The Judicial Drainage Ditches

Previous: Agriculture

Judicial Ditch Law
The Minnesota Legislature passed the Judicial Ditch Law in 1909. This law provided that an individual who wanted his land drained, could request the district court to order the county to have the drainage ditch dug if the court was convinced that there was a definite need for the ditch. The county was required to assume the expenses for the ditch dug.

Shortly after the county was organized, public opinion favored a ditching project to drain the low lying areas in the county to make the land suitable for agriculture and habitation. Judicial Ditch Number 1 was dug in Dentaybow Township (T-66-N,R-25-W). Other townships where Judicial Ditches were dug are: Townships 66 and 67 North, Range 26 and 27 West, northeast from Big Falls; Townships 70 North, Range 23 and 24 West, south from International Falls and Ranier; Townships 68 and 69 North, Range 25, west from Littlefork; Townships 69 North, Range 23 and 24 West, south from Ericsburg; Townships 156 and 157 North, Range 25 West, north from Big Falls and west from Lindford and Townships 154 through 160 North, Range 27, 28 and 29 West; in the western part of the county was where most of the ditches were dug. Today, about 75% of the area is uninhabited.
Note: State Ditch No. 60 was dug in Townships 69 North, Range 24 and 25 North, which lies several miles north and east from Littlefork. The State Ditch differs from the Judicial Ditches in that it was paid for by the State of Minnesota. State ditches may have been dug in other areas in the county.
Ditching machine digging up ground
A ditching machine is shown on the job. Dozens of them operated in the county between 1913 and 1917.
Ditching Project
The ditching project began shortly after the law was passed. Most of the judicial ditching was done from 1913 through 1917. The project was abandoned in 1919 when 3 residents of the county made a request to the district court to discontinue the project. Bonds were issued by the county in the approximate amount of $1,435,000 to pay for the cost of the ditching, a tremendous financial burden for the tax payers to bear. The ditches were generally dug at 2-mile intervals in both north-south and east-west directions. Large tracts of the ditched lands are unfit for agriculture. However the ditches did provide drainage for many acres of farm land west from Birchdale along the Rainy and Rapid Rivers as well as for the farm lands in the Lindford and Ericsburg areas. It is interesting to note that in recent years some of the farmers have requested the county to share in the expense of cleaning out the ditches.

Many of the ditch grades were leveled and made into roads giving the settlers access to the interior of the county and in a number of areas, large farms were developed. In some of the outlying areas the ditch-grade roads are used for recreation and hauling timber. Several of our hard-surfaced, county highways were ditch grades at one time.

The ditching project, the construction of the jail and court house, the building of roads and high tax delinquency all contributed to the county going deeply into debt. Through special legislation the State of Minnesota took over the payment of the county ditch bonds in the 1930s in exchange for a large tract of land in the western part of the county which was designated a game preserve.