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Colfax Sesquicentennial 2014: 100-year floods 1965 & 1967

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  In honor of the Colfax Sesquicentennial celebration July 17-20, 2014, the history installment for this edition of the Colfax Messenger is Part I of the story about two 100-year floods on the Red Cedar River in 1965 and again in 1967. The floods caused NSP to permanently shut down the power plant on the Red Cedar River in what is now Felland Park. The floods also caused problems with the Colfax wastewater treatment plant on state Highway 170 just west of the bridge, eventually leading to the village installing the existing lagoon system.

Part 12: Water Damage

From the front page of the Colfax Messenger, it appears that in March of 1965, people in this neck of the woods were wondering if spring was ever going to arrive.

The headline on the front page of the March 25 edition of the Messenger reads, “St. Patrick’s Day Storm a Heavy One.”

“One of the heaviest snowfalls of the year began on St. Patrick’s Day morning. It was a true southeaster, starting early in the morning, continuing on through the day and night and a portion of Thursday. By the time it had spent its fury some nine inches of snow had accumulated.

“Brisk winds piled the snow into drifts and side roads became virtually impassable. Highway crews worked continuously to keep the main thoroughfares open for travel.

“Students of the Colfax schools were dismissed at one o’clock on Wednesday to insure their safe arrival home. Because the storm had not abated by the following morning, school was called off on Thursday as it was again Friday because of drifted roads.

“Temperatures tumbled Thursday night with this area recording a low of one below zero Friday morning. However, by Friday afternoon, most roads had been cleared of snow and things again returned to almost normal.

“Residents Saturday morning received another shocker, though, for if they checked their thermometers in the neighborhood of six a.m., they were greeted with a mighty chilly 20 below zero. That was a record breaker for coldness in most sections but with a bright sun shining, it didn’t take the mercury long to move up into a more comfortable range.”

Flood waters

According to the national weather service, the record cold temperature for the date of March 24 was 12 degrees below zero in 1965.

After a cold start to the spring, by the April 15 edition of the Messenger, flood water had covered county Highway M and state Highway 170.

Three pictures on the front page showed the extent of the flooding.

One picture looking south from the 170 bridge toward the Eighteen Mile Creek dam included this information, “If you look closely you will note that had the Red Cedar risen another couple of feet, it would have been flowing into Mirror Lake.”

County Highway M was impassible because of flood water, too, but not from the river. According to the Messenger, “Waters here receded on Monday since they were only caused by melting snow from the fields and hills to the east of the road.”

As for water across Highway 170, “Water had only started to cross the road near the village disposal plant Sunday forenoon but already the plant was completely surrounded by water and the power had been shut off.”

Rivers Bend

The article on the front page of the April 15, 1965, edition of the Colfax Messenger included the headline, “Red Cedar River Forces Rivers Bend Residents to Move Out.”

“Not since April of 1934 has the Red Cedar River been on such a rampage as it was Sunday and Monday of this week. Everyone expected that high waters would be troublesome this spring because of all the ice that has covered the ground since Christmastime and the heavy snows which followed.

“But as the early days of spring kept moving by with just enough warming each day for slow melting, fears of high waters slowly diminished. Sunday afternoon, the Red Cedar decided it was time for going over its banks and within just a couple of hours, waters had raised to such an extent that the eastern portion of the road to River’s Bend became flooded.

“Heaviest water crossing the road was right near the village disposal plant, and it wasn’t long before the basement of the building was flooded. Attempts were made to keep the basement dry by pumping but the flow of water was too heavy for success in that venture.

“In the early afternoon as the waters continued to rise, decisions were made to evacuate all residents of Rivers Bend. Removed from the danger area were G.A. Burri, Jim Corey, Alvin Gullickson, and the following families: Fred Wrights; Harvey Harms; Joe Satters; Robert Mittelstadts; Mrs. Theodore Tande,; Russell Pauls; Earl Skellys; Edwin Schanens; Ausman Fjelstads; Gunda Gulllickson; Myron Hills; Ausman Quevillons; the Forest Ferrys; and Clarence Nerisons.

“For the most part, water did not enter the houses in Rivers Bend but basements were flooded, and that means a good deal of cleanup for the residents there.

“Because of flood conditions north of Colfax, those living on the west side of the river were required to drive to Lamb’s Creek in order to reach Colfax.

“At one time waters across CTH M just north of the Hans Jorgenson farm threatened to stop traffic. Especially on Sunday was this true with those waters merely running into the road from fields and hills to the east. Water crossed the road on the west side of the 22-Mile Ford Bridge, and it was impossible to travel Highway 64. The road in Sand Creek also was blocked by water.”

Federal Aid

The April 29, 1965, edition of the Messenger reported that Harry E. Hill, village president, had written a letter to Congressman O’Konski about the flooding and seeking federal aid for the wastewater treatment plant.

Flood waters flowed into the disposal plant and submerged all furnaces, motors, electrical equipment and anything else located there.

According to O’Konski’s letter back to Hill, “Before Federal funds can be made available to Wisconsin, requests for disaster funds must be approved by the President. Governor Knowles sent a request for Federal funds last Monday … After the Wisconsin Disaster Plan has been approved, advertisements will appear in the newspaper and on television stating the time and place of the meetings to explain the program, to explain the application forms and to help County, City and Village officials to fill them out.”

The next edition of the Messenger reported that Harry Hill, Charles Swartz, Harold Holman and Noel Hilson attended the flood disaster meeting in LaCrosse on April 29.

Snow and frost

The June 3, 1965, edition of the Messenger reports snow and frost:

“With cold northwest winds prevailing from Wednesday until Saturday, natives were not the least surprised on Thursday and Friday to see flakes of snow making their way earthward. Rumors were around that one more snowfall was to be expected this spring, so maybe the new flakes that did arrive can be considered the final snow for this spring.

“On Saturday morning, May 29, a rather heavy frost covered the ground, and many vegetable plans and berry blossoms were damaged.”

The story of the “100 Year Floods” will be continued in next week’s edition of the Colfax Messenger.