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Steamers On The Red River


Kathy Jerome

Senior High Division


Steamboat traffic on the Red River of the North playedan important part of the Red River Valley, since in the absence of railroads,steamboats, in summer, materially supplemented the overland traffic.

The first steamboat on the Red River was launched in May1859. The Hudson's Bay Company had been shipping out furs and receivingsupplies by way of York factory on Hudson Bay, vessels making their wayinto the bay after an Atlantic crossing. Because of ice in the near Arcticwaters in late spring and early fall, and other hazards, the movement ofvessels in the bay was difficult and dangerous. In 1857, the Hudson's BayCompany completed arrangements with the secretary of the treasury of theUnited States whereby goods of the company could be carried in bond throughthe United States, thus practically doing away with the York factory post,where vessels arrived and departed but once a year.

In the summer of 1858, three shipments of goods were madefrom St. Paul to Manitoba, the freight being steam boated to Red River cartsat St. Paul. But businessmen and other leaders in St. Paul, seeking to fosterthe Hudson's Bay Company trade through the state, believed it would be facilitatedby steamboat traffic on the Red River. In October 1858, Captain RussellBlakely and John R. Irvine of St. Paul, made a trip down the Red River Valleyso far as Lafayette at the mouth of the Sheyenne River. They had visitedFort Abercrombie and had passed several embryo towns. Their observationsconvinced them that steamboating on the Red River was necessary and as aresult of their report made to the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, that bodyoffered a bonus of $2,000 for the first steamboat launched on the Red River.

Captain Anson Northrup had purchased the Old North Starat Minneapolis, took it up the Mississippi River and up to Grand Rapids.this boat was laid up for the winter of 1858-59, at Crow Wing. Northruphad lumber sawed that winter for a new boat and in the spring transportedthe lumber and machinery and other equipment of the North Star across countryto Lafayette. Thirty-four teams were needed to haul the lumber, machinery,and equipment. Northrup built a boat which he christened the Anson Northrupand claimed the $2,000 bonus. The Anson Northrup went up to Fort Abercrombieand, leaving there May 17, 1959, reached Fort Garry, Winnipeg June 5. Shereturned to Fort Abercrombie with 20 passengers, but when Captain Blakelyappeared while the boat was tied at the dock, Captain Northrup informedhim that he had fulfilled his mission in building the boat and said thatif Blakely and others desired to keep the boat in operation they would haveto purchase it. Later, J. C. Burbank, operator of stage and mail lines,with whom Blakely was associated bought the Anson Northrup.

Another attempt to launch a boat on the Red River was madein the spring of 1859. At times the stage of water in the upper valley wassuch that canoes had been able to make passage from Big Stone Lake to LakeTraverse, a distance of five miles, thus following an all water route fromthe Red River, through the Sioux wood and the lakes to the Minnesota. Sinceonce on the Minnesota the canoes could reach St. Paul, the all water routeconnected Winnipeg with Minnesota capital. Captain John B. Davis of St.Paul owned the Freighter, a flat bottomed, square bowed craft, 125 feetlong. Davis was anxious to get his boat on the Red River and to reach Winnipegbecause of reports of the discovery of gold in Saskatchewan.

Captain Davis ran his boat up the Minnesota River duringthe spring flood but waters subsided before the crossing between the lakescould be made and the Freighter was stranded just below the outlet of BigStone Lake. Another attempt was made by Davis later but it also failed.The Hull of Freighter was abandoned where it had been stranded and was laterburned by Indians.

In June 1859, a party left St. Cloud to open a mail routeto Northwestern points. Accompanying the party were Sir Francis Sikes ofEngland, the Misses Elenore and Cristiana Sterling of Scotland, with a retinueof servants and J. W. Taylor, the American consul of Winnipeg. The officialsof the mail company had a large flat boat built at Fort Ambercrombie andthe trip to Winnipeg was made on this craft, the downstream journey requiring22 days.

