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May 21: Chandler's Paradise

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On this date in 1927, the Dakota Student, UND’s student newspaper, printed an article about a paradise proposed by the university's dean of engineering.

It said, “What would you say if you were told that within ten years a half barren region in North Dakota might be realizing the best crops in the world? You would probably be interested, but skeptical. You would say that this is impossible because of occasional [droughts] which destroy potential record-breaking yields …”

In a statement by Dean of Engineering Elwyn F. Chandler that the Dakota Student deemed “astounding,” the U.S. Geological Survey said that the Devils Lake region could be “raising wheat and other grain crops” unrivaled by any other agricultural region in the world.

The newspaper continued, “For the past three years Dean Chandler and his associates have been working on a project to bring water into the [Souris], James, and Sheyenne river valleys in sufficient quantities to ensure a ‘bumper’ crop there every year.”

Beyond reducing the risk of farming, the project advocates claimed it would “provide electrical power … and water, and a summer playground for North Dakota.”

The Dakota Student asked, “But where is all of the water to come from? None of the rivers of the vicinity is large enough, except the Missouri.”

Chandler responded, “Well, why not the Missouri?”

The Dakota Student opined, “Impossible, utterly absurd you think. But the professor will convince anyone that taking water from the Missouri is not at all impossible or absurd, that it is, on the contrary, quite feasible.”

Beyond serving as a professor and dean of engineering, Elwyn F. Chandler worked for decades as a hydraulic engineer for the Water Resources Branch of the United States Geological Survey.

His vision of a reservoir on the Missouri River took hold. The Great Depression would hit North Dakota hard. In the words of author Paul VanDevelder, desperate farmers viewed it as “the opening act for the Second Coming.”

Garrison Dam was built a generation later, to great fanfare, but the dam's flooding of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation was nothing short of catastrophic. Before the federal government named the reservoir “Lake Sakakawea,” tribal members had another name for it – “The Ogre of Fort Berthold.” The Missouri River valley, which had been their ancestral homeland for hundreds of years, was lost to “Chandler’s Paradise.”

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


  • “Missouri Diversion May Make Paradise Of Our Home State”, Dakota Student (Grand Forks), 21 May 1927, page 2, column 1.
  • https://apps.library.und.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=150&q=&rootcontentid=8223
  • Elwyn B. Robinson, “History of North Dakota” (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), pages 396-409.
  • Paul VanDevelder, “Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation” (New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), pages 27-29.
  • Marc Reisner, “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1986), page 198.
  • “INDIAN WEEPS AT LAND SALE” (picture, Associated Press), St. Cloud Daily Times, 22 May 1948, page 1, columns 6-7.
  • “Sunny Skies Should Smile On President's Visit to N.D.”, Bismarck Tribune, 10 June 1953, page 1.
  • “North Dakota Greets the President” (picture), Bismarck Tribune, 10 June 1953, page 1, columns 5-7.
  • “30,000 Souvenir Copies: Tribune Prints Special”, Bismarck Tribune, 10 June 1953, page 1, columns 2-3.
  • “DAM FOR PEOPLE – IKE”, Bismarck Tribune, 11 June 1953, page 1.
  • “THE OGRE of FORT BERTHOLD” (cartoon), Fort Berthold Agency News Bulletin (Elbowoods, ND), Volume 4, Number 4, 21 April 1953, page 1, found in “Across the Wide Missouri – Down on the Reservation: Moon of the Wolves Howling Outside the Village”, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Times (New Town, ND), Volume XXV, Number 2, 13 February 2013, pages 6-7.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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