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The Traverse Gap is an ancient river channel occupied by Lake Traversemarker and Big Stone Lakemarker and the valley connecting them at Browns Valley, Minnesotamarker. It is located on the border of the U.S. states of Minnesotamarker and South Dakotamarker. Traverse Gap has an unusual distinction for a valley: it is crossed by a continental divide, and in some floods water has flowed across that divide from one drainage basin to the other.

Geological history

The Traverse Gap was cut at the end of the last ice age. The Laurentide Ice Sheet decayed and receded as the Wisconsonian glaciation drew to a close, and Glacial Lake Agassizmarker formed from its meltwaters. Outlets to the north were blocked by the glacier, and the outlet to the south was dammed by the Big Stone Moraine which had been left by the retreat of the ice sheet. Lake Agassiz filled until it overtopped the moraine about 11,700 years ago. The resulting enormous outflow of the lake carved a natural spillway through the moraine, through which cascaded Glacial River Warren. This great river not only created the gap, it also cut the valleys of the present-day Minnesota and Upper Mississippi Rivers. River Warren drained Agassiz in two or more intervals over the next 2300 years, separated by times when the ice sheet receded sufficiently to uncover other outlets for Lake Agassiz. About 9400 years ago, Agassiz found a permanent outlet to the north. With its former source now draining elsewhere, the River Warren ceased to flow, and the spillway gorge became the Traverse Gap.

Topography and hydrology

Despite the low elevation and flat topography of its floor, the Traverse Gap marks the Northern Divide between the watershed of the Arcticmarker and the Atlantic Oceansmarker. On the north, Lake Traverse is the source of the Bois des Sioux River, a source stream of the Red River of the Northmarker, which drains via Lake Winnipegmarker and the Nelson Rivermarker to Hudson Baymarker in the Arctic Ocean. To the south, Big Stone Lake is the source of River Warren's remnant, the Minnesota River, tributary to the Mississippi, which drains to the Gulf of Mexicomarker and the Atlanticmarker. Big Stone Lake is now fed by the Little Minnesota Rivermarker, the headwaters of which are in South Dakota. The Little Minnesota enters the gap from the west and meanders south through the old channel to Big Stone Lake. The Little Minnesota, part of the Mississippi watershed, is less than one mile (1.6 km) from Lake Traverse in the drainage basin of Hudson Bay.

The floor of Browns Valley is flat, which allows the waters of one basin to flood across the continental divide into the other basin in times of high water. The maximum elevation on the floor of the valley is 987 feet (300.8 m) above sea level. The Browns Valley Dike at the south end of Lake Traverse is at the same elevation; this structure was built to reduce the likelihood of flooding south across the continental divide. At 983.9 feet (299.9 m), that divide is lower than the level of the dike, and flooding at Lake Traverse has the potential to drain over the Big Stone Dike into the Minnesota River watershed. At the south end of the gap, the Big Stone Lake reservoir pool is maintained at 967 feet (294.7 m), and it has recently flooded to over 975 feet (297.2 m). The Little Minnesota River upstream and at a higher elevation near the divide has flooded to a level where it drained across that divide into Lake Traverse. While the natural state of the area has been altered by the dike and control structures on the two lakes, interbasin flooding did occur prior to construction of those improvements. The Traverse Gap therefore allows waters which would naturally flow to the Atlantic Ocean to flow to the Arctic instead, and in the past has allowed water from Lake Traverse to flow in the other direction to Big Stone Lake in the Atlantic basin.


The ancient channel at Browns Valley is a mile (1.6 km) wide and some 130 feet (40 m) deeper than the surrounding terrain through which it was carved. The distance from Lake Traverse to Big Stone Lake is about five miles (8 km).

The continental divide crosses the gap transversely at its northern end. The Minnesota-South Dakota border longitudinally bisects the old channel. Roberts Countymarker is on the South Dakota side. To the east is Traverse County, Minnesotamarker and the community of Browns Valley near the continental divide. The southeast part of the gap is in Big Stone County, Minnesotamarker.

Human settlement

The area has seen human presence for thousands of years. A Paleo-Indian skeleton now know as "Browns Valley Man" was unearthed in 1933, under circumstances which suggested death or internment after deposition of the gravel but before creation of significant topsoil. Found with tools of the Clovis and Folsom types, the human remains have been dated approximately 9,000 years b.p.

The Traverse Gap was used by Native Americans, who recognized its geographic significance. Two buffalo skulls were placed on the continental divide, where travelers would stop to smoke a pipe to mark the place where the waters divided. The native trails were later used by fur traders who had posts at Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake, and then by Red River ox carts on the earliest of the Red River Trails.

The rural part of the valley floor contains pastures, cropland, and marshes along the Little Minnesota River. The vale was named "Browns Valley" after one of its pioneer residents, which in turn gave its name to the incorporated community near its northern end. The valley floor is crossed by Minnesota State Highway 28, which becomes South Dakota Highway 10 at the south end of Lake Traverse.

Natural Landmark designation

Under the name of Ancient River Warren Channel, the Traverse Gap has been designated as a National Natural Landmark under the Historic Sites Act. It received this designation in April 1966 from the United States Secretary of the Interior, giving it recognition as an outstanding examples of a geological feature of the United States' natural history. The designation describes it as "a channel cut by the Ancient River Warren during the Ice Age, containing the Hudson Bay-Gulf of Mexico divide, with a lake on each side as evidence of the irregularities in Ice Age sedimentation".

See also


  1. As discussed below, Browns Valley is both the name of the valley and the town located at its northern end.
  2. Northwest of the gap, the Little Minnesota runs within one-half mile (800 m) of Lake Traverse, but is separated from it by the Big Stone Moraine.
  3. A sign at the dike however gives the elevation of the continental divide as 977 feet (297.8 m).

External links

  • Additional photographs of March 2007 flooding of Traverse Gap, including interbasin flooding across the continental divide.
  • Photograph across Traverse Gap, showing flat valley floor and adjacent terraced uplands.

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