Small creek, long history

CENTER Square Butte Creek gets its start northwest of here, primarily flowing past the southern edge of this community and underneath a walk bridge. Further downstream the narrow waterway adds a scenic boundary to a golf course sharing its name and supplies enough water to maintain nearby Nelson Lake where the coal-fired Milton R. Young Power Plant is located.

Water from Nelson Lake is used to cool the power plant, which has been generating electricity since 1977. The smokestacks of the highly visible plant tower over the lake at 550 feet in height, all made possible by seemingly insignificant Square Butte Creek.

Even though Square Butte Creek drains more than 146 square miles, almost entirely in Oliver County, it has generally remained cooperative even during spring runoff. Other than a few years when ice jams have caused some anxious moments along the creek, it has created little trouble for residents living near it.

“There’s been no issues with it lately,” said Becky Vosberg, Center city auditor.

The last time ice jams on Square Butte Creek were an issue was in 2009, but even that trouble didn’t amount to much, certainly not the flooding that is often seen along other drainages in the state. The National Weather Service lists seven feet as flood stage for Square Butte Creek, but that number may not be entirely accurate.

“It’s such a small creek and that level was set long ago,” said Patrick Ayd, Bismarck NWS meteorologist. “If it is still valid or not is another thing. For us it is not a forecast point. It is a data point. We monitor it and enter it into the river models. We do provide warnings and advisories for that creek.”

The narrow creek passes within the width of a city roadway of the Hazel Miner monument. The story of Hazel Miner remains etched in the history of Center, the seat of Oliver County. Miner gave her life during the blizzard of 1904 to keep alive small children in her care that were caught in the furious storm.

The Square Butte Creek Golf Course gets its name from the waterway, which exits deeper cuts near Center to a broad plain bordering the popular course. The 9-hole, grass greens layout was built in 1982. Hole number one features a downhill tee shot that offers a scenic view of Square Butte Creek.

It is near the golf course that Square Butte Creek enters Nelson Lake. Sometimes golfers exchange friendly waves with fishermen working the creek. While a golfer may be close enough to inquire about how the fishing is going, a fisherman may ask about the round of golf.

“We see bluegill and crappie up in the creek during some years, but not always,” said Jason Lee, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist who tracks the fish population in Nelson Lake. “I would imagine by mid-summer some of those northern pike not liking the warm temperatures of the lake would be seeking out cooler water in that creek.”

Largemouth bass are the most well known species in Nelson Lake. While the largemouth always seem to be present in the lake in good numbers, some are known to utilize Square Butte Creek at various times of the year. Other fish, largemouth included, will seek out deeper spots in Nelson Lake away from the warm effluent discharged by the power plant.

A dam permits outflow to enter Square Butte Creek below Nelson Lake where the creek’s path eventually joins the Missouri River above Bismarck. The amount and timing of the flows is controlled by the power plant, but Square Butte Creek generally contains a reliable flow of water in its lower reaches.

To the east of the lower end of the creek is a visible landmark that was known as the Square Buttes to early visitors and settlers of the region. The Square Buttes are located on the west side of the Missouri River. The buttes gained early notoriety for their easily seen profile on an otherwise level plain and were the scene of a well known incident in frontier history.

It was at the base of the Square Buttes in 1873 that a company of 7th Cavalry from Fort Lincoln, Lt. Thomas Custer in command, surrounded a party of hunters who had taken in an escapee from the Fort Lincoln guardhouse. The man was wanted for stealing government grain. He surrendered but had no knowledge of the whereabouts of a fellow escapee, the noted Sioux warrior Rain-In-The-Face who would later play a lead role at the famed Little Bighorn battle in 1876.