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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends


Devils Lake Flood Facts Flier (3 mb)

Revised (June 2014)

Download Devils Lake Basin Area Landsat Image Map (11x17 PDF) (1 mb)

Devils Lake Basin Area Landsat Image Map

History of Devils Lake

Existing knowledge of the Devils Lake basin indicates that the area has held a unique position in the history and prehistory of North Dakota. The central location of the basin between the forested areas of the east, the Missouri River to the west, and the James and Sheyenne rivers to the south, along with the constant availability of water, food, and game on the shores of Devils Lake provided a focal point for the prehistoric and early inhabitants of North Dakota. The Devils Lake basin was one of the early centers of European settlement. Beyond the limit of regular communication, the early settlement were dependent upon the immediate area for much of their food, fuel, and building material. One reason that Fort Totten was built on the shore of Devils Lake was the advantages the natural resources afforded. As lands around Devils Lake were settled and as the railroads began providing reliable communication, settlement expanded into the less favorable areas of the basin and beyond.

A vast majority of the sites of historic significance in the Devils Lake basin are connected to the period of white settlement, which in this region began in the early 1880s. The few historic sites dating prior to that time are concentrated in the immediate areas of Devils and Stump lakes and other watercourses.

These sites pertain primarily to the fur trade era and to the establishment of the Devils Lake Indian Reservation and the military post at Fort Totten. Fur traders are known to have been operating in the Devils Lake basin as early as 1800, although no specific sites linked to this era have yet been found.

Although military expeditions had explored the basin earlier, the first permanent occupation did not occur until 1867 when Fort Totten was established on the south shore of Devils Lake. The post was rebuilt a short distance south of the original site during 1868-72 with permanent brick buildings. In 1890 it was abandoned by the military and converted to an Indian boarding school - a status it retained until 1960 when the brick buildings surrounding the parade ground were turned over to the State of North Dakota for preservation as a state historic site. The Devils Lake Indian Reservation was also formed in 1867 under provisions of a treaty signed that year with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Sioux Indian Tribe. Agency buildings and structures used by religious groups such as the Grey Nuns began appearing in the early 1870s near the military post of Fort Totten. A few settlers had also filtered into the basin prior to 1880 and built cabins along the periphery of Devils Lake.

The first surge of white settlement began in 1882, spurred by the impending construction of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern and now part of the Burlington Northern) west from Larimore. A flurry of land squatting, claim jumping, and town site speculation ended the following year with the establishment of a railroad terminus at Devils Lake (formerly known as Creel City) and the murder of two young brothers accused of claim jumping. Nevertheless, excitement again accompanied the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the west end of the lake where the town of Minnewaukan was established in 1885.

Despite the initial rush for land in the basin, actual settlement moved slowly until the late 1890s. Few new railroads were being built, and most settlers were reluctant to locate too far from rail lines. Also hampering settlement was the fact that much of the land given as institutional land grants to the State of North Dakota by the federal government was selected in the northern part of the basin and was kept off the market until 1898.

The major influence in encouraging settlement within the Basin was the arrival of the Great Northern Railway. In 1894 the company's energetic land commissioner, Max Bass, induced a number of German Baptist, or ""Dunker"' families to settle in southern Towner County. A substantial number of Dunkers arrived in succeeding years. By 1905 most of the existing railroad mileage had been built in the basin and little cheap land remained.

Most of the basin's rail lines were built by the Burlington Northern and Soo Line railroad or their predecessors or subsidiaries. Two other lines, however, should be noted. The Farmers Grain & Shipping Co., which built from Devils Lake to Starkweather in 1902 and on the Rock Lake three years later, is a rare example of a rail line built and operated by farmers to move their crops and provide passenger transportation. Such "farmers railroads" were extensively promoted in the late 19th Century, but only a few were actually built. The company was dominated and controlled by the Great Northern Railway after 1905 and later became a branch of that company. A private short rail line was also built in 1900 to connect the city of Devils Lake with the State Chautauqua grounds on the lakeshore. It was abandoned in the 1920s, but much of its grade is still discernible.

Waterborne transportation played a small but important role in the basin's early history. In 1833 a veteran Mississippi River steamboat operator from Wisconsin, Edward Edson Heerman, launched a small side-wheel steamer, the Minnie H, on Devils Lake. Heerman's boat provided transportation between the north and south shores for several decades until the construction of the bridge at Pelican Point made vehicular transportation possible. From 1883 to 1886, Irvine Church operated a small flat-bottomed ferry across the shallow but gumbo-bottomed Mauvais Coulee northwest of Devils Lake; the ferry was put out of business when the railroad built west toward Montana. His business venture became the namesake of a new village on the railroad a short distance from his landing: Churchs Ferry. Another small ferry operated across Rock Lake around the turn of the century.

The opening of the Devils Lake Indian Reservation to land filing in 1904 completed the settlement of the southern portion of the basin. As other portions of the basin were settled, many towns and villages emerged along the railroad lines where most of the region's economic, social, educational, and religious institutions were concentrated. Small settlements, schools, and churches also appeared in rural areas, although many of these have since disappeared. Left in the wake of this settlement were a number of once booming but now abandoned townsites such as West End, Grand Harbor, Odessa (which aspired to the territorial capitol), and Bartlett, where a community of 1700 people in December 1882 was reduced to vacant prairie five months later by fire and adverse location.

