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First Place

Steamers On The "Big Red"


Alan Anderson

The rich, fertile plains contained huge herds of buffalo.Deer and moose were abundant. Valuable fur-bearing animals were found inevery stream and river. This was the land of the Sioux, the Red River Valley.This land of milk and honey attracted people from all walks of life. Farmerslooked into the future and saw enormous fields of grain. The hunter andtrapper realized the rich prospect of animals. And the businessman saw arich future in the people of this land.

As attractive as this land was, it is no wonder that thepeople flocked westward towards what is now Minnesota. But farmers who bravedthe hardships of the plains and then settled on the fertile soil were strangledby the lack of transportation to the eastern markets. Although the Red Riverox carts were in use at this time, they did not come into commercial significanceuntil some time later.

Finally, in 1858, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce realizedthe great agriculture potential of the Red River Valley. They then offereda reward of 2,000 dollars to the man who could place a steamboat on theRed River. This offer prompted a Yankee pioneer of St. Anthony, Anson Northup,to contract to build a steamboat that would be ready for use on the RedRiver in the spring of 1859.

Northup bought the "North Star" which had beenin use on the Mississippi River above the Falls of St. Anthony. This boatwas ninety feet long and twenty-four feet wide with a stern wheel and threedecks. Northup took the boat to the Crow Wing River, partially dismantledit, and then made a hull with a design appropriate for the shallow and narrow,but often dangerous Red River. Early the next spring, an expedition of forty-fourmen and thirty-four ox teams left the Crow Wing River to transport the steamboat,"Anson Northup" to the Red River. The expedition ended its journeyat Lafayette after traveling through woods and plains. At the mouth of theSheyenne River, near Lafayette, they reconstructed the boat and launchedit on May 17, 1859. The steamboat's destination was Fort Garry, near thecity of Winnipeg. This voyage required twenty days to complete it.

For his accomplishment, Anson Northup received the prizeof 2,000 dollars. After sailing with his ship on its maiden voyage in theRed River, he lost interest in the project. Northup then informed all, thatif they desired the vessel's service, they would have to buy the boat inorder to use it. He had only agreed to place the steamboat on the river,he had not planned on running the boat too.

The life of the "Anson Northup" was quite shortafter its long trip overland. Due to the poor reconstruction, the boat sunkat its winter moorings near Fort Garry in the winter of 1861-1862. Thisvessel had an illustrious history and it should not be forgotten when aperson thinks of the Red River Valley.

The placing of a steamboat on the Red River gave greatcause for rejoicing to the settlers. The Indians, however, were not so appreciative.They contended that the steamboats had frightened the game out of the valleyand thus had deprived them of their food. They also said the boats killedthe fish and the whistle on the boats disturbed the spirits of their dead.Talk was not enough for the Indians. A band of them swarmed aboard a steamboatat a point what is now known as Pembina, North Dakota. They demanded a ransomof 40,000 dollars. The captain, a quick thinking man, gave the Indians threehundred dollar's worth of goods. This satisfied them for the moment. Inorder to prevent such recurrences, troops were stationed along the Red Riverat central points.

The Indians were but one colorful aspect of steamboat life.Life is never easy on anyone or anything and so it was with the steamboatson the Red River. The story of steamboating is marked by incidents of bothtragedy and humor. On several occasions, people were killed or drowned inthe frequent river accidents. One captain is remembered for his asking theinhabitants of one town to pray for rain and help raise the level of thewater by spitting in the river every day.

The Red River was an emotional river to the steamboats.In flood time, the river crews rejoiced for the high water and clear navigation.But when the river was low, as in a time of drought, the crews worked witha 'mist' of gloom over them. The Red River could build a fortune or couldruin a person in a minute and take his life too. But the "Ballad ofthe Red" written by P.N. Donohue summarizes the feeling most crewmenhad for the Red River.

Now again 'tis lovely May, by the riverside I stray,
And the song birds sing around and overhead,
And I watch the river flow as I did long years ago
When the Selkirk in her glory sailed the Red.

As I watch the river flow, I think on the long ago
When each pioneer was granted a homestead
In the land so bright and new, in the land so fair to view
In the valley of the famous River Red.

Then the Selkirk in her prime, on the river made good time
And her passengers admired her as she sped
Through the valley bright and new, through the valley fair to view
On the bosom of the famous River Red.

Fancy hers the tinkle ting of her bells as they would ring
For to start or stop or back or come ahead,
And the sounding of her gong, as they steamed her extra strong
Through the waters of the famous River Red.

And now it comes to mind, how each woodpile they would find
And load up enough to keep her furnace fed
As she sailed from side to side down or up the ruby tide
Landing pioneer along the River Red.

Now to you I will relate, 'twas in Minnesota state
That they built the Selkirk near the river bed.
It was at McCauleyville, just below the old saw mill,
That they built and launched the Selkirk on the Red.

But the Selkirk is no more, for upon Dakota's shore
She was wrecked and never more can come ahead.
But some relics of her still lie near a murmuring rill
In the willows by the famous River Red.

