Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Located at the confluence of the Red River of the North and the Red Lake River on the North Dakota.Minnesota boundary, Grand Forks is one of the most flood-prone communities of North Dakota. Although a difficult site, the city's general situation has been favorable since the 1860s for development as the major commercial center for northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Trade and transportation have always been important to Grand Forks. European fur traders visited the area in 1734, but continuous European American settlement only began with the creation of a steamboat-refueling station in the mid-1860s. The first town-site plat was recorded in 1875, and the city was incorporated in 1881. The St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway came in from the east in 1880; the Northern Pacific Railroad entered from the south in 1882. Regional wholesaling functions became significant in the early 1890s as the region's settlement increased by immigration, notably of Norwegians. Between 1890 and 1910 Grand Forks tripled in population to reach 12,478 people.

Population growth and economic prosperity increased and fluctuated from the 1920s through the 1950s with the region's wheat, potato, and sugar beet–based economy. In 1956 Grand Forks Air Force Base opened, sparking a boom in population and retailing during the 1960s and 1970s. Concurrently, enrollment growth was substantial at the University of North Dakota, and medical services also expanded, making Grand Forks a regional health-care center. Population had reached 43,765 by 1980 and 49,425 by 1990.

The 1990s were a time of economic turbulence. Drops in retail and holiday spending by Canadians, formerly a major component of the local economy, had adverse effects, as did the personnel reduction from post.cold war mission changes at the air force base. Compounding economic uncertainty were the farm crisis of the late 1990s and the population decline of the Devils Lake Basin, a major part of the city's trade hinterland. Then came the flood of 1997, the community's most devastating natural catastrophe to date. Damage to the metropolitan area of Grand Forks (which includes East Grand Forks, Minnesota) amounted to almost $3.8 billion.

Although seriously damaged by the flood, the city has bounced back remarkably in terms of the built environment, thanks to massive amounts of federal and private aid. A long-range flood protection program is under way that consists of expansion of dikes and abandonment of the most flood-prone areas. Rebuilding of the central business district has been extensive, as has the increase in residential areas within the southern and western parts of the city. Currently, the city of Grand Forks covers 17.38 square miles and is expected to continue to grow in area, but it is struggling to resume its population growth.

See also WATER: Floods.

Douglas C. Munski University of North Dakota

Grand Forks Centennial Committee. They Came to Stay: Grand Forks, North Dakota Centennial 1874–1974. Grand Forks, 1974.

LeFever, Julie, John Bluemle, and Ryan Waldkrich. Flooding in the Grand Forks–East Grand Forks, North Dakota and Minnesota Area. Bismarck: North Dakota Geological Survey, 1999.

Orvik, Jan, and Dick Larson. The Return of Lake Agassiz: The University of North Dakota and the Flood of 1997. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Press, 1998.

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