Steamboats to the Rescue, 1897

by Molly McFadden

Manitoba Pageant, April 1961, Volume 6, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There had been more snow than usual in the Red River Valley, the winter of 1896-1897. A sudden thaw caused the Red River to overflow its banks as early as 9 April at Grand Forks, North Dakota, and four days later Emerson was aware that an unusual water level was recorded. Pembina, North Dakota, just across the Boundary Line from Emerson, Manitoba, became alarmed and wired Washington, D.C., for assistance. “The storm of yesterday in connection with the flood has left over two hundred people destitute along Red River in this country. Aid is needed at once. Can anything be done? The local committee is unable to render sufficient aid.”

As a result, Captain Bruce Griggs brought the SS City of Grand Forks up the Main street of Pembina on Wednesday, 21 April, and three days later Captain J. Elton brought this steamer from Grand Forks to Pembina again. The Captain said, “The low-lying district from the Snake River to Pembina is appalling. It is one vast sea of desolation, wreck and ruin. In some cases the steamer was as much as two miles from the river channel. Barbed wire fences interfered materially with navigation across the prairies but some thirty families were supplied with provisions. Their homes were out on the prairie and unprepared residents were not used to floods.”

SS Assiniboine on Main Street, Emerson, 26 April 1897.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The Manitoba Government sent the SS Assiniboine from Winnipeg under charge of representatives George Black and E. M. Wood, loaded with supplies and thirty cords of wood for the relief of stranded flood victims along the Red River to Emerson. When leaving Winnipeg on Thursday evening, 22 April, Captain Cannell said, “I am prepared to take this boat anywhere in two feet of water and am allowed to carry 150 passengers; 500 in case of emergency.”

They were slow in reaching their destination, due to many stops and having to buck the current. Morris was sitting in the centre of a large lake on which the waves rose and fell. All the familiar roads were out of sight. Only the treetops indicated the river banks, and the traffic bridge had floated downstream with only its framework showing. Three bags of mail were taken on here.

Loaded Northern Pacific Railway cars had been placed on bridges to hold them down on the Plum Coulee, which was normally a creek, but was then a raging torrent.

Settlers living in partly submerged houses near St. Jean were removed to safer homes and medical supplies were left for children ill with scarlet fever.

On Monday, 26 April, Captain Edward Cannell put his arm out of the window of his pilot house and shook hands with an astonished resident of a second floor suite in the Alexandria Block in Emerson. He had come to his window to find out the reason for the sound of a steamboat whistle so close. Rowboats came from all directions carrying dogs as well as citizens. A little boy fell overboard and had to be rescued, adding to the excitement.

After running up Park Street to dry land to put some horses on board, the Assiniboine left for Letellier to spend the night. It arrived at Morris the next day in a gale of wind. The storm created difficulties.

Had it not been for the danger of striking snags and fences, the steamer could have cut off long bends by taking short cuts. The water dashed over the bow and in a few minutes the entire steamboat was coated with ice. All on board who were not working huddled, wrapped in blankets, around the stove and boilers. In spite of these obstacles more livestock was added to the number already picked up on the route to prevent them from perishing. One farmer had blanketed his best horses with the family bedding.

The SS Assiniboine arrived in Winnipeg on Wednesday, at 12.50 p.m., 28 April, to find the water stationary at 22 feet, 9½ inches, making another trip to the International Boundary Line unnecessary. Her mission had been completed successfully and was deeply appreciated all along the run.

Page revised: 29 June 2015