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Old Times In The Red River Valley

The Days of Staging and Flat Boating - "Gary,"Fargo and Moorhead - Old Timers and New Comers


George B. Elliott

The Northwestern Farmer And Breeder
Vol IV, No. 4. Fargo, Dakota, April 1886

A dozen years soon pass in a new country, and changes aregenerally more marked than they are in older lands. Eventful were thosetimes nearly a dozen years ago - those years of staging, steam and flatboating - palmy times it is true - a period of plenty - - practical jokingand genuine western humor. Most of the actors are gone too, but "VanRansaelar" still remains with all his wonted humor and raciness.

"Gary," with the 'a' long was then somethingof a western town. There was a wild freedom about it which has alas! beenswept away by the advancing tide of bandbox civilization and dudery, thoughMajor Bowles still keeps up the role of the wild American. And Fargo andMoorhead in those days! What conventional eastern towns they were too. "Cap."Egbert, Mayor of Fargo, in his shirt sleeves sunning in January and "Cap."Sloggy," President of the commonwealth of Moorhead, standing up forthe rights of that ambitious town, and breathing defiance to the "suburbs"across the river! Great were those days of rival interests and intense localjealousies. There were "feuds" in those days, and western civilizationwas proclaimed by an occasional pistol shot and the presence of three cardmonte cavaliers who were the pioneers in these stirring times.

The Express thundered forth in gattling rattle thesuperior advantages of Fargo, and it pointed the triumphant tones to thesignificant fact that it was the "west side always" everythingwent west from the great sun to the young man impressed with the advicethat the late Mr. Horace Greeley generously imparted to others and failedto act upon except when he ventured as far as Omaha on a professional trip.Moorhead was without an organ for some time after the Express had erectedits canvas tenement, but the Star soon appeared to advocate the "easterninterests" and illuminate the applauses of the "northwestern Chicago."For a long time both towns dwelt together in the peaceful unity of felineand canine.

When "fresco painting" was to be done on thevisage of an obnoxious citizen of Moorhead, he was invited to "takea walk" to the suburbs - visit that "sheep run" (meaningFargo) across the river, and there he received a fit and proper "head"and at the conclusion was informed that he might apply for relief to "Cap."Egbert" who would furnish him with "a wash."

Feeling ran high in those early days and when any "mossback" from Gary hinted that a little more order ought to be observed,especially on the east side, the commander of the Bramble House would remark,half in fun and partly in mischief, that the cemetery "out back wasn'tyet chuck full." There was room if there were any ambitious candidateslying around loose.

But there was no lack of good nature of genuine westernhospitality about Cap Sloggy or Cap Egbert. Both were types of men who seemedto possess the correct appreciation of western good nature accompanied byits stern resolves when these became necessary.

The future greatness of both towns was pointed out withgreat skill and the picture was completed by an invitation to "fireup," which even an eastern man did not care about refusing.

Both towns had their share of the "Gary" traveland traffic which was then an important industry.

The river was plowed by the steamers "InternationalDakota" and "Selkirk," and in 1875 by the opposition line,the "Manitoba" and the "Minnesota," while the MinnesotaState Company - and peace to its memory, - - held a monopoly of the roadfrom Gary to Moorhead, from old post office shed to Bramble House. And whata tale those old coaches could tell; first once a week, then twice - next,three a week, and lastly in 1875, daily. And the drivers too, most of themthe best in the west, "Chief Gidley," "Cal. Young,""Old Ruph," "At Hock," "Three-fingered Mike,""Lame Jake," and many others well known to old-timers. What a"melody their memory recalls!"

One night "Al Hock" had Gov. Graham of the HudsonBay Company aboard of a special. At Two Little Points, twelve miles northof the boundary line, the stage put up for the night and Al went to a halfbreed dance. Early next morning he appeared ready for the road with a charmingfresco over each optic. "Ah, Mr. Hock," said Governor Graham,"I see you have been engaging the enemy." "Yes," repliedAl, nothing daunted, "Governor, I fought nobly but fell early in thefight." That is one of the anecdotes of the road Al used to tell withan occasional variation.

The first chief stage station south from Gary was Pembina,distance about sixty-five miles south. Full of interest is "High bushcranberry" from the days of Hatch down to the ignominious and ingloriousdefeat of Col. Fisk who tried to shunt Pembina off the track but was himselfrun into jail for misdemeanors "unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."Pembina had too much local importance to be downed that way. In the earlydays, Pembina was the post office and the post office was Pembina. The illustrationis the post office with Mr. Chas. Cavileer and Mrs. Cavileer in front. Andwhat would Pembina be without that post office and its hospitable occupants!Since 1862, Mr. Cavileer has been the post master of that important mailstation, for there it was that Her Majesty's mails met those of Uncle Sam,and were distributed, sorted and made up by the venerable post master. Fora quarter of a century he has held the fort, - witnessed a great many changesand he has had the satisfaction of seeing a town of considerable importancegrow up around his log cabin, his homestead of a quarter of a century ago.As late as 1877 there were comparatively few settlers in Pembina county.Many of those who had settled there up to that time and those who came theresubsequently can speak warmly of Mr. Cavileer's kindness and hospitality.The right kind of settler was always welcome, and he was assisted in manyways by the Pembina post master. The settler got many a pointer as to locationand other matters in which they were interested, and many a settler to thisday thanks the Pembina post master for giving him a lift in the early daysof "roughing it."

