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'The Little Town That Wouldn't Be Licked': Looking back on the Spring Valley flood of 1942

Main Street Spring Valley after severe flooding. Debris is scattered everywhere and windows are boarded up. Photo courtesy of Don Blegen1 / 4
"Floated down stream about a half block - what used to be highway running near river out of Spring Valley all gone". Photo courtesy of Don Blegen2 / 4
"This house was floated about a block from its foundation." Photo courtesy of Don Blegen3 / 4
"Railroad and wagon bridge - just out of Spring Valley near Lumber Yards as you come toward Elmwood." Photo courtesy of Don Blegen4 / 4

"Spring Valley is getting rather tired of the Eau Galle River visiting so often. Perhaps something will be done to stop these river meanderings."—Editor Charles Lowater, Spring Valley Sun, July 7, 1938.

That something became known as the Midwest's Largest Earthen Dam, which bridles the power of the seemingly playful, babbling 35-mile riverway known as the Eau Galle. Finished in 1968, the original Eau Galle Lake Project involved channel modifications and construction of a dam, lake, spillway and recreational facilities, begun in 1965 after years of villagers' lobbying. The dam is 127 feet high, 1,600 feet long and contains over 2 million cubic yards of rolled earth and rock fill.

RELATED: Memories of the Great Flood of '42

When visitors swim in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-operated 150-acre lake located at W500 Eau Galle Dam Road, also known as Lake George, fish its waters for bass and crappies or hike the tree-shaded trails, many don't realize the importance the dam has to this idyllic town tucked in "the Valley" and how it saved "The Little Town That Wouldn't Be Licked."

The early years

Since the village of Spring Valley sprung up on the banks of the Eau Galle River, and man began to make its mark on this Chippewa River tributary, flooding became a part of the inhabitants' lives.

Photo courtesy of Don BlegenIn the 1850s, Eau Galle Company, which dealt in logging and lumber, intentionally dammed the river at intermittent points to store logs in winter. They logged along the creeks and rivers in Cady township, harvesting mostly elm. When spring came, the dams were dynamited or dismantled, so logs could float downstream.

However, the real reason Spring Valley became a boom town wasn't due to logging as many people would surmise. Iron ore deposits were discovered by Professor William W. Newell in 1875-76. Mining began in 1891 or 1892. Evidence of Spring Valley's rich mining history can still be seen today, most notably in the 80-foot tall brick smelting tower located north of Sixth Street near Syverson Field, in the shadow of the Eau Galle dam.

According to the Pierce County Historical Association, The Eagle Iron Company, and later the Spring Valley Iron and Ore Company, had pig iron smelting operations at the site 1892 to 1917. Due to business generated by the smelting operations, a branch line of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Railway was brought through the village. Much of the flood damage over the years is blamed on the Minnesota & Wisconsin Railway's roadbed and bridge across the Eau Galle at the southend of McKay Avenue, though nothing was changed about the bridge until the Sept. 17, 1942 disaster.

When the iron market "bottomed out," the ore deposits east of town and in Gilman township became too costly to mine. The mining facilities were dismantled. The railroad, which led through town to Elmwood, discontinued service in 1966.

The floods

The first major documented flood after settlement came on May 15, 1894. A three-day rain and driftwood backed up at the Minnesota & Wisconsin Railway road bed and bridge at the south end of McKay Avenue is credited for causing this flood event. Floods were not uncommon in the early days, historian Doug Blegen says in his book, "Spring Valley, The Early Days." Two ticking time bombs led to multiple flood events, up to six per year (though usually minor): erosion due to the loss of tree cover from logging, and debris that clogged the river and created "dams" at railroad bridges. Many of the worst floods occurred when cloudbursts blanketed the region in torrents of rain.

Water flowed into Main Street and the Seventh Street bridge was washed out. The railroad bridge was a loss and the lower wagon bridge was damaged. All in all, losses were estimated at $5,000. According to the Sun-Argus, "Dispute on where to put the bridge over the Eau Galle to replace the two taken out by the flood. A large number want a road along the east bank of the river under the hill, with only one bridge and that at Fourth Street, in the center of town."

