Steamboating on the Red
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1950-51 season
In the first half of the nineteenth century the Red River Valley was crisscrossed by cart trails that linked together Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and Fort Snelling (St. Paul). Graham’s Crossing, about three miles south of Fort Abercrombie on the east side on the Red River, was a well used ford as early as 1817. 
There was another ford at Frog Point over the Red River, fifteen miles south of Grand Forks, known to our first settlers in the early 1880s, which was used two hundred years earlier by the Red Lake Indians who brought Hudson’s Bay Company goods down from the north. 
The forks of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, at Winnipeg, was the crossroads of the fur traders’ highways. 
Later, to accommodate the advancing hordes of settlers and immigrants, flatboats and rafts made their appearance on the Red River and were followed by steamboats. Manitoba is an inland water province and the old sternwheeler was especially devised for inland navigation. “A boat to carry 400 tons on about three feet of water,” said an old timer. Major W. F. Butler wrote in The Wild North Land: “Place on the river a steamboat of the rudest construction wherever the banks are easy of ascent or where a smaller stream seeks the main river. Your new land will be thoroughly civilized.” Wood yards for the accommodation of the boats along the river were often the means of developing frontier towns.
In 1857, the Hudson’s Bay Company completed arrangements with the United States Secretary of the Treasury, whereby goods of the Company could be carried in bond through the United States, practically doing away with the traffic through York Factory where vessels had arrived and departed only once a year.
Captain Russell Blakeley, at the instance of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, made the first move to establish steamboats on the Red in 1859. He made a tour of investigation, accompanied by Mr. John R. Irvine, in October 1859, and reported upon his return from Georgetown that steamboat navigation on the Red River was practicable for several months in the year. The Chamber of Commerce immediately offered a bonus of $1,000 to anyone who would put a boat on the Red River the following spring. Anson Northup offered to accomplish this feat for $2,000, and his offer was promptly accepted. 
On the Mississippi River above the Falls of St. Anthony there was a steamboat called the North Star. Her machinery had originally been brought to Minneapolis from Bangor, Maine, and put on the Governor Ramsey, built in 1851 by Captain John Rollins. Anson Northup bought the North Star in Minneapolis and had her taken up the river to Crow Wing in the fall of 1858. Here she was dismantled and lumber cut for the hull.
Early the next year an expedition left Crow Wing, consisting of sixty men and thirty-four ox teams. The machinery, cabin and furniture of the North Star, along with the cut and framed lumber, were loaded on wagons, and they made the trip of about one hundred and fifty miles in one of the coldest winters on record. They arrived at Lafayette, opposite the mouth of the Sheyenne about three miles above Georgetown, on the evening of the first of April.
In about six weeks the boat was finished. Then she was christened Anson Northup after the owner and run up to Fort Abercrombie and Breckenridge on a trial trip.
She had a capacity of from 50 to 75 tons, engines of 100 horse-power, was 90 feet in length and 22 feet wide,  and drew 14 inches of water light.  Captain Russell Blakeley said: “The hull was new but it was made of pine; the machinery was eight years old; the furniture was very limited and the boiler was of locomotive kind. The head was cracked clear across, leaking so badly that it was not possible to get up a sufficient head of steam to he called seaworthy or hear inspection.” In the winter of 1859-60, it became necessary to have a new head. 
Hargrave, in his book, Red River, describes her further, as she was in July 1861, rechristened the Pioneer: “She was provided with four staterooms, each containing two berths. Passengers over and above the number of those who could be accommodated in these, slept in a series of open berths extending along the main saloon, from which they were separated only by their curtains. She is a small vessel propelled by a sternwheel.”
On the Anson Northup’s first trip to Fort Garry, she left Breckenridge on 6 June 1859 and reached Fort Garry on 10 June, thus taking only four days. 
