Duff?s Ditch provides plenty of protection from the Red River

Duff Roblin did not part the Red Sea. However, the former premier of Manitoba did wonders with the Red River.

Roblin was the driving force behind the construction of the Red River Floodway, which was designed to protect the city of Winnipeg from floodwaters. Dubbed ?Duff?s Ditch,? the floodway was completed in 1968 at a cost of around $63 million.

It has been hailed as one of the largest and most important infrastructure projects in Canadian history.

As far back as 1776, explorers and traders documented flooding in the Red River basin. More than a century before the construction of the floodway, massive flooding devastated the area on at least three occasions, while lesser inundation ? albeit still major ? took place on an average of once every 10 years.

The highest flood on record took place in May 1826, when the land that would become the city of Winnipeg was covered in nearly five metres of water.

Other floods followed over the years on a fairly regular basis, but as Winnipeg continued to grow and develop as a centre the impact of each inundation grew greater. With the massive floods of the 1800s just a memory by the 1920s, new neighbourhoods were built along the river.

After almost a century without a major flood, that all changed in 1950. With the city basically unprepared for the threat of rising floodwaters, residents faced one of the greatest natural disasters in Canadian history.

Despite the best efforts of volunteers building dikes around the city, more than 10,500 homes were flooded and over 100,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes as water covered almost 10 per cent of the city.

While flooding had previously been regarded as a local responsibility, the magnitude of the damage in 1950 forced the federal and provincial governments to take a closer look. An agreement between the two levels of government was reached to build dikes along the Red River and the Assiniboine River.

Further studies led to recommendations to build a flood control system on the Red River. Among the recommendations were plans for the construction of a 48-kilometre floodway to the east of the city to supplement the capacity of the river channel.

Due to its cost and magnitude, Premier Douglas Campbell?s government was reluctant to proceed with the project. After delaying for several years, the provincial government appointed a royal commission to consider the project. In addition to other measures, the commission recommended the construction of the floodway, as well as a channel from Portage la Prairie to Lake Manitoba to divert floodwaters from the Assiniboine River.

Critics immediately assailed the project as a colossal waste of money that would only benefit a portion of the province. Despite the naysayers, Roblin, who was leader of the opposition at the time, immediately championed the floodway project.

Upon rising to government in June 1958 ? partially on the promise of building flood protection ? Premier Roblin continued to promote the idea and reached a cost-sharing agreement with the federal government. Planning for the flood control system began immediately, with construction getting underway in October 1962. Canada?s largest excavation project at the time was completed on schedule in March 1968.

The Red River Floodway received its ultimate test during the ?Flood of the Century? in 1997, but it proved up to the challenge.

Nevertheless, with the floodway near capacity, decisions were made to expand the system.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. Paul can be reached