"This house was floated about a block from its foundation." Photo courtesy of Don BlegenHowever, the railroad built its bridge in the exact same location and in the exact same configuration as before. The Fourth Street bridge never materialized, Blegen said in his history.

In May 1896, heavy rain fell and the "new" railroad bridge dammed up again, causing water to flood the village streets. According to Blegen, "local citizens or 'officials' paid the 'dam bridge,' as it was called then, a visit and it was 'struck by several heavy discharges of lightning.'" That lightning was actually dynamite. When the railroad discovered this preventive measure, it was the beginning of a covert war between the village and the railroad.

The Eau Galle was said to be calm until 1903, when three separate floods visited the townsfolk. The May 28, 1903 Sun reports that five railroad bridges between Elmwood and Spring Valley washed away that Monday night. They were all new, but as the Sun said "Perhaps after a few more such lessons the railroad company will come to have more respect for the stream which their engineer said didn't look to him like a river."

Apparently that same attitude exuded from an Army Corps of Engineers official 50 years later when he looked over the Eau Galle on a peaceful day. They were proven wrong.

In July 1903, the Sun reported the same five railroad bridges were ruined again when "the Eau Galle got up before" the citizens in the early morning hours. Water ran down McKay Avenue, Sabin Avenue homes were standing in water or surrounded, and Frank Lowater lost his brick kilns. Mud and water 1.5-feet deep ravaged these homes and many in town advised keeping a boat on hand for escape use.

Another storm one month later washed out 300 feet of railroad track and the railroad bridge near Paul Taylor's in the town of Gilman.

On Aug. 18, 1907, the "Worst Storm Ever Known in Pierce County" struck. While no one died, narrow escapes and massive amounts of damage dominated the headlines of the day. Torrential rains paired with an electrical storm. Mines Creek and Burghardt Creek tore out sidewalks, road beds and barns. The Eau Galle, however, did not do as much damage, though it was high. The town paper tried to keep the mood light, by reporting "There need be no worry over the surplus in the village treasury this year—our little celebration Sunday night effectually disposed of that."

Peace, then floods begin anew

For about 27 years, major flooding in the Valley ceased and memories of damage faded a bit. There was random storm damage here and there, but nothing major. However, that all changed in 1934. The town had grown, so more potential damage was possible.

The Sun proclaimed that April 2, 1934 was the "worst flood" in the town's history to that date. "Rain that evening, on top of some 4 inches of wet snow, caused every creek and gully to fill. The Eau Galle River divided above town, half of it sweeping down main street in a flood of 5 to 7 feet deep."

No lives were lost, and the new school's proximity to the river (the current SV Elementary, built in 1929) made no difference thanks to its design. However, other businesses weren't so lucky.

• Madson Lumber Company (southeast corner of town) reported losses of $8,000 to $10,000.

• Zauft Bros. had 4 feet of muddy water in their store.

• Knodt's grocery store saw canned goods float out the front door and new dress good ruined.

• J.J. Wainiaus' drug store goods mixed with mud to make an "indescribable mess."

• The Sun lost 4 tons of paper that had been stored on the floor.

On July 5, 1938, 6 inches of rain north of Spring Valley "topped everything for thrills" when the water reached the town during the three-day 4th of July celebration. The Crago Stock Company that had set up north of the school lost its tents, but wtas able to carry the show on to the community building.

As a preventive measure, as the town was a bit sick of flooding, a machine started south of town and dredged the river to a width of 100 feet and used the excavated material to build dikes along the Eau Galle's banks. That idea was tested immediately, when 6 inches of rain fell in four days in September 1938. The river stayed within its new banks, but erupted over them when an additional 3 inches of rain fell. The flood was localized to the south end of Main Street this time, and the river levels dropped faster than in the past, the Sun stated. Though the dredging was credited with keeping the flooding damage to a minimum, the town was still angry and blamed the "dam railroad bridge."

