Historic Sites of Manitoba: Red River / Netley-Libau Marsh (RM of St. Clements)
In the early days of the fur trade, traders from York Factory would transport trade goods and supplies upriver in small vessels – canoes and York boats – to fur trade posts in southern parts of Manitoba. However, when steamboats began operating on the Red River in the 1860s, and particularly when railways began arriving in southern Manitoba in the 1870s and early 1880s, they vastly increased the quantity of goods that could be brought into the province and, as a result, the predominant direction of transportation reversed, from north to south, to south to north. Large ships operated on the Red River to carry goods to the communities around Lake Winnipeg.
To facilitate shipping on the Red River, the river channel had to be dredged to remove sediment that was deposited on the bottom, and especially so at the mouth of the river where it meets Lake Winnipeg. In 1882, the Canadian federal government spent $60,000 to purchase a dipper dredge (dubbed the “Winnipeg”), a steam-powered tugboat (called the “Sir Hector” after Hector Langevin), and two dump scows from a shipyard at Lockport, New York. Pieces of the dredge, tugboat, and scows were put on 26 railway cars and assembled on the bank of the Red River at Winnipeg. The “Winnipeg” could float in water 4½ feet deep. Powered by a steam boiler fueled by coal or, if coal was not available, wood, the dredge could excavate up to 800 cubic yards of mud per day, in a maximum depth of 20 feet.
The “Winnipeg” went to work at the mouth of the Red River in May 1884 and was used almost every year until it was taken out of service in 1909, replaced by a larger dredge, the “Winnipeg II.” The dredge had a six-man crew: the captain, a craneman, fireman, deckhand, watchman, and scowman. In addition, the tugboat had a three-man crew. They lived aboard the shipped throughout the work season, which typically started in May and ran to the end of September or early October, and in the 1880s were paid salaries ranging from $30 per month (for the mostly lowly positions) to $120 per month (for the dredge captain). In the first year of dredging, the work cost the government $10,866, of which over half went to salaries, one-third to supplies, and the remainder for food and coal.
Over the next 115 years, dredges were deployed wherever dredging was needed. About half of all dredging occurred at the mouth of the Red River, where accumulation of mud occurred continually. Another third took place at Selkirk, where the dredge was based, with the rest at Winnipeg, St. Andrews Lock and Dam, and at ports on Lake Winnipeg. Interestingly, almost no dredging occurred in the Red River south of Winnipeg, or on the Assiniboine River.
As the river flows northward, it splits into three channels with a “West Channel” heading northwest toward Lake Winnipeg, and a “Centre Channel” and “East Channel” that parallel each other heading northeast. When dredging began in 1884, the West Channel was the main one used by ships heading north to Lake Winnipeg and thence to communities around the lake. In the spring of 1893, however, when the river ice broke up, engineers learned that the channel was so thoroughly plugged with sediment that it was far too shallow for ships needing to pass through it. They calculated the volume of mud that would have to be dredged to reopen the channel, and concluded that it would be faster (and cheaper) to abandon the West Channel and dredge to make the East Channel navigable. So, from 1893 to around 1903, the East Channel of the Red River became the predominant one. Gradually, it became more shallow so the decision was made to move to the Centre Channel. This has been the primary channel for all boating on the Red River ever since. Dredging of the Centre Channel continued until 1999 when the last work was done.
In 2007, the entire length of the river in Manitoba, from Emerson at the United States border north to Netley-Libau Marsh at Lake Winnipeg, was designated a Canadian Heritage River.
Photos & Maps
Page revised: 6 August 2017
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