The Anson Northrup was repaired in the spring of 1860 andwas renamed the Pioneer. Captain Sam Painter was its skipper with AldenBryant as clerk. The records show that R. C. Burbank had purchased the abandonedFreighter, but apparently only the machinery was saved, in 1860 C. P. V.Lull removed the machinery and hauled it to Georgetown, where it was installedin a new boat called the International. The International measured 137 feetlong, had a 26 foot beam and was rated at 133 tons. Captain Lull commandedthe International on two trips and then Norman W. Kittson took charge becauseof his ability to talk to the Indians in their own language.

The Indians protested against the use of the river forsteamboats, complaining that the boats drove away the game and killed thefish, while the whistle made a terrible noise that they "disturb thespirits of their dead and their fathers could not rest in their graves."(1) They demanded four kegs of yellow money to quiet the spirits of theirfathers. But the outbreak of 1862 in Southern Minnesota in which the Siouxlaid waste to the Minnesota Valley area and parts of the upper Red RiverValley checked all steamboat traffic development on the Red River for atime and also put an end to the demands of the Sioux along the river.

The International had been sold to the Hudson's Bay 1861 and in the period from the Sioux outbreak to 1870, little progresswas achieved on the river by American promoters. The Civil War was an addedhandicap and little could be accomplished without the cooperation of thepowerful Hudson's Bay Company which was to realize its advantage. Red Rivercarts carried freight in great trains from Winnipeg and the border to St.Paul. Railroad construction began and a new era was slowly dawning. Butthe Hudson's Bay Company, despite the activities of the American Fur Companyunder H. H. Sibley and others had failed to check the increased power ofthe Canadian Company. The latter firm did not wish to see the Red RiverValley developed, foreseeing that progress would soon end the Company reign.Even steamboat transportation was discouraged and initial moves to buildrailroads blocked.

But in 1869, the first steps were taken looking to terminationof the Hudson's Bay Company dominion over the vast territory of WesternCanada known as Prince Rupert's Land. In 1870, after the first government'sefforts, the territory became a part of Canada. Then the way was openedfor further development of the valley.

In the spring of 1871, James J. Hill and Captain AlexanderGriggs, one of the founders of Grand Forks, built the Selkirk which wasput into operation on the Red River that season, with Griggs as the skipper.This boat arrived at Winnipeg April 19, 1871, and arrangements were madefor the Selkirk to carry goods in bonds. This marked the dawn for a periodof brisk steamboat trade on the Red River. The International, which hadbeen purchased by the Hudson's Bay Company to keep it out of trade was forcedinto general service as a result of the change in conditions.

In the winter of 1871-72, all boats on the river passedinto the control of Norman W. Kittson, who was given the title of Commodore.In the summer of 1872, an extensive business in flatboats was built fortrading with down river points, the boats being sold for lumber at theirdestinations. About this time too, logs were floated down the Red Lake Riverto be made into lumber. In 1874, an opposition line of steamboats knownas the Merchants Line was put into service by Manitoba and St. Paul men.The first two operated by this line were the Minnesota and Manitoba. Thelatter soon was sunk by the International in a collision. The new line passedinto Kittson's control in 1876.

The shipping interests controlled by Kittson were organizedas the Red River Transportation Company in 1876. The principal boats thenwere the International, the Minnesota, the Manitoba, the Dakota, the Selkirk,and the Alpha.

The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad had been extended fromGlyndon to Crookston in the early 70's and after construction had been haltedfor sometime by the panic of 1873, the rails that had been laid northwardfrom Crookston to the present site of Warren were taken up in 1877 and relaidto Fisher's Landing on the Red Lake River. This made Fisher's Landing thehead of navigation as boats from Winnipeg connected with the railroad thereand took aboard passengers and freight. For a few years, Fisher's Landingflourished, outstripping Crookston, although boats also went up as far asCrookston when the stage of the water made it possible.

The records show that the real reason for the relayingof the tract to Fisher's Landing was to facilitate the movements of railsand other materials to Manitoba to be used in building the Canadian PacificRailroad between Winnipeg and Fort Williams. The first locomotive to enterManitoba was taken into the province on a barge by a steamboat on the RedRiver.

