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“Sumer is icumen in,…”

Sumer is icumen in, / Lhude sing, cuccu;….

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Flood control is a frequent topic of conversation in Fargo-Moorhead these days. Controversial, too.

The Red River of the North is a troublesome line on anyone’s map, separating as it does two cities, two counties, two states and two federal regions (Fargo is in the Denver Region; Moorhead, in Chicago). So any attempt to straddle that line may indeed be doomed from the get-go. And the question on the west side of the river is compounded by the proposition of a new city hall. [Ugh! It may well be time to remind ourselves of the (in)famous “Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Bridge” project of the 1970s.] In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking of water features in Agincourt and vicinity and the community’s conflicted relationship with them.

The Mighty Muskrat nearly and neatly forms the western edge of the original townsite. Running from north to south, it impeded westward expansion of the city in the 19th century and, with Crispin Creek along the southern edge, certainly encouraged development northward along North Broad Street in the 20th. Bridges are expensive. So, in the spirit of Red River flood control, the Muskrat calls for attention, too.

“…my moisture is turned into the drought of summer”

The Psalms make for interesting reading; there is genuine poetry here—and some pretty nasty stuff, too, but let’s stick with the poetic. We’ll get farther.

The Red River of the North has had at least five “hundred year” floods in the forty-plus years that I’ve lived in this community. I can’t speak for you, but it seems to me that it’s time for two things to happen: 1) a redefinition of “hundred-year flood” (there should be only one in any hundred-year period), and 2) it’s time for some flood control. Do you think the Muskrat behaves much better? I’m guessing not. It’s unruly and unpredictable; its “moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” It has been ignored and embraced; cursed and praised; enjoyed and endured. It has been painted by artists and polluted by industrialists. Like our Red River, it is the source of drinking water and the means to carry away human waste. I’m no civil or hydraulic engineer; nor do I know one. So I’ll have to fumble along with the human factor of the Muskrat’s story.

River in the City: an abbreviated chronology

Pre-1850s: For the indigenous people, the Muskrat was a resource. There were fish in its waters; beaver, muskrat, and turtles along its banks. Deer and other wildlife sought shelter and drank there and raised their young. One upstream stretch—the “dancing waters”—cleansed the human spirit. Could the river of those days be reclaimed? he wondered silently.

1860s-1870s: White settlers saw the river in similar life-enhancing terms: water, game, recreation and refreshment, but they also thought to put the river to work. As migrants from places in America affected by the canal-building and water-powered industry, the Muskrat could be harnessed. A dam and millpond encouraged the location of industry—a flour mill and The Syndicate Blocks.

1870s: Arrival of the Des Moines & Northwestern forced the issue of bridges, serious bridging, not just ferries, pontoons and other seasonal crossings. A vehicular bridge soon followed.

1870s-1880s: The pleasanter banks of Crispin Creek, particularly the stretch known as Gnostic Grove, was a place for recreation (picnics, etc.) and religious revival—its clearer spring-fed waters more conducive to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

1880s-1890s: Parallel with development of a resort community at Sturm & Drang, the Muskrat’s west bank attracted a cluster of fishing shacks that matured to become evening and weekend retreats for quicker respite from the city than the lake district could offer. See the Blue River postcard above for one possible consequence.

1880s-1910s: Lower elevations in the city’s southwest quadrant encouraged two phenomena: 1) industry situated there to be near both the water and the railroad, and 2) workers housing developed nearby. Frequent flooding meant that residents were more likely to rent than to own their own home.

1910s: Creation of Northwest Iowa Normal College in the city’s far northwest corner established an affinity with the Fennimore County Fairgrounds. Students (and the general public) used the NITC bridge for access to the grounds. NIN negotiated with the Fair Board for its athletic facilities to be on the west bank.

1900s-1930s: Constrained by river, creek and rail lines, industrial development leapt to the west. The NITC trolly line instituted in 1909 established a stop called “Industry” along its lop-sided figure-eight route. Five cent fares made it affordable transport in the era before the automobile. A seasonal branch line crossed the river to the Fennimore County Fairgrounds along the extended line of Ralph Avenue.

1930s-1940s: The Great Depression and Second World War exploited the north bank of Crispin Creek as free garden plots. “Victory Gardens” supplemented diets during the war years. The abandoned fairgrounds interurban bridge served pedestrians visiting the grounds as well as affording NIN students access to their recreation grounds.

1950s: The Orchard and Riverside Addition become the city’s first Post-War suburban expansion. Generous eight-five-foot lots extend from 250 to 450 feet to the river.

1990s: The abandoned NITC right-of-way outside the city became a bike trail, including the former interurban bridge over the Muskrat.

Hey, it’s a start.

 


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