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Water Wars: The lost towns of Lake Sakakawea
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Lake Sakakawea near New Town, North Dakota, flooded several towns, including Sanish and Elbowoods. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Garrison Dam. The fifth largest earthen dam in the world, Garrison is located in central North Dakota. The dam on the Missouri River created Lake Sakakawea. The reservoir is 178 miles long and in some places, six miles wide. When the dam was built, many people were forced to sell their land and move.

New Town, N.D. — Fifty years ago, people from about a dozen towns in North Dakota were forced to move. When their communities were flooded by Lake Sakakawea, they created New Town. Bernice Houser was born in one of those flooded towns. Sanish, North Dakota was flooded by the Garrison Dam. "It had grocery stores and grain elevators and a post office. There was a creek that ran through town that was wild in the spring," says Houser. "On the west end of town was the Missouri River. We were right on the edge of the Missouri River. We had a bridge that went across the river that was built in 1927."

Her hometown is gone, but the Sanish bridge still exists. It's the center of a much longer bridge that now crosses Lake Sakakawea. Houser says the lake has spawned many stories and a few myths in the past 50 years. Her favorite is about the man who refused to sell his home and move.

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Image Four Bears Bridge, just west of New Town, North Dakota.

"(To believe) that somebody actually sat in a chair and the water came up and drowned them. Well it took months and months and months,( for the town to flood)" says Houser. "The guy would have starved to death long before he could have drowned if he sat there waiting for the water to come up."

Houser says most of the people who lived in Sanish were happy to relocate.

"There were very few people who had bathrooms. There was no running water in town," says Houser. "Everybody just feels like their living better now than they did then. Nobody seems to have any desire to go back. The only thing we left there was our youth."

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Image This river bed is all that remains of Sanish, North Dakota

Members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indian tribes have different recollections. They were forced to sell 155,000 acres of prime farmland to the government. Marilyn Hudson's father was tribal chair then. She says the tribes offered an alternative site.

"They (tribal leaders) said, 'look, if you will build a dam there it will save our land. We will donate whatever land you need,'" says Hudson. "It was uninhabited at that time. So they really attempted to find solutions that would be suitable to the government, but of course they weren't."

Hudson says Lake Sakakawea flooded many of the tribe's sacred sites. Eight Indian communities were inundated. More than 1,700 people had to move. The rich bottom lands had sheltered the three tribes for centuries. Hudson says jobs and businesses were lost.

"There was more dependence on welfare, a lack of skill in obtaining a job," says Hudson. "There was a long period of time when alcoholism and the family center deteriorated."

Hudson says life has improved for the tribes. She says it's taken many years, but people are recovering from the loss of their land and culture. But some folks in the area remain bitter. Harley Steffen farms nearby. His father owned a store in Van Hook. That was a town about four miles downstream. The town is now a park. Parts of it are under water.

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Image Marilyn Hudson's father was chair of the Three Affilated Tribes

Steffen says talk of building a dam started in the late 1940s. He says people felt it was their patriotic duty to sell their land to the government and move. Steffen says even 50 years later, people feel betrayed.

"In the first place they told a lot of falsehoods, a lot of lies," says Steffen. "They said they were going to do a lot of irrigation. Have you seen the irrigation? Has anyone seen the irrigation?"

Steffen says landowners were promised the lake would provide water to irrigate more than one million acres of North Dakota cropland. Irrigation canals were built but never used. No agricultural land has ever been irrigated with water from Lake Sakakawea.

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Image Harley Steffen remains bitter about the Garrison Dam Project

Steffen says the hard feelings continue to fester because of how water levels are managed in the river. Wide fluctuations hurt tourism and recreation.

Steffen says unless that problem is solved, the bitterness will only grow.

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