Remembering the spring flood of 1943

One of the common consequences of a long cold and snowy winter is springtime flooding. This does not always happen. If the amount of frost in the ground is relatively light, the spring melt will be largely absorbed by the soil. However, if there is a late and sudden thaw, with deep frost still present, the spring melt will run over top of the land and into the adjoining rivers, creeks and lakes.

An example of a sudden and severe spring flood occurred in the spring of 1943. The winter had been a long cold one, with near record amounts of snow. There were prolonged cold spells with temperatures dipping to -40C for several days on end. The miserable winter weather extended throughout the month of March.

Conditions finally broke at the end of March. Temperatures rose to a balmy 10C to 15C.

Sudden thaw caused great torrents of water to spill into the rivers and creeks. Within a few days, the ice on these streams began to break up.

On Sunday, April 4, 1943, at 4 a.m., the ice on the Red Deer River jammed a short distance below the City. The raging floodwaters quickly backed up. The river rose an estimated 4.6m in less than an hour. Before the day was over, the river peaked at an incredible 6.74m above flood level.

The sleeping community was caught off guard. One resident near the river woke up when the water began to lap over the top of her bed. Others were alerted by the sound of the ice grinding against the walls of their homes.

Some of those, who were flooded out, managed to scramble to higher ground. Others were not so lucky. They had to be rescued from the roofs of their houses by boat.

Ironically, despite the overabundance of floodwater, the City experienced a shortage of suitable water for domestic and commercial uses. The water treatment plant was flooded out. The Public Works Department decided to cut off the flow from the City reservoir in case the water was needed to fight a fire. To compensate for the emergency situation, water cards were dispatched around the community so that homeowners could have at least some water until the crisis eased.

Meanwhile, the military was called in to help break up the ice jam. Planes were used to survey the area. An amphibious tank was brought down from Edmonton to help blast the ice loose. However, by the time that all the preparations were complete, the ice jam gave way on its own. The water level dropped by more than 2m in a few minutes.

The damage caused by the sudden flood was extensive. One riverside feedlot lost a large number of cattle. A number of homes were damaged. The water treatment plant required several days of repairs.

Fortunately, no lives had been lost in Red Deer, but the district was not so fortunate over the following days.

One man drowned while trying to cross the bridge over the Medicine River at Evarts. Another drowned in the Horseguard Creek while trying to pull a stranded car out of the floodwaters. A young man fell off an ice block in the Blindman River and was swept away.

On April 10, the ice finally went out on Waskasoo Creek, causing more flooding in Red Deer’s downtown area. Two days later, a little boy of eight slipped into the creek along which he had been playing. While a group of soldiers spotted him being swept along by the current, they were unable to rescue him. The authorities were not able to recover the body for almost a week.

Eventually, the water receded and the countryside turned lush and green as spring progressed. The damage was ultimately repaired. Nevertheless, the community mourned the tragic loss of lives. Memories of one of the very worst floods on record remained for many, many years to come.