The commander of the British force ordered the firing of the cannon in honour of the event. The British flag was hoisted to greet its sister of the Stars and Stripes, waving at the head of the Anson Northup and the great bells of the St. Boniface Cathedral chimed merrily. The throngs of people, including Indians, pressed all around in confusion, cheering madly. The officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company were most cordial in welcoming the pioneer of progress and prosperity on that great day.
Samuel Taylor, a carpenter for the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Lower Fort, kept a diary at this time, and there is a notation to the effect that the boat took an excursion trip to the Lower Fort on 13 June, and “there were plenty of people on board.” Charles Cavalier of Pembina, who was running a store in Winnipeg at the time, was on hoard with his young wife. “It was a perfect circus all the way down.” he said, “to see the surprise of the Indians.” 
For some years the Indians were to protest against the use of the river for steamboats, complaining that the craft drove away the game and that they disturbed the spirits of their dead. They demanded four kegs of yellow money to quiet the spirits of their fathers. They said the blowing of the whistles was the cause of it all. An arrangement was finally made and agreed to, with Chief Red Bear of the Turtle Mountain Indians and others, that it was to be blown only on departure and arrival at Georgetown, Pembina and Fort Garry. The Anson Northup stayed in Fort Garry for a week and then left on 17 June for Fort Abercrombie, taking twenty-five passengers, one of whom was James Ross, a merchant of Red River Settlement. They were eight days making the return trip upstream, running only by daylight and having again to stop to cut wood along shore. It used nearly a cord of wood an hour. 
On reaching Fort Abercrombie, the boat was tied up and used to ferry passengers and Red River carts back and forth over the Red River. Anson Northup had agreed to place a steamer on the Red River for the bonus and only that. He refused to run it on any regular trips.
Captain Blakeley’s associate, J. C. Burbank, then bought the Northup for $8,000 and placed Captain Edwin Bell in charge. He had trouble after leaving Goergetown (the Hudson’s Bay Post located on the Minnesota side of Red River sixteen miles north of the site of Moorhead) but he finally navigated the boat past Goose Rapids and reached Fort Garry safely and laid the boat up at Cook’s Creek on 18 August. The pumps were drained and the water blown out of the boilers, and according to Taylor’s diary, she was left there for the winter. 
In 1860 she was run by Captain C. P. V. Lull, who said she was nothing but “a lumbering old pine basket, which you have to handle as gingerly as a hamper of eggs,” but she made regular trips from Georgetown to Fort Garry and hack all that year. Mr. Burbank told J. J. Hargrave the next summer that he had done it to prove that it could be done, but in 1861 he was going to make the boat pay by running it when there was sufficient freight to carry. As she had sunk in her winter quarters at Cook’s Creek the second winter, he had her rebuilt, and she was thereafter called the Pioneer. Ultimately the Pioneer passed into the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was dismantled and her engines used to run a sawmill.
James W. Taylor, later to be American consul at Winnipeg, was most earnest in his enthusiasm for promoting traffic on the rivers. He was especially the friend of the water route by way of the Red and the Saskatchewan rivers to the gold fields, and advanced this route so constantly that he was in later times known as “Saskatchewan Taylor”. He expressed his sentiments as follows: “When the whistle shall sound the advent of the first steamboat in Fort Garry, Bishop Tache, who has prayed so earnestly and waited so long, will spring instantly to his feet, and, raising his hands reverently above his head, exclaim, ’In the name of God, let the bells of St. Boniface ring, for civilization has come.’”
There was an old steamboat lying in the Minnesota River, six miles below Big Stone Lake, which it was intended to bring over into Red River in 1859. The Minnesota River was in flood and Captain Davis thought he could run the old Freighter, which was a small flat-bottomed, square-bowed boat, into the Red River, but the water went down and the boat was left stranded. It was sold at sheriff’s sale, and was bought by Burbank & Co. Taking the boat to pieces, Burbank’s men brought it to Georgetown in the fall of 1861 to be rebuilt. The hull, left buried in the sand about ten miles below Big Stone Lake, remained visible for twenty or thirty years. 
