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Garrison Dam Heartbreak


A heartbreaking deadline arrived on this date in 1953. Residents in towns along the Garrison Reservoir were required to evacuate by July 1 as the reservoir’s rising waters swallowed up surrounding land.

The effects of the rising reservoir were devastating. Over 150,000 acres of river bottomland were lost, and towns such as Independence, Charging Eagle, Elbowoods and Sanish disappeared. Ninety percent of the area’s population, mainly native people, had to relocate to land with soil less suited for their farming lifestyle.

Over 2,000 people of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes were heartbroken when their homes disappeared under what is now Lake Sakakawea. Driven to higher ground, many members of the Three Affiliated Tribes now live in Parshall, Mandaree and New Town.

Holding back 7.7 trillion gallons of water, the Garrison Dam is one of the largest rolled earth dams on the planet. Flooding the upper Missouri River produced over 1,300 miles of shoreline, nearly 500 more miles than California’s coastline. Lake Sakakawea was named in 1967 and covers 480 square miles of North Dakota.

For the people forced to abandon their homes and towns, the Garrison Dam represents a memory still painful to this day. While government compensation was given to those whose lands were lost, some things money couldn’t replace. Bays are named now for towns that disappeared – such as Nishu Bay and the Van Hook Arm.

The Four Bears Bridge connecting Highway 23 with New Town is North Dakota’s longest bridge, and stands near the former townsite of old Sanish. While constructing the new Four Bears Bridge in 2005, the waters were low, bringing remnants of old Sanish above the surface. Those old footings and foundations have since vanished again beneath the water.

Just 80 miles of the Missouri River flow freely in North Dakota out of 390. The Garrison and Oahe dams hold back much of the Big Muddy. While generating much hydroelectric power, the Garrison Dam will always have its largest impact on the people it forced from their homes.

Dakota Datebook written by Jack Dura


Frohlich, M. (Producer). (2012). The people of the upper Missouri: The Mandans [Motion picture]. United States (Available from State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, ND 58501): State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Rolfsrud, E. N. (1990). Story of the peace garden state. Alexandria, MN: Echo Printing. Print.