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Winnipeg Flood - 1950

In 1950 the Red River climbed to its highest level since 1861, resulting in a major flood from April to June. There had been heavy autumn rains followed by a long winter with great amounts of snow. A cold spring prevented thawing; masses of thick ice deposited on the river caused it to reach flood levels by April 22. Significant rainfall in early May kept the river above flood stage for 51 days.

The swirling river, rising northward from Minnesota, turned 600 square miles of Manitoba farmland, between the American border and Winnipeg, into a vast inland sea. Alarmed by the likelihood of flooding, Manitoba sought help from the Canadian Army and the Red Cross. The Red Cross coordinated the relief initiative, composed entirely of volunteers.

From May 1 to 5 the water inched higher by the hour, invading the streets and buildings of Winnipeg. On the blustery night of "Black Friday," May 5, during torrential rain, sleet and snow, the powerful Red River tore apart eight dikes, crumpling countless sandbag bastions. Four of Winnipeg's eleven bridges were destroyed, and homes were engulfed. On May 6, at the urging of the chief flood-fighters, Premier Douglas Campbell approached Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, declaring a state of emergency due to "the most catastrophic flood ever seen in Canada" (Rasky 1961, p. 175).

Photograph of soldiers laying sandbags to contain flood waters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1950


Members of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry work to contain the flooding in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1950

Flood control headquarters was set up under the command of Brigadier Ronald E.A. Morton in a makeshift post in the Manitoba Legislature Building. On May 18 as the Red River reached 30.3 feet above normal, two different plans were discreetly prepared. "Operation If" or "Blackboy" was the disaster strategy for evacuation of all of Winnipeg, to be used if the river rose another two feet. "Operation Rainbow" was the plan for rehabilitation of Winnipeg, if all went well.

Winnipeg held her ground and finally on May 25, as the river slowly went down to 28.5 feet, "Operation Rainbow" went into effect and residents returned to their fetid homes.

The Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Salvation Army all played a significant role in the war Manitoba waged against the mighty Red River in 1950. So too did the hundred thousand weary but determined heroic volunteers of all ages working on the dikes in every community.

The millions of sandbags used were evidence of the magnitude of their task. The threat of a typhoid epidemic led to the donation of a chlorinator by the city of Ottawa and typhoid vaccine by the Université de Montréal.

The estimated cost of the flood was over one billion dollars. A flood relief fund was later established, reportedly raising between eight and ten million dollars. Although 107,000 people had been evacuated from the area, Lawson Alfred Ogg was the only Winnipegger killed by the 1950 flood that drowned the city. The disastrous flood caused the city to later institute flood control measures.


Rasky, Frank. Great Canadian Disasters. Toronto: Longmans, 1961.

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