The new boat was launched under the name International towards the end of May 1862, and was 150 feet long, had a 30 foot beam and was rated at 133 tons, drawing 42 inches of water. Her first trip from Georgetown down to Fort Garry, where she arrived May 26, took seven days three days longer than the Northup’s first. But she brought two hundred passengers, including Governor Dallas, Bishop Tache, and Judge Black. In August she attempted another trip to the mouth of the Assiniboine, but was turned back by the opening of Indian hostilities and the difficulty of descending Goose Rapids. A barge attached to the boat was cast off and floated down the river with E. R. Hutchinson in charge.
The Sioux outbreak influenced James W. Taylor to write to Major-General Pope of the United States army in regard to the International. As a result of this letter, on 15 April 1863, Captain Barrett, with a detachment of troops escorted Captain Painter and crew to Georgetown. The engineer on this occasion was E. R. Abell, who later lived at the Lower Fort. On the 24th, they returned on board the steamer International to Fort Abercrombie. The boat stayed there for a year and was then sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Low water, scarcity of freight, and alarm about the Indians curtailed shipbuilding until 1870. The International only made one trip to Fort Garry in 1864. 
In the winter of 1870-71, the Selkirk, under the ownership of James J. Hill, Alexander Griggs and C. W. Griggs, known as Hill, Griggs & Company of St. Paul, was built at McCauleyville and launched with Alexander Griggs in command in 1871.
She arrived in Winnipeg in May of that year with Hill and George L. Foster as passengers. There was also lumber on board for J. H. Ashdown’s new store. Her tonnage was 108 and with her flat bottom she was able to move in 18 inches of water travelling light, although she drew four or five feet when loaded, which was often the case. Mr. John Kelley, who was employed as a clerk in the early 1880s, gives a description which shows that it compared favourably with the Mississippi steamboats of an earlier period: “The boat was handsomely finished inside and out and there were two decks with the usual row of cabins on the upper deck. The engine room was on the lower deck and it was there the freight was carried. The pilot house was above the upper deck. A list of the personnel in 1881 follows:
Arrangements in 1871 were made for the Selkirk to carry goods in bond, and this marked the dawn of a period of brisk steamboat trade as well as flatboat trade on the Red River.
In the winter of 1871-2, all boats on the river passed into the control of Norman W. Kittson, a St. Paul man who was Canadian-born and whose great-grandfather had fought under General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec. In the spring he organized and managed the Red River Transportation Company, joining forces with the Hill, Griggs Company of St. Paul, and built the Dakota at Breckenridge. Next, they built the sidewheeler, Cheyenne, at Grand Forks in the winter of 1873-4, and then bought the Alpha, built at Breckenridge by Captain Harrison of Wayzata and belonged to Captain J. W. Lane. It was 125 feet long, breadth 24Y2 feet, draught 12 inches and launched July 5, 1873. 
Traffic on the Red was considerable, both in freight and passengers by this time. The Hudson’s Bay Company had a large warehouse at Moorhead, Minn., and about 350 tons of miscellaneous freight were stored there awaiting the breakup. Hundreds of Mennonites had arrived in Winnipeg, with more waiting to come the following spring. The next August, in two weeks, 880 had come on the International and the Cheyenne. 
In 1874, an opposition line of steamers known as the Merchants International Steamboat Line was organized by Manitoba and St. Paul citizens in order to force freight rates down by competition. The first two boats operated by this line were the Manitoba and Minnesota, built at Moorhead in 1875 with a tonnage of 197.75 each. 
This new company passed into Kittson’s control in 1876, and once again the Red River Transportation Company held sway, backed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The Red River, owing to its sharp bends and shallow waters, was by no means an easy river to navigate. Goose Rapids, (between present Caledonia and Grand Forks, N.D.; there was a town there previously called Belmont, but now known as Caledonia) was a glacial moraine and the river had large boulders and sand bars at this spot which made it difficult to navigate.