Today much of the original settlement pattern remains, although the depressions of the 1920s and 1930s started an out-migration which has sharply reduced the population in both urban and rural areas. Since 1920, the advent of the automobile and improved roads have also been factors in the disappearance of many of the basin's early institutions.

Prehistoric Hydrology

Prehistoric Water Levels, Devils Lake, ND
Water levels of Devils Lake have fluctuated between about 1459 feet above mean sea level, which is the approximate spill elevation into the Sheyenne River; to about 1398 feet above mean sea level, the lake being completely dry. Research indicates that lake levels have reached those extremes several times since glaciation.

Historic Hydrology

Water Surface Elevations, Devils Lake, ND (USGS)
The original land surveys in 1887 indicated a lake level of about 1441 msl in 1830. That level was based on the comparison of tree ring samples taken from existing stands of timber above and below elevation 1441. The maximum recorded level of 1438 msl was reached in 1867 and a minimum recorded level of 1400.9 msl in 1940. At those levels, the lake's surface areas were 140 square miles and 10 square miles respectively. Generally, lake levels rose from 1940 to 1956, declined from 1956 to 1968, rose and peaked at 1428 msl in 1983 and 1987, then declined into 1993 to its most recent low level of 1422.62 msl. Since 1993, Devils Lake has been experiencing an unprecedented rise - reaching record elevations above 1452 msl in June 2010.

Map of Devils Lake at Various Elevations

Devils Lake at Various Elevations


The Devils Lake basin was created by the last advance of the continental ice sheets in North Dakota. The west and south drainage divides of the basin are defined by end moraines; the rest of the basin is enclosed by broad, low divides in the ground moraine mantling the basin. Glacial Devils Lake was maintained at about elevation 1450 feet by glacial meltwater flowing from the retreating ice sheet to the north, by precipitation, and snow meltwater. Drainage was to the south and down the ancestral Sheyenne River. The Devils Lake basin became a closed basin when the southerly drainage ceased and the amount of water flowing into the basin became less than subsurface outflow or water lost by evapotranspiration.

Bedrock aquifers used in the Devils Lake basin occur in the Dakota and Montana groups of Cretaceous sediments. Yields of flowing (artesian) wells range between 10 and 150 gallons per minute. Pumping rates vary from about 5 to more than 250 gallons per minute. Thickness of these shale, silt stone, and sandstone beds vary from 10 to about 100 feet. Concentrations of dissolved solids are usually quite high, making it generally unsuitable for irrigation.

The most productive aquifers in the Devils Lake basin in terms of high sustained yields are those found in the glacial drift deposits. Well yields vary from less than 50 gallons per minute in isolated deposits of sand and gravel to over 500 gallons per minute in buried valleys of sand and gravel which are located in the southern part of the basin. Thickness of these deposits varies from less than 5 feet to over 330 feet. Suitability of the water for irrigation varies from good to marginal. Major glacial drift aquifers include the Spiritwood, Warwick, Starkweather, McVille, Tokio and Sheyenne valley systems.


Devils Lake has a continental climate characterized by relatively warm, short summers and long cold winters. Precipitation averages about 17 inches annually, some three-fourths of which falls between April and September. The three or four inches that are received during the colder months contribute the most to spring runoff and subsequent recharge of Devils Lake.

In general the water level of Devils Lake fluctuates in response to climate variability, but the hydrologic characteristics of the Devils Lake basin can distort the hydrologic response. For example, lake levels have dropped rapidly during periods of relatively high total precipitation within the basin. This can happen following a relatively dry period when considerable vacant storage is available in the watershed's abundant wetlands and in the Chain of Lakes. A condition that contributes to significant spring rises in the Devils Lake water level is a heavy snowpack preceded by a wet fall, which quickly melts while the soil is still frozen.

The maximum recorded temperature is 112 degrees Fahrenheit and the minimum is 46 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The average date of the last killing frost is May 15 and the earliest is September 23. The growing season is short, averaging 131 days. The lowest annual precipitation record is 10.08 inches recorded in 1967 and maximum is 27.77 inches recorded in 1986. The mean annual snowfall at the City of Devils Lake is 36 inches.

Water Quality

Devils Lake is a terminal lake, meaning that water will only leave the lake through evaporation, plant uptake, ground infiltration, or unless lake elevation gets high enough for an overflow. Because Devils Lake is rising, water levels create a larger volume of water, thereby diluting the concentration of TDS. The opposite relationship exits when water levels decrease. It should be understood, however, that the relationship between the water column and bottom sediment is not understood and may affect TDS and nutrient levels differently, depending on the lake level.

There is no natural outlet to the basin at current lake levels, so soil particles and other elements borne by runoff water continually collect in Devils Lake. As stated previously, evaporation is the only way water leaves the system so the constituents brought in with the runoff water are left behind. The farther the level drops, the higher the concentration of TDS. Generally, highest TDS concentrations occur during the winter months, the lowest in the spring, and increase in the lake going from west to east. The variations in TDS from west to east exist because most runoff water enters the system on the west end via Mauvais Coulee and Channel A.

Devils Lake Water Quality Schematic (from USGS) (217 kb)