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Churchs Ferry: A Town Diminished but Not Forgotten

3/10/2016:

Located along U.S. Highway 2 west of Devils Lake, the town of Churchs Ferry has struggled to remain intact. To passersby, at first glance, Churchs Ferry appears to be abandoned.

Those who live nearby have witnessed the rising waters of Devils Lake creeping into Churchs Ferry, threatening, and eventually engulfing many of the town’s houses and buildings.

On this date in 1888, the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean reported on the town’s namesake, Irvine Church. He lay deathly ill in his home, but would thankfully go on to make a miraculous recovery.

Arriving in 1883, Irvine Church was among the first settlers in the area near the Mauvais Coulee, a streambed where furious waters flowed. French fur-trappers found this deep ravine difficult to cross. The word “mauvais” means “bad,” and “coulee” means “flow” or “ravine.”

Irvine Church established a ferry, allowing settlers to cross the barrier to make their way to Devils Lake, the nearest town. A little community arose near the coulee and it took the name of Church’s business.

But the ferryboat enterprise did not last long, for the Mauvais Coulee dried up altogether in the late 1890s. History lost track of Mr. Church, but it is known that he left his little town and pursued life in California, where he died in 1925.

Today, little of Churchs Ferry still stands. Only twelve residents live there, a major decline from 110 in 1999. Almost all the people accepted federal funds to move their houses into nearby towns. As the water kept rising, several buildings were destroyed, including Zion Lutheran Church. Eventually the water receded, and now only the building on higher ground remain.

As drivers pass by Churchs Ferry and glance over a sea of cattails, it is unnerving to realize that the water Irvine Church’s ferryboat once navigated had risen to decimate his little town.

Dakota Datebook written by Michelle Holien, edited by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “North Shore Notes,” Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, March 10, 1888, p. 3.

Federal Writers’ Project for the State of North Dakota, The WPA Guide to North Dakota: The Prairie State (San Antonio: Trinity University Press), p. 242.

Joseph L. Gavett, North Dakota: Counties, Towns and People (Tacoma, WA: Judd’s Workshop Publications), p. 17.

Kevin Bonham, “Buried by Water: Devils Lake Swallows Cemeteries, Tradition,” Grand Forks Herald, May 28, 2011.

Lisa M. Hamilton, “Flooded Lives: The Fight to Survive Devils Lake,” The Atlantic, May 24, 2011, p. 1-6.

Duane Holien (local resident), interview with the author, Michelle Holien, December 2015.

“Irvine Church,” Find A Grave Index, Ancestry.Com, born 1839, died 1926, San Gabriel, Los Angeles County, California, accessed on January 30, 2016.