J. J. Hargrave in his Red River writes of his trip in July 1861:
In 1877, the railroad, owing to trouble encountered during low water in getting over the bar at Goose Rapids, built a spur track from Crookston to Fisher’s Landing, which has since become Fisher, Minnesota, and the rails and other supplies were loaded on barges there instead of Moorhead. The new shipping point became the head of navigation for a number of years, a large volume of traffic being handled, the steamboats also taking Canadian-bound passengers from the railroad to that point. Thousands of settlers, both those who located in Northwestern Canada and those stopping in North Dakota, came in by way of Fisher’s Landing.
Lord Dufferin, popular Governor-General who had been the first vice-regal representative to visit Winnipeg, and Lady Dufferin, visited Fisher’s Landing in August 1877. They embarked on the Minnesota, and Lady Dufferin, who kept a diary, told of trying to write while proceeding on that part of the
That evening after dark they met another steamboat, the Manitoba.
After they had visited Pembina and Emerson, “the gentlemen bathed in the Red River,” and they arrived at Winnipeg the next morning.
On their way back in September Lady Dufferin described a cinnamon bear on board the Minnesota, a tame pig, which answered to the name of Dick, and a dog.
At the end of the voyage Captain C. B. Thimens of the steamboat Minnesota was presented by Lord and Lady Dufferin with autographed photographs and an autographed copy of His Excellency’s book, Letters from High Latitudes; a letter accompanying these presents stated they were meant as mementoes of his lordship’s very pleasant trips on Captain Thimen’s boat. 
At Fisher’s Landing again they saw a locomotive which Lady Dufferin records in her diary as “No. 2 of the Canada Pacific Railway. It is going to Winnipeg,” she added, “with a train of railway trucks, and it is to be called the `Lady Dufferin’.” This engine now stands in front of Winnipeg’s C.P.R. station, and is designated as “C.P.R. No. 1, Countess of Dufferin”. With the “railway trucks”, it was taken on barges to Winnipeg by the Selkirk and used to lay track between Winnipeg and Whitemouth. Later it took Sir William Van Horne. president of the line, through the West, and pulled the first train to cross the Rockies when it took Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald on his first trans-Canada journey.
The arrival of this first engine with its cars at Winnipeg, on 8 October 1877, was celebrated with great rejoicing. But it meant the beginning of the end of steamer navigation on the Red River of the North. It was, however, a few years more before the railroad got in good working order and many more steamers were built for the Red River trade. In the spring of 1879, attention of steamboat owners was turned to the navigation of the Assiniboine and the Saskatchewan rivers. 
An amusing news item in the Free Press of 7 May 1879, reads:
The J. L. Grandin of 218 tons, 125 feet long and 4 foot hold for carrying grain in bulk, was constructed at Fargo, 1878, to carry wheat from the Grandin farms in Traill County, although she was also used for pleasure trips and general cargo. Her skipper was C. B. Thimens, formerly of the Minnesota. (He is buried in Moorhead, Minn.). There were double staterooms, two cabins, kitchen, pantries and captain’s and clerk’s rooms. and six accompanying barges. She had cost less than $15,000, thanks to the good management of the builder, Captain W. W. Allen. 
A boatyard was established in Grand Forks by D. P. Reeves, and the steamer Cheyenne, one of the few Red River sidewheelers, was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was used as a traffic boat first on the Red and later on the Assiniboine. It was noted for the latest arrival on record up until 26 November 1878 and for enormous loads of freight pulled on barges. She had also done heroic work in the flood of 1882. 
The steamer H. W. Alsop, 157 tons, was built by H. W. Alsop of Fargo, in 1881-2. He also built the Pluck at Moorhead. He had built the White Swan at Brainerd, then cut the hull in two and transported it by rail to Moorhead where he lengthened it and again launched it under the name Pluck. Both the Alsop and the Pluck were later bought by the Red River Transportation Company and subsequently the same company constructed another steamer and numerous barges. 
