Early French explorers and fur traders described the site where the Red Lake River drains into the meandering Red River of the North as “Les Grande Fourches.” The city of Grand Forks formed at that confluence. As a productive hunting and trading area for the Northwest Fur Company, and, earlier, Hudson’s Bay Company, Grand Forks was part of Pembina County. In 1873 the Ojibwe ceded territory west of the Red River to the United States and in 1874 Grand Forks County was organized by the territorial governor.
Grand Forks developed as the result of its location on the Red River of the North. The valley is a level floodplain of alluvial soil formed by the vast glacial Lake Agassiz, which receded some nine thousand years ago. The alluvial soils of the former lake bed provided excellent land for agriculture. At settlement, the treeless valley lay between the northern Minnesota lakes and pine forests to the east and the North Dakota plains to the west. Captain Alexander Griggs and his flatboat men established Grand Forks when they spent the winter of 1870–1871 here after being caught by an early freeze. Within a few years, Grand Forks had a boardinghouse, hotel, steamboat warehouse, three saloons, a stagecoach station, sawmill, and seven residences. During this time Grand Forks County saw its first influx of Norwegian immigrants, who came not directly from Norway but from Norwegian settlements in Iowa and Wisconsin, and especially southern Minnesota. James J. Hill’s Great Northern (GN) Railway reached Grand Forks in 1880, and with the arrival of the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway in 1882, Grand Forks became the division headquarters for both railroads, which provided jobs for railroad workers and related industries. The 1883 founding of the territorial university in the northern Dakotas, one mile west of the city, also assured that Grand Forks would prosper. At statehood in 1889, this institution became the University of North Dakota. By then, Grand Forks boasted three newspapers, five banks, breweries, and one of the state’s earliest streetcar railways.
The architecture of Grand Forks reflects the state’s historical growth and development. Early boomtown commercial buildings were destroyed by fire in 1882, a pattern repeated in many fledgling prairie communities, and here, as elsewhere, rebuilding was prompt. Locally available clay deposits north and south of the city produced superior-quality brick and this is reflected in the architecture of downtown constructed from the 1880s. Four brickyards made a cream-colored Grand Forks common brick used primarily for side and rear walls of virtually every commercial building in the city. High-quality face brick also was obtained locally, and excellent craftsmanship by local bricklayers is evident in downtown buildings.
Migration from farm to city intensified during the sustained western drought and the Great Depression. Because the northeast region was spared from the worst of the drought, Grand Forks grew by 18 percent during the 1930s. This growth was not just an increase in the number of residents but also in the city’s importance as a regional supply center. The imprint of Depression-era building projects in Grand Forks and the northeastern region of North Dakota is significant.
The city of Grand Forks suffered a disastrous flood in 1997 and a subsequent downtown fire. The flood was the most dramatic and destructive of many. Before the flood and in anticipation of the one-hundred-year anniversary of the 1897 flood, the town believed that the city’s approximately fifty-foot-high levees represented sufficient protection from the river’s flood potential. But topography is compounded by a geographic rarity. The slow-moving Red River flows northward, with spring runoff in the south moving downstream toward the still-frozen northern reaches, creating a buildup of floodwaters. In the winter of 1996–1997, the first snowstorm arrived before Thanksgiving and the last occurred after Easter. These two storms and the six in between dropped a record 98.6 inches of snow, nearly 10 inches more than the previous record in 1897. In the flood that followed, 90 percent of Grand Forks was inundated, including the entire downtown commercial district nearest the river. Grand Forks’ inspired response to the flood and the community’s spirited recovery have renewed local appreciation of historic buildings.
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