In April 1877, Reverend James F. Walker, then a boy 9 yearsold, boarded the steamboat "Penina" at the Missouri River portof Bismarck. His destination was Fort Berthold, where his father was tobe employed by the government.

"The river was a boiling, swirling, eddying currentof animated mud, or so described by him." (2)

Shortly after leaving Bismarck, the paddle wheeler becamestuck on a sandbar and had to be "grasshoppered" off with thetwo huge spars which were much a part of the equipment of the steamboat,on the Upper Missouri.

That night, after the boat pulled into shore and the passengershad retired, a fire broke out in the ship's laundry room. It was extinguishedby the crew.

The next day as the "Penina" pushed into shoreto replenish fuel supply or cord wood at a wood station, part of the Missouri'sbank gave away with a tremendous roar, and literally pinned the ship tothe spot. The "Penina" was dug out and the voyage continued.

The "Penina" faced on its routine trip some ofthe hundreds of hazards possible to the daring breed of rivermen who pilotedsteamboats on the Missouri.

What is now North Dakota plays a vital role in any storyof steamboating on the river.

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes Sieur de la Verendrye becameone of the first white men to record a visit to the Missouri's banks whenhe visited a Mandan village in 1738.

He found the Indians using dugout canoes and bull boatsfor river transportation. But it was not until after Lewis and Clark's famousexpedition of 1804-05 that the white men began any extensive river traffic.

It was the need for faster transportation, which couldhaul more goods at less cost, that brought the Missouri paddle wheeler.

As the fur trade grew, troops were established along theriver and these troops had to be supplied.

There were no railroads in the vast Missouri basin, sothe steamer had its task cut out for it.

The famed "Far West" built in 1870 to the specificationof Captain Grant Marsh, probably is as good an example as can be found ofthe ideal boat, light, strong, and speedy.

In 1876, during the Custer Campaign, the Army charteredthe "Far West" for $350 a day. It was during this campaign thatMarsh made the historic dash with survivors of the Custer battle, full speedfrom his anchorage, 15 miles from the battle scene to Fort Abraham Lincoln,south of Bismarck.

Although the coming of the Northern Pacific Railway toBismarck in 1873 established that town as the head of the Missouri Rivertransportation, the very deed was the handwriting on the wall for steamboats.

Bismarck boomed as it became the home port for the steamerssupplying the Army, miners and settlers with freight arriving via the NorthernPacific.

Yet in 1879, the Northern Pacific pushed westward. And,in 1887, the Great Northern reached Helena, Montana, spelling the finishto the era of the steamer.

In 1890, the last steamer left Fort Benton and an era wasending.

The steamboat did not die overnight. Steamers could stillserve a purpose along the rivers from Bismarck to Williston until the railroadscould extend a network of branch lines through the area.

It was not until 1936 that the Benton Packet Company gaveup. The last vestige of the river steamboat was no more on the upper Missouri.

But with the building of railroads in the valley, steamboatingdeclined.

The Red River never was well adapted to boat traffic andwith cultivation of the land, the fluctuation in the water level made rivertraffic unsatisfactory.

(1) Taken out of the Kittson County Enterprise. The FiftiethAnniversary Edition published by J. E. Bouvette & Sons. Page 11

(2) Reverend James F. Walker - Dakota Territorial Centennial.The 100th Anniversary of Dakota Territory. Page 19


Bouvette, J. E. & Sons, Kittson County Enterprise,Fiftieth Anniversary No. Pages 11-15

Howard, Robert West, The Boatmen

Roseberry, C. R. Steamboats and Steamboat Men

Dakota Territorial Centennial - The 100th Anniversary ofDakota Territory. Page 19

World Book So-Sz, no. 18, 1972 Edition, "Steamboat"Page 689


eamboats and Steamboat Men

Dakota Territorial Centennial - The 100th Anniversary ofDakota Territory. Page 19

World Book So-Sz, no. 18, 1972 Edition, "Steamboat"Page 689