The Pluck, 36 tons, was a sidewheeler and noted for pulling loaded barged of freight. On one occasion, she had pulled out of Moorhead with one of the largest loads of freight from that port, namely 400 tons. She was sold along with the Alsop to the Red River Transportation Company in 1883.
The William Robinson, the Marquette and the Northwest, were built at Moorhead in the eighties for Winnipeg owners for service on the Assiniboine. The first was a small propeller and the others sternwheelers. The Northwest finally was used on the Saskatchewan river. The Manitoba spent her last days there also after plying on the Assiniboine river for a short while.
The last two boats built in the United States for use on the Red River were the Fram at East Grand Forks in 1895, and the Grand Forks at Grand Forks in 1895. The latter was built by the Red River Transportation Company, was of 100 tons and powered by the machinery of the Alsop.
Boats of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Winnipeg & Western Transportation Company, built for use on the Assiniboine and the Saskatchewan rivers, are too numerous to mention here, but life on the Red River, particularly at Winnipeg, was very busy even after the railroad came to this city in 1878.
Racing was the order of the day, beginning with one between two flatboats where a keg of whiskey was involved. The one between the Selkirk and the International to Fisher’s Landing in 1876 was outstanding, followed by one between the Manitoba and the Minnesota in 1878. 
The Manitoba, on her way from Moorhead to Winnipeg in 1875, was rammed amidships by her rival International on a sharp bend, and foundered in shallow water. Her owners entered suit against Kittson’s Company for $50,000; but the vessel was soon raised and six weeks after the collision she was again puffing up and down the river. Two years later she established a record by arriving at Winnipeg on April 23, and the next spring she beat that record by a month. 
Accidents were by no means infrequent on these river boats. Sometimes pranksters fell in and had to be rescued. Careless sleepers on the decks fell off and were sometimes drowned. On the Dakota in May, 1874, a child who had fallen in was spectacularly rescued by a shackled prisoner. More violent was the murder of a passenger on the International in 1871 - a mystery that was never solved. Another murder was of a cabin boy on the Manitoba in 1878.
Extraordinary floods had occurred in the steamboat years of 1860, 1861, 1882 and 1897, and caused trouble for the boats, but the dry seasons, particularly 1877 and 1878, were worse. There is the story of a captain yelling to a man on shore dipping water into a pail: “Hey! You put that water back.” 
Considerable immigration caused new towns and villages to spring up, and the Red River Valley began to take on new life, although between 1873 and 1876 it lessened from 50,150 in the former year to 24,633 in the latter, a decline attributed mainly to two causes. The condition of the agricultural labourers in Great Britain had been greatly improved and secondly, the crowded labour markets in the United States sending workmen back to Europe. The numbers mounted again in 1877. The Winnipeg papers printed longer and longer lists of passengers; the record for 4 May 1878, being over a column long. By that year Canada was supplying wheat to Britain. On 5 May, Higgins, Young & Jackson, a Winnipeg firm, shipped on board the Selkirk 2,100 bushels of Manitoba wheat consigned to the Old Country. 
The Minnesota had carried the first shipment of wheat, 857-1/6 bushels in 21 October 1876, to Messrs. Steele Brothers of Toronto who have the credit of being the first buyers for shipment as well as the first shippers of grain from the Province of Manitoba. 
More than 10,000 bushels were shipped up the river in 1877, with one shipment alone of 5,266 bushels from J. H. Ashdown. In April 1878, the International took out over 100 tons of wheat—the largest shipment ever made by water from Manitoba. This wheat was loaded at Bannatyne’s warehouse and was consigned to David Dowes & Company, New York, in bond for exportation to Europe. 