She will never sail again, for the ice cut her in twain,
And no more upon her docks can old friends tread
As they trod in days of yore, as she sailed from shore to shore,
Landing pioneers along the River Red.

I recall to mind today, some old friends who went away,
Pioneers who went where bounden duty led.
Friends who came here to reside, when the Selkirk in her pride
Towed her barges filled with grain upon the Red.

Friends are leaving one by one, pioneers have gone,
Some have gone to other lands and some are dead,
Some of them are laid to rest, in the East, North, South & West
And some others rest beside the peaceful Red.

Then, good-bye old friends, good-bye, for the dear old days we sigh
And live o'er again some youthful years now fled,
And we'll often call to mind, happy days we left behind
In the valley of the famous River Red.

As I muse and watch the stream, here and there a fish doth gleam.
And the song birds sing around and overhead.
And I watch the river flow, as I did long years ago,
When the Selkirk in her glory sailed the Red. (1)

During the hey-day of the Red River transportation, severalsteamboats raced to and fro, carrying large amounts of goods and people.The "Northwest", the largest steamboat ever launched on the RedRiver, was over 2090 feet long. She was built in one of the biggest shipyards along the Red River. On May 15, 1881, the "Northwest" wascleared for Winnipeg, carrying forty carloads of lumber. This boat neverreturned. The "Pluck" carried one of the largest loads in herrun to Winnipeg: "three carloads of threshing machines, 2 1/2 carloadsof wagons, a carload each of portable engines, salt and plows, two carloadsof pork and five carloads of miscellaneous freight."(2)

Much of the area along the Red River was settled by largenumbers of immigrants who traveled on the river by steamboats. This easymeans of transportation encouraged many of these settlers to make this trip.On one such trip, seven children were born to Mennonite passengers aboardthe steamboat, "Cheyenne."

Not only were goods brought into the Valley by the steamers,but huge payloads of fur from the far north were brought to Fargo-Mooreheadfor reshipment by rail to the eastern coast. The "International"was one boat that dealt in fur carrying. On one trip, she brought 759 balesof buffalo robes and 19 bales of wood. This same boat, the "International",also held the speed record between Fargo-Moorehead and Winnipeg. She madethe trip in five days and 18 hours; a distance of some 550 river miles.This voyage was a disaster to the crew of the "International".Two crewmen were drowned in two separate occasions.

Although the steamboats earned a definite place in thedevelopment of the Red River Valley, the railroads gradually moved in andtook over complete control. It is strange to note, but the steamboats helpedto bring about their own doom. The following account illustrates the declineand fall of the steamboats on the Red River.

Captain Grigg of the "S.S. Selkirk" created quitea stir in Manitoba when he declared that an American law required all goodscrossing into Canadian ports from America must travel by bonded carriers.His own ship was, of course, bonded. The revelation of this law immediatelycreated a rivalry between James Hill, a railroad owner, and Governor Smithof the Hudson Bay Company. They soon learned that they had met their matchin each other. James Hill then announced he had sold the "Selkirk"to the Hudson Bay Company. Actually, he had formed a pact with GovernorSmith which was known as the Red River Transportation Company.

In command of this company was Norman Kittson. Three newsteamers were added: the "Dakota", "Alpha", and theSheyenne." And with the help of his private partners, Hill and Smith,he raised the passenger and freight rates to an unheard of peak.

The result of such an action caused the forming of anotherrival line - the Merchant International Steamboat Company. This companyincorporated with some dissatisfied St. Paul merchant men. The followingspring, two ships appeared on the Red River for this line - the "Manitoba"and the "S.S. Minnesota."

Kittson and the Red River Transportation Company at oncereduced their rates below the cost of operation. Kittson's influence withthe U.S. Customs at Pembina, helped detain the "Manitoba". Whenthe boat was finally released, it was rammed and sunk by the "International".Is was raised at a very high cost, but it was seized in Winnipeg for a smalldebt owed by the Merchant Line. The "S.S. Minnesota" met the samefate and the rival company closed its doors.

Kittson used scare tactics to frighten off all other steamboatoperators. The small companies could not stand up to all this pressure andfinally, the Red River Transportation Company held a monopoly.

This action weakened the public's opinion about the steamboats.Then, the "S.S. Selkirk" delivered the final blow to the steamboats.In mid-October, 1878, she delivered the first locomotive, the "CountessDufferin" to the Canadian Northwest. Some time later, the rails werejoined with the rails of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroads at the InternationalBoundary. This completed the fall of the steamboats.

Although the Red River transportation system continuedfor another eight years, it officially died on December 2, 1878.


(1) P.H. Donohue, "A Ballad of the Red", Historyof the Red River Valley. (1909) vol. 1, Harold Printing Company, 344-345.

(2) Dakota Territorial Centennial, "Flour, Furs andFreight Cars on the Red River Run" (Grand Forks) February 28, 13.

vol. 1, Harold Printing Company, 344-345.

(2) Dakota Territorial Centennial, "Flour, Furs andFreight Cars on the Red River Run" (Grand Forks) February 28, 13.