Grand Forks: History
Railroads Stimulate Growth of City
Located at the junction of the Red Lake River and the Red River of the North, the area of Grand Forks served as a camping and trading site for Native Americans for centuries. French, British, and American fur traders peddled their wares in and around "La Grand Fourches," as the French named it, meaning "the great forks."
In the 1850s, furs and trade goods passed through the Forks on oxcarts enroute between Winnipeg, Canada, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Steamboats replaced oxcarts in 1859. The shallow-draft steamboats could operate in less than three feet of water as they negotiated the Red River from Fargo to Winnipeg. Alexander Griggs, an experienced Mississippi River steamboat captain, established the town site of Grand Forks in 1870. Griggs teamed up with James J. Hill in the Red River Transportation Line of steamboats in the 1870s.
Grand Forks really began to grow after James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad came to town in 1880. The Northern Pacific Railroad also built tracks to the city in 1882 and business boomed. Early arrivals who stayed in the region were mostly of northern European background including Scandinavian, German, and Polish immigrants.
Wheat and Lumber Anchor Economy
Wheat farming served as the basis of the Red River Valley prosperity. In 1893 Frank Amidon, chief miller at the Diamond Mills in Grand Forks, invented "Cream of Wheat." George Clifford, George Bull, and Emery Mapes financed the new breakfast porridge venture, and the city became a part of a national breakfast legend.
From the 1880s to 1910, pine logs were floated down the Red River or brought in by rail to sawmills in the city. Many houses in Grand Forks were built of the majestic white pines from the vast forests of northern Minnesota. The University of North Dakota, founded in 1883, became the premier liberal arts institution in the state. The city grew from the river toward the college campus to the west. The Metropolitan Theatre opened in 1890 and for the next 25 years it presented quality productions of music and drama. During the period of the "Gilded Age" at the end of the last century, spacious and elegant houses were built along historic Reeves Drive and South Sixth Street for the local elite.
By 1900, Grand Forks had a population of almost 10,000 people. The wealth from the lumber companies, wheat farms, and railroads enabled the community to take its place as a leading city of the "Great Northwest." After his arrival in the early 1880s, local architect Jon W. Ross designed many of the area's most beautiful buildings. In 1902, Joseph Bell Deremer, trained at Columbia University, began to make his mark upon the community through the new buildings he designed.
The North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the only state-owned flour mill in the country, opened in 1923. The mill allowed North Dakota farmers to bypass Minneapolis-based railroads and milling monopolies. The mill distributed free flour to needy people during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even today, the mill sends its trademark flour "Dakota Maid" around the world.
Twentieth Century Ends in Disaster; City Rebuilds
Grand Forks grew as a regional trade center in the twentieth century. In recent times Grand Forks residents have endured several hardships. The winter of 1995–1996 brought record snowfall (more than 100 inches in many areas) and eight blizzards. In April 1997, Grand Forks was devastated by a flood that saw the Red River rise to more than 53 feet; flood stage is 28 feet. With 60 percent of the city covered with water, most residents were forced to abandon the city, and the state was declared a disaster area. Damage from the flood was about $1.3 billion. Many residents pledged to return and rebuild, although Mayor Patricia Owens acknowledged that some residents would probably never return. She declared: "The lesson we've learned is that material things don't mean a thing. . . . Pretty soon we'll be back, bigger and better."
Analysts estimated that Grand Forks lost about 2,000 residents, nearly 4 percent of its population, because of destroyed homes and lost job opportunities from the great flood. But, with the initiative of then-Mayor Patricia Owens, the city began to rebuild. She secured $171.6 million in Community Development Block Grant money to help Grand Forks rebuild. She also got the federal government to earmark more than $1 billion for buyouts and relocations of homes, businesses, and schools; money for farmers who lost livestock; and money for infrastructure repair (including the town's sewer system, which was particularly hard-hit). Today, under the leadership of Mayor Brown, the city continues to grow. In 2004 the city was on a record pace for building and expansion, with a total construction value of $106 million. Less than a decade after the flood, Grand Forks has become known as a "Destination City" for its pro-business practices, affordable housing, and community events.
Historical Information: University of North Dakota, Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, Box 9000, Grand Forks, ND 58202-9000; telephone (701)777-2617
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