Freight consisted of numerous items on these boats; in the early days, bags of flour and barrels of pork. Then stoves, organs, furniture, safes, billiard tables, horses and animals. One woman said: “It is nice to have our cow along so we can have fresh milk on the boat.” A circus was brought to Winnipeg on the Grandin and a photographer put his equipment on a boat and toured the river looking for business. 
There were seventeen steamboats operating in Canadian waters in 1878, with eighteen being built for Peter McArthur of Winnipeg. Many of the captains had served as skippers on Mississippi and Missouri river steamboats. Captain Townsend of the Minnesota in 1878, said that he had been running steamboats on the Missouri during the Sioux trouble. Sitting Bull, in his opinion, “wasn’t much to look at, but was a brainy redskin.” 
Not until 1909 did the last steamer run from the United States to Winnipeg. She was the Grand Forks, and arrived at her destination, Winnipeg, on 7 June, thus bringing to a close fifty years of steamboat traffic between the two countries.
1 Russell Blakely, “Opening of the Red River of the North to Commerce and Civilization,” in Minnesota Historical Collections, vol. 8, p. 47.
2 Dr. O. G. Libby, “Convocation Address to University of North Dakota,” Grand Forks, N.D., October 19, 1939, p.7.
3 Douglas Mackay, The Honourable Company, Toronto, 1948, p. 135.
4 Letter from Russell Blakeley, Manitoba Free Press Weekly, 22 December 1877. (The daily edition of the Free Press is cited throughout, unless otherwise indicated.)
5 Detroit Free Press, 16 July 1859.
7 Minnesota Historical Collections, vol. 8, p. 56. J. J. Hargrave, Red River, (Montreal, 1871).
8 The Detroit Free Press, 16 July 1859; Earl of Southesk, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, (Edinburgh, 1875), p. 34.
9 History of the Red River Valley, I, 221.
11 St. Paul Pioneer & Democrat, 13 July 1859. Captain Edwin Bell, “Steamboating on the Minnesota and Red River, 1859,” Minnesota Historical Collections.
12 Thomas Hughes, “Steamboating on The Minnesota River,” Minnesota Historical Collections.
13 Robert B. Hill, History of Manitoba, (Toronto, 1890), 146; Alexander Begg, The Great Canadian North West, (Montreal, 1881), 41; Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, II, 2 and 24.
14 Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 17 September 1949; Walsh Country Record, Grafton, N.D., 25 July 1940, Section 5.
15 Free Press, 11 May 1888; History of the Red River Valley, X, 804; Red River Star, Moorhead, Minn., 12 July 1873.
16 Canadian Illustrated News, Montreal, 27 November 1874.
17 Fred. A. Bill, Life on the Red River of the North, 1857-1887, (Baltimore 1947), 74; The Manitoba was the same as the Minnesota. Built at Fargo, 1875; hull, 135 feet long, 31.4 foot beam.
18 Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, My Canadian Journal, 1872-78, (London, 1891), 316.
19 Free Press, 7 October 1877.
20 John Macoun, Manitoba and the Great North-West, (Guelph, 1882), 583.
21 Free Press, (Weekly), 13 April 1878.
22 History of the Red River Valley, I, 89.
23 Free Press, 14 October 1881; Free Press, 26 November 1887; Hill, Manitoba, 308.
24 History of the Red River Valley, II, 804.
25 Free Press, 13 June 1876. Free Press, 11 October 1878.
26 Moorehead Star, 2 October 1875; Free Press, 23 April 1877; Free Press, 22 March 1878.
27 Free Press, 11 September 1878.
28 Free Press (Weekly), 24 November 1877; Free Press, 5 May 1878.
29 Free Press, 23 October 1876.
30 Free Press, 3 November 1877; Free Press, 7 January 1878; Free Press, 12 April 1878; Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg, (Winnipeg, 1879), 186.
31 Free Press, 2 January 1877; Free Press, 6 December 1879. Free Press, February 1879; Free Press, 15 April 1878.
Page revised: 17 April 2014