May 1942

Heavy rains began on Thursday, May 28, 1942. By early Friday morning, the water was running down Main Street, but receded quickly with minimal damage. The town was relieved, but little did they know it was only the beginning.

On Friday, May 29, more than 7 inches of rain fell in about 30 hours, according to Twin Cities' stations. The power went out at 11 p.m. and left the town to battle the rising waters in darkness. The Sun reported June 4, 1942 that the Omaha railroad, in the village and along the river below, lost a lot of track filling and bridges. The railroad embankment across the southern end of Main Street was washed out so badly that the rails and ties wouldn't be able to support a train. A petition circulated in the village, beseeching the Omaha to rebuild the embankment with several hundred feet more of trestle to prevent water backing up over the village, a constant for 40 years. The village once sued the railroad over storm damage, but lost its case when the railroad's attorney, Pierce Butler, turned out to be the Supreme Court judge overseeing the case.

Photo courtesy of Don BlegenAfter the May flood, many business owners began raising their store floors in hopes of protecting their goods from floods. You can still see evidence of this today in many Main Street businesses where steps lead you up into the interior. Dredging was planned for Mines Creek, along with a levee.

Train service was restored to Elmwood on Aug. 24, 1942. A short blurb in the Sun chastised Mother Nature for her "temperamental ways." That wasn't a good idea. By Sept. 1, 1942, the two creeks in town were overflowing their banks, though the Eau Galle behaved for a bit.

The great flood

Although the night before saw flooding and hail in nearby Woodville, the true flood began Sept. 17, 1942 when the rain began unceasingly. "If sheets of water had fallen in Noah's time, no 40 days and nights would have been needed for his flood to come," The Sun remarked. By 11:30 p.m. the water had reached a depth of 12 feet at upper Main Street and 15 to 20 feet at the south end of town. People trying to save their businesses were trapped in their buildings because the water rose so fast. It was a miracle no one died, though thousands of animals were lost.

The Pence garage was filled with livestock for a showing the next day. Narrow escapes were documented at Bertelson's drug store, Lillie's jewelry store, the telephone office and the Sun office where the editor cut his way out of the ceiling with a jackknife. Many homeowners were horrified when their homes lifted off foundations and floated down streets. Many homes were swept away entirely. Homes on the southeastern and southwestern edges of town escaped major damage, but the school was filled to the second story. It had just been repaired from the May flood.

"Water was deep on the second floor of the village hall, partly flooding the free library and destroying many books and equipment and village records," Blegen wrote.

Ironically, the village was left "dry as a bone" as far as drinking water was concerned. The village water system was severely damaged, and water in the reservoirs soon drained due to broken and cracked pipes.

Damage was estimated at $1.5 million, which would equate to almost $24 million today, according to an inflation calculator.

Martial law took over and armed men guarded entrances into Spring Valley to prevent looting.

Blegen notes "The Flood," as it came to be known, made national headlines. This was during the peak of World War II, when many men were away from home. Materials were being rationed or were simply not available, which made rebuilding troublesome.

At a town meeting held that Sunday, two solutions were discussed: control the floods somehow or move the village to a nearby location. The favored relocation site was 1 mile west of town, reached by State Highway 29 and county roads B and H, on high, level ground.

Businesses and homes lost included: both Zimmer ice houses, Martin Larson residence, the McLaughlin residence, the Spindler warehouse, the Murdock feed mill, a blacksmith shop, Wolf Hardware's two-story warehouse, the Ben Lawrence house, Kirk house, Kaye house, Vandelist house and Madson Lumber Co. office. Fifty to 55 buildings had to be torn down. Eight bridges and miles of road bed and rails were washed out between Spring Valley and Elmwood.

A new town?

An editorial in the Sun inspired the formation of plans to build a new town on the site of the present day Spring Valley Golf Course. Stocks were sold and architect Frank Lloyd Wright offered to design a new business district under one roof, the first ever "mall."

