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This article is about the tributary of the Lake Winnipegmarker, for the tributary of Mississippi River, see the Red River.

The Red River or and Red River of the North, is a North American river. Originating at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers in the United Statesmarker, it flows northward through the Red River Valley and forms the border between the U.S. states of Minnesotamarker and North Dakotamarker before continuing into Manitobamarker, Canadamarker. It empties into Lake Winnipegmarker, whose waters join the world's oceans in Hudson Baymarker via the Nelson Rivermarker.

The Red River flows through several urban areas along its path including Fargo-Moorhead and Greater Grand Forks in the United States and Winnipegmarker in Canada. The Red is about 885 kilometres (550 miles) long, of which about 635 kilometres (395 miles) are in the United States and about 255 kilometres (155 miles) are in Canada. The river falls on its trip to Lake Winnipegmarker where it spreads into the vast deltaic wetland known as Netley Marsh.

In the United States, the Red River is sometimes called the Red River of the North, to distinguish it from the Red Rivermarker that is a tributary of the Mississippi River, which forms part of the border between Texasmarker and Oklahomamarker.

Long a highway for trade, the Red has been designated as a Canadian Heritage River.


The watershed of the Red River was part of Rupert's Land, the Hudson's Bay Company concession in north central North America. The Red was a key trade route for the company, and contributed to the settlement of British North America. The stream was used by fur traders, including the Métis people, and by the settlers of the Red River Colony, the primary settlement of which eventually became Winnipegmarker, Manitobamarker. The river gave its name to the Red River Trails, nineteenth-century oxcart trails which supported this trade and these settlements, and which led to further development of the region on both sides of the international border.


The Red River forms at Wahpeton, North Dakotamarker and Breckenridge, Minnesotamarker, passes through Fargo, North Dakotamarker/Moorhead, Minnesotamarker and Grand Forks, North Dakotamarker/East Grand Forks, Minnesotamarker, and then continues on to the province of Manitobamarker in Canada. Manitoba's capital — Winnipegmarker — is at the Red's confluence with the Assiniboine River, at a point commonly referred to as The Forksmarker. The Red then flows further north before draining into Lake Winnipegmarker which is part of the Hudson Baymarker watershed.

Southern Manitoba has a comparatively long frost-free season, between 120 and 140 days in the Red River Valley.


The Red River flows across the flat lakebed of the ancient glacial Lake Agassizmarker, an enormous glacial lake created at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation from meltwaters of the Laurentide ice sheet. As this continental glacier decayed, its meltwaters formed the lake, and over thousands of years sediments precipitated to the bottom of the lakebed. These lacustrine soils are the parent soils of today's Red River Valley. The river itself is very young; it began only after Lake Agassiz drained, about 9,500 years ago.

The word "valley" is a misnomer. While the Red River drains the region, it did not create a valley wider than a few hundred feet, and the much-wider floodplain is the lakebed of the glacial lake. It is remarkably flat; from its origin near Breckenridge, Minnesotamarker to the international border near Emerson, Manitobamarker, its gradient is only about 1:5000, or approximately 1 foot per mile. The river, slow and small in most seasons, does not have the energy to cut a gorge. Instead it meanders across the silty bottomlands in its progress north. In consequence, high water has nowhere to go, except to spread across the old lakebed in "overland flooding". Heavy snows or rains, on saturated or frozen soil, has caused a number of catastophic floods, which often are made worse by the fact that snowmelt starts in the warmer south, and waters flowing northward are often dammed or slowed by ice. These periodic floods have the effect of refilling, in part, the ancient lake.

Major floods in historic times include those of 1826, 1897, 1950, 1997, and 2009, and many years in between. There have been many other floods in prehistoric times, of equal or greater size. These "paleofloods" are known from their effects on local landforms, and have been the subject of scholarly studies.

1950 flood

On May 8, 1950 the Red River reached its highest level at Winnipeg since 1861. Eight dikes protecting Winnipeg gave way and flooded much of the city, turning of farmland into an enormous lake. The city turned to the Canadian Army and the Red Crossmarker for help, and nearly 70,000 people were evacuated from their homes and businesses. Four of eleven bridges in the city were destroyed, and damage was estimated at between $600 million and $1 billion.

As a result of the floods, a flood control project was started to ensure the same would never happen again. The Red River Floodwaymarker around Winnipeg was cause for some derision at the time, as it seemed massively overbuilt and was the largest earth-moving project in the world at the time. The project was completed under-budget, and has been used for at least some flood control twenty times in the thirty-seven years from its completion to 2006. The Floodway has saved an estimated $10 billion (CAD) in flood damages.

1997 flood

In the spring of 1997 a major flood of the Red River caused $3.5 billion in damage and required temporary evacuation of towns and cities on both sides of the border.

2009 flood

In 2009 the Red River flooded in early spring. By Friday, March 27, the river at Fargo had reached the highest level in recorded history, and its discharge at that location was far in excess of normal flows.

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