Skip to main content

What Might Have Been: The Canal to Big Stone Lake

Email share
A passenger steamship on Big Stone Lake
South Dakota Digital Archives

The winter of 1896-1897, by all counts, was a difficult one for the northern plains. Heavy snow snarled train traffic which in turn created localized food and coal shortages and by spring, the melting snows caused massive flooding over both North and South Dakota. The Red River Valley in North Dakota, which by that time was heavily populated, suffered more than most. The devastating 1897 flood stood as the high-water mark for the city of Fargo until the record 2009 flood, 112 years later.

Jones Hall at Fargo College during the 1897 flood.

That flood event sped up what had been an ongoing conversation about flood control in the rich agricultural lands of the Red River Valley. Unlike other regional rivers, the Red River flows north, not south, terminating in Lake Winnipeg and is a part of the greater Hudson Bay watershed. As a result, runoff from the southern portion of the valley gradually joins the fresh melt-off waters from northerly areas along the Red River, a feature not typically seen in southern flowing rivers where the warmest waters can drain first. Combined with an exceptionally flat terrain, the coveted black soil of the region was extremely prone to flooding and efforts to free it from the danger of high water had been ongoing since the first settlements in the 1800s.

Map showing the drainage basin of the Red River with Lake Traverse at southernmost point.

Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake along the South Dakota-Minnesota borderplay a special role in relation to the Red River Valley. Lake Traverse is the southern-most point of the Hudson Bay watershed. From Lake Traverse, waters head north along the Bois de Sioux River, into the Ottertail River and from there to the Red River. Big Stone Lake, just a few miles to the south of Lake Traverse, is actually on the other side of a shallow continental divide and its waters head south into the Minnesota River and eventually the Mississippi watershed.

Map showing continental divide between Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse.

It was only natural then for that key dividing line to become the center of the drainage conversation that would consume area residents for much of a twenty-year period. In January of 1900, impacted constituents met in the small town of White Rock, South Dakota to host the first meeting of the Tri-State Drainage Canal Association. Their objective? To discuss the possibility of building a canal between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake in an effort to drain Red River waters to the south and through the Mississippi River system.

1984 SD Archive photo of Fraternity Hall in White Rock, SD. Quite likely meeting site of the Tri-State Drainage Association.

The initial idea was very straightforward: Excavate a canal between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake, thereby making them reservoirs for the Red and its tributary rivers. In addition, the Association wanted to build a lock and dam system that during flood events, could draw the waters of the Red River Valley south into the Minnesota River, eventually draining into the Mississippi.

In the early 1900s, Big Stone Lake was already an important recreational area.

Like any good brainstorming session, ideas emerged that were bigger than what was first discussed. Edgar Bennett of Big Stone City threw the biggest stone in the pond. Why stop with a canal between the lakes? Why not extend the canal all the way up the Red River, to Lake Winnipeg and then across northern Manitoba directly to Hudson Bay?

January 27, 1900 Argus Leader Headlines

Bennett’s grand proposal made the front page of the Argus-Leader the next day. And indeed, it should have, as a major potential economic development story. His proposal would have made Big Stone City the terminus of an international shipping lane that directly connected the Northern Plains agricultural commodities to world markets with a route that was over a thousand miles less than similar terminal ports in Chicago and Duluth. He estimated the cost to be $1,000,000 (about $31 million in today’s dollars).

Alas for the ship captains, it was never to be. Bennett’s plan was quickly dismissed and by 1915 the entire conversation about building a canal between the lakes and rerouting Red River waters to the south was finally scrapped. Outside the international agreements with Canada such an ambitious plan would have required, three U.S. states, county governments and local landowners encompassing 3,600 square miles would have had to find agreement. In addition, Lake Traverse and the Red River were considered navigable waters at the federal level and any changes would also have had to been approved of by the Secretary of War. Red tape and disagreements over dollars eventually scaled out the bigger picture conversations.

One of the two current flood control dams on Lake Traverse.

Over time, smaller drainage and flood control projects were enacted throughout the Red River system, including the construction of two dams, one dike and two additional lakes off Lake Traverse. Today, as the Red River Valley examines the effects of the record 2009 flood, large scale changes to the river system are once more a hot topic. The Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project, which will reroute 30 miles of the Red River, has been underway since 2017 despite numerous legal delays.

The price tag of $2.75 billion makes Bennett’s $1 million international shipping canal perhaps seem like a lost opportunity.