However, the unanimous vote needed never came to fruition. People believed the unique circumstances which brought the big flood were unlikely to occur again (warm air met by Arctic winds in September, over the watershed when the ground was already saturated with water). It was decided to pursue plans for an earthen dam north of town.

The dam

It took more than 20 years, but local individuals and organizations lobbied politicians for an earthen dam. The Army Corps of Engineers gathered data beginning in the 1940s, such as rainfall totals, weather patterns, soil borings and bedrock conditions. The dam began construction in late 1965 and was completed by Sept. 21, 1968. The night after the dedication, a cloudburst filled the new lake. Was it fate?

Water can rise 80 feet above normal levels before reaching the lip of the spillway, which contrary to popular belief, is not where the water comes out of Lake George. It's actually the passageway between the cliffs leading into the Eau Galle Recreation Area.

Two more floods could've wiped out Spring Valley without the dam: in 1980 and 1988, when the lake's level rose 15 feet in a matter of hours.

2019 sees a peaceful spring thaw

Village Clerk Luann Emerson and the Spring Valley Public Works department said this year's snowmelt was rather smooth and notably quiet despite a snowier than normal winter.

Flooding which is usually seen filling the shelter at the Handy-Andy Memorial Park on Fifth Street in town was "nowhere near that, with no standing water on Highway 29 (Fifth Street)," Emerson said.

In the downtown area, flooding is also not a concern, she added.

On County Road B just outside of town, warning signs were put up for standing water but did not majorly impact travel early this month. However, roads to Eau Galle Equestrian Trails - Highland Ridge Campground remained closed as of April 6 due to high flood waters. The U.S. Army Corps also closed Eau Galle Recreation Area to the public last week.

Timeline

May 15, 1894: First major flood after settlement caused by three-day rain and driftwood backed up at the railroad bridge.The railroad didn't learn its lesson and rebuilt its bridge with the exact same configuration as before.

May 1896: Another heavy rain and the "new" railroad bridge again acts as a dam for debris and floodwaters. Villagers actually dynamited the bridge and said it was struck by lightning to save Main Street. Beginning of the war between the village and railroad.

1903: Three separate floods occur in May, July and August. Thousands of dollars in damage to railroad bridges, wagon bridges and businesses.

Aug. 6, 1907: What was then called "The Worst Storm Ever Known in Pierce County." The Sun described "a torrent of rain and one of the longest continued electrical storms ever seen here." Damage not caused so much by the Eau Galle, but from Mines and Burghardt creeks. After this, a 27-year lull in major flooding.

April 1934: Rain and heavy snow produced what was again called in the papers "the worst flood" of SV's history. No deaths, but thousands of dollars in losses again reported.

July 5, 1938: After this latest flood, which washed away parts of the Fourth of July celebration, the river was dredged to a width of 100 feet and dikes were built along its banks.

Sept. 7, 1938: Six inches of rain falls in four days, and the river stayed in its new banks, though the creeks overflowed theirs. But, 3 more inches of rain forced the river over its new banks. While the flooding drained faster, houses were still lost. The railroad had created a new wider spanned bridge, but it still collected and bottlenecked debris.

May 1942: 7 inches of rain falls in 30 hours. Floods ravage the Valley again.

Sept. 17, 1942: The Big Flood hits Spring Valley, carrying away homes, businesses, possessions and livestock.

Spring 1965: The last major flood covers Main Street.

1965 to September 1968: Spring Valley is under construction

1966: After countless floods, the railroad leaves town. The tracks to Elmwood had been abandoned in 1943.

Sept. 21, 1968: The new earthen dam is dedicated.

1967: The first Dam Days is celebrated.

1989: Water rose 14 feet above normal level behind the dam

August 2010: Heavy rain caused the waters to rise 22 feet above normal level behind the dam.

The Herald is indebted to historian Don Blegen for his research, time and resources. Without him this compilation would not be possible. Much of the information was compiled from his book, "Spring Valley, the Early Days."

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in February 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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