avenue and other streets were flooded with residents using row boats to get around many parts of town. The flood brought the ninth highest river crest that’s ever been recorded at Mankato.

On April 4 the river was at 8.6 feet, according to a history of the flood written by W.T. Wick, who lived in North Mankato. The next morning, it had reached 12 feet. A big ice jam had formed in the river, which had artificially maintained river levels until it was blasted loose Friday afternoon.

“River continued to rise alarmingly for the remainder of the day, and was probably at 21 feet on gauge at darkness," Wick wrote on Friday, April 6.

After the flood hit, rats, thousands of them, were found dead, swept up by the raging waters.

Scores of homes caved in, their basements crushed by the force of the water pressure. North Mankato streets became “roaring torrents of icy water” measuring 5 to 10 feet in places.

Residents, in an effort to save their dressers, tables and washing machines, stacked them in the first floors of their homes. Many weren't able to return to their homes for a month.

The flood of April 1952 affected a wide region of the Upper Midwest, bringing record levels on the Minnesota, Mississippi and Des Moines rivers.

Heavy snow hit southern Minnesota the third week of March and cold weather slowed the snowmelt. On April 14 the river at Mankato crested at 24.6 feet, about a foot lower than the crest a year earlier.

The damage in North Mankato was minor compared to a year earlier, thanks to a new earthen dike that was built after the '51 flood, a dike that was additionally fortified as the 1952 flood became apparent.

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