It was in the log post office which the reader sees thatin the fall of '78 the double tragedy happened by which detective W. H.Anderson, of Dallas, Texas, and "Bill Collins," a desperado andtrain robber fatally shot each other. Anderson had arrived in Pembina afew days previously, and was waiting for a favorable opportunity to capturehis man. On the fatal evening without Anderson being previously aware ofhis coming, and not knowing Anderson was in the post office, Collins enteredthe office to get letters addressed to him under an assumed name. Andersonrecognized his man immediately and ordered him to throw up his hands. Thiswas partly obeyed, but Collins was at the same time drawing his revolver- - a splendid weapon - - from the saddle which he carried around his neckwhen Anderson let fly, hitting his man first, just a little above the heart.Collins being a Texan full of game, fired at Anderson who was slowly backing.The shot went crashing through a back window, but the next shot went throughthe unfortunate detective's heart and came close to killing Mrs. Cavileerwho, alarmed at the previous shots was about to emerge from the passageleading to the dwelling to the post office, when the shot buried itselfin the oak post of the doorway a few inches from her head. There were presentat the time Mr. Cavileer, and Mr. Babcock, a custom's officer of Pembina,but the tragedy happened so unexpectedly and so rapidly that they coulddo nothing. It was like a flash, said Mr. Babcock afterwards. I arrivedon the scene a few minutes afterwards. The detective was killed instantlyand Collins died as soon as he had fired the second shot. Both men lay stretchedwhere they fell for a few minutes, until the excitement was over, when thebody of the detective was placed on a sofa in the office, and that of therobber was taken to a room above the custom house. "That," saidMr. Cavileer to me at the time, "was the only shooting scrape I wasever so close to, the first one that ever took place in the post office,and I hope the last."

The early settlers who settle the country traversed bythe Minnesota stage company did not take kindly to the prairies. They followedthe course of the timbered streams as long as there was any timber to behad. The prairie was kept in reserve, and it was not until '76 and '77 thatthe settler began to stake out on the prairie. "That condemned countryfrom that oak pint there, clean across them salts," said "LameJake" to me once when were leaving Turtle River, and pointing north,"ain't worth a Connecticut continental." "Old timers"will remember Jake. He was a Welchman from the Silivrean land and he hadan authoritative way, and knack of multiplying profanity that seemed toset the other drivers away back. Jake was a false prophet, but a masterof arts in the department of western profanity. I should have told him "helied," but I was the only passenger, and I thought a great deal andsaid nothing. That country afterwards filled up with industrious settlers,towns sprang up in various directions, and I have a suspicion that Jakehimself went back on his own statement and located a pre-emption somewherenear, where he has stamped an emphatic oath out with the heel of his jackboot.

It was then in traveling by stage coach that you saw whatthe Red River Valley in Northern Dakota really is - then you had time toexamine it all the way from Pembina down to Fargo. And Grand Forks, a merevillage in those days, a handful of houses with the Plaindealer and Mr.George Walsh doing the Brick Pomeroy work for the Territory. One night in'76 Mr. Jack Cameron, well known among Canadian pressmen, single handed,suppressed an incipient rebellion which had suddenly threatened to disturbthat commonwealth. There was a volunteer company in Grand Forks - the MudHollow Invincibles as they were facetiously called in local circles. Theyhad been supplied with rifles. Cameron somehow heard of a conspiracy amongstthe members and spoiled the fun by getting the arms removed, telling somefrightful yarn to Walsh, who then was only a country editor and who "tookin" a great deal more than he did when he became a legislator, whichafter all is to his credit, for George was a popular man in the early daysand he worked hard for the Forks at a time when Grand Forks had but fewfriends.

What marvelous changes have taken place in that districtsince the palmy days of old '74! Then as you traveled along by stage thecabin of the settler was a rarity, contined almost to the stage stations,and the broad prairies teemed with the rich and nutritious wild grasses.Now the cabins of the settler are like stars in the firmament, and extensivefields of waving grain in summer greet the eye. The transformation is completeand gratifying.

Researched and contributed by Trish Lewis.

extensivefields of waving grain in summer greet the eye. The transformation is completeand gratifying.

Researched and contributed by Trish Lewis.