The Great Northern

Following US‑2 through wide-open spaces is guaranteed to bring new meaning to the expression “getting away from it all.”

Grand Forks

The oldest and second-largest community in North Dakota, and frequently rated one of the “Top 10 Most Livable Places” in the country, Grand Forks (pop. 52,838) gained a place in the national headlines during the terrible floods that devastated the city in April 1997. Following one of the worst winters on record, during which blizzard after blizzard dumped over eight feet of snow and ice on the surrounding plains, Grand Forks prepared for the worst floods the Northern Plains had ever seen. The Red River of the North, which forms the state border between North Dakota and Minnesota, was expected to crest at more than twice its usual peak. In the aftermath of a hurricane-force rain- and snowstorm, the river rose an inch every hour, two feet a day, day after day, while volunteers and relief workers struggled to protect the town.

Under the watchful eyes of the national news media, the river continued to rise, finally breaching its sand-bagged banks and inundating the town. The entire population was evacuated, and over 75 percent of the homes and buildings were flooded; many were partially submerged for more than a month until the waters finally receded and cleanup could begin. The worst destruction occurred in the downtown core, where electrical short-circuits set off fires that raged for days and turned historic landmarks into scorched, empty shells. Total damage reached over $1 billion, but, miraculously, not a single death was attributed to the floods. Signs of flood and fire are still visible everywhere in Grand Forks, but what is most remarkable is how quickly and energetically the community set about rebuilding itself. A lone obelisk along the riverside shows the high-water mark.

Many century-old downtown buildings have been renovated, including the landmark Empire Theater (415 DeMers Ave., 701/746-5500), now an arts center. Another of Grand Forks’ liveliest institutions is the 15,000-student University of North Dakota, whose pretty brick campus spreads north of DeMers Avenue (old US-2). A former campus gym is now home to the North Dakota Museum of Art (261 Centennial Dr., 701/777-4159, daily, donations), which survived the flood unscathed and houses the state’s only contemporary art collection.

Grand Forks Practicalities

For weary road-trippers, one place you’ll definitely want to stop is legendary Whitey’s Cafe and Lounge (121 DeMers Ave., 218/773-1831), across the river on the new “boardwalk” of East Grand Forks. Though legally in Minnesota, this is a true Grand Forks institution, a genuine speakeasy dominated by the fabulous art deco-style “Wonderbar”—a horseshoe-shaped, stainless steel sculpture that is surrounded by comfy booths and a jukebox. The food and drink—try the pan-fried walleye, best washed down with a bottle of microbrewed Summit Ale—is excellent, but the ambience alone would be worth the visit. Another characterful old Grand Forks landmark, The Kegs (901 N. 5th St., 701/787-5347) is an outdoor root-beer stand supported by, you guessed it, a massive pair of bright orange wooden-looking kegs. Look for them north of downtown; order a sloppy joe and a side of onion rings, and people will think you belong here.

Right downtown, the best bet for food and drink is the Toasted Frog (124 N. 3rd St., 701/772-3764, Mon.-Thurs. 4pm-11pm, Fri.-Sat. 4pm-midnight), a popular sandwich and martini bar with an excellent range of beers, near the landmark Empire Theater. Downtown Grand Forks also houses a great natural foods grocery, the Amazing Grains Natural Food Market (214 DeMers Ave.), on the west side of the Red River bridge, where you can pick up organic foods, baked goods, and even prepared foods for a quick-fix picnic lunch.

Accommodation options include the usual range of national chain motels out around the junction of US-2 and I-29; close to downtown there’s also the very attractive GuestHouse Inn (710 1st Ave. N, 701/746-5411 or 800/214-8378, $65-85), with an indoor pool and on-site miniature golf course.

Whitey’s Cafe and Lounge (121 DeMers Ave.)
The Kegs (901 N. 5th St.)
Toasted Frog (124 N. 3rd St.)
Amazing Grains Natural Food Market (214 DeMers Ave.)
GuestHouse Inn (710 1st Ave. N)
North Dakota Museum of Art (261 Centennial Dr.)
Empire Theater (415 DeMers Ave.)