Steamboats On The Red

Uploaded by PrairiePublicBcast on 28.11.2011


[banjo & guitar play; steam whistle blows]

[steam whistle blows]
(woman) Steamboat around the bend,
It's the steamboat on the Red.
Whistle on ahead,
Got a steamboat on the Red, Red River.
Steamboat on the Red, Red River,
Steamboat on the Red, Red River.

(woman) Production funding is provided by:
the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund,
with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota
on Nov. 4, 2008;
the North Dakota Humanities Council,
a nonprofit, independent state partner
of the National Endowment for the Humanities;
The Winnipeg Foundation;
and the members of Prairie Public.
[fiddle, bass, & guitar play]
(male narrator) Looking at the Red River, as it twists and turns its way north
across the prairie to Lake Winnipeg, it's hard to imagine
that from 1859 to 1909
it carried millions of tons of goods
and thousands of passengers
on massive paddle-wheel steamboats.
Just the idea of these big
120- 130-foot-long steamboats,
big building-sized vessels plying the little tiny stream
that we have here--it just amazes people!
It's an interesting river; it's like a lot of prairie rivers,
it's meandering and shallow and very, very turbid.
The Red River water is often
just sort of slightly liquefied mud.

(narrator) So what would drive hardheaded 19th-century businessmen
to try to make this winding, twisty,
shallow river into a superhighway?
[cash register rings] Money!
Until 1858, the Hudson's Bay Company
received and sent all of their fur trade goods and their furs,
back and forth across the North Atlantic
from England by sailing vessels.
It was a long, expensive, and dangerous road.
Storms were a constant threat in the North Atlantic,
icebergs in Hudson Bay; Hudson Bay is only free of ice
for a few months out of the year--
a small window of opportunity to their materials in and out.
But the Hudson's Bay Company had been watching
these Metis people up at the forks for decades
had been trading with St. Paul traders,
and they said well, we can try that.

(narrator) With an eye on the bottom line, Hudson's Bay Company governor,
Sir George Simpson brought a test shipment from England
using the Minnesota route.
The shipment came into New York
and traveled by railroad and steamboat to St. Paul,
where it was loaded onto Red River oxcarts.
The oxcarts then made the trek
across open prairie to Fort Garry.
Instead of a year, it took only 6 months
and was a fraction of the cost.
But although the Minnesota route was faster and easier,
it was no walk in the park.
To get there you went through miles by miles by miles
of tall prairie grass,
and it was definitely a frontier.
It had not been drained; much of it was much muddier
and boggier than it is now.
The main barrier was getting through the mudholes.
(narrator) But even with the primitive condition of the oxcart trails,
trade between St. Paul
and Hudson's Bay Company began to flourish.
But both were always on the lookout for a way
to decrease their costs and increase their profits.

If you are going to move freight,
or for that matter, if you're going to move people,
the cheapest, fastest way
of doing it is by water.

(Don Lilleboe) In 1858, the St. Paul merchants
commissioned a fellow to make a survey
of the Red River Valley and the river specifically
to evaluate whether it was feasible
to place steam navigation on the river.
There were no railroads close to the Red River at that time,
and they just saw it as a means of conveying a lot more goods
up to what is now Manitoba,
then could be accomplished via the oxcart.
It was an opportunity that they felt they wanted to investigate.
And the fellow who did the survey came back
and said yes, I think you can run steamboats
for 3 or 4 months a year, and it can be a feasible thing.
(Dr. William Lass) So after Blakeley's reconnaissance,
then you have the nice little problem of
how do you get a steamboat to the Red River?
(narrator) The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce
offered a prize of $1000 to the first person
to launch an operating steamboat on the Red.
That's about $26,000 today.
No takers--finally, one enterprising businessman
proposed a bold plan to claim the prize.
A guy named Anson Northrup
had a little boat called the "North Star"
on the upper Mississippi River
north of what's now Brainerd, and during that winter,
he disassembled his boat at Crow Wing,
loaded it onto a sledge and he used about 40 brace of oxen.
(narrator) Unfortunately for Northrup,
the winter of 1859 was extremely harsh.
[acoustic guitar plays softly]

As the party reached the halfway point,
conditions got even worse.
Bitter temperatures, blizzards,
and deep snowdrifts took their toll.
One by one, the animals pulling
the disassembled steamboat across the open prairie,
began to die of overwork and starvation, forcing him
to leave behind parts of the boat all along the route.
At last, on April 1st, exhausted and near starvation,
with only 7 oxen left, Northrup and his team
reached the Red River, pulling only the boiler behind him.
After recuperating their strength,
Northrup put his crew to work building a hull,
while the oxteams went back
to retrieve the rest of the engine.
When word reached St. Paul, anticipation mounted.
(man) The sound of the blacksmith's hammer and the caulking iron
is heard where one year ago
the buffalo were seen in large numbers.
And another chain in the link
of interoceanic navigation will soon be welded.
The enterprise is now in the hands of men
who know no such words as fail, and it will inaugurate
a new era in the commercial history of this nation,
and the prosperity of this state.
And the enterprising citizens of Minnesota
will be the first to reap the benefits!
(narrator) At 10:45 a.m. on May 16, 1859, the steamboat "Anson Northrup,"
christened with the name of its owner,
slid into the muddy waters of the Red River
10 miles north of present day Moorhead.
[fife & drum play "Yankee Doodle Dandy"]
He slid it into the river and took it up to Winnipeg
essentially to Fort Garry, turned around,
came back to Fort Abercrombie
and tried for a while to almost extort a lot of money
from people to ship stuff on the boat.
They just said nuts, we can continue
using the Red River carts.
So he abandoned the boat basically,
went down to St. Paul, got his cash reward.
Simpson came by at that point,
on his way from Fort Garry through St. Paul,
spotted it and saw dollar signs hanging above it.
(narrator) Because U.S. law prohibited foreign ownership of riverboats,
Simpson used one of Hudson's Bay Company's St. Paul agents
to buy the "Anson Northrup."
Now the company had a monopoly on the import of trade goods,
as well as export of furs.
But even though local merchants grumbled about high prices,
crowds cheered the first steamboat to reach Winnipeg.
When the Anson Northrup came in 1859,
it really revolutionized the economy.
It brought them goods that they hadn't been used to.
In fact, the newspapers of the year just proclaimed it
as finally we have a link to the outside world.
(narrator) But not all residents were enthusiastic
about the advent of the steamboat trade.
The reaction of Indians traditionally,
according to international law, if you were foreigners
and you were traversing their land, you gave gifts,
you made arrangements, there was a protocol for allowing it.
Certainly the Chippewa would not
have objected to a boat or two,
but the fact that the Americans just assumed
they had the right to do it, regardless of the Indians,
did not sit well with them.
The Chippewa decided that they were going to enforce
their own protocol on these people who had no manners.
There were incidents with the steamboats themselves,
where the Chippewa boarded a steamboat and said
okay, pay us or you can't go any further.
So the steamboat captain I think paid them $300 or something
and they allowed him to proceed.
But Americans again, tended to see this kind of thing
not as defending one's own land, but as theft, as pirates,
as depredations in the language of the 19th century.
So it wasn't a good deal.

(narrator) In 1863, former fur trader and St. Paul businessman
Norman Kittson, helped negotiate a treaty
that bought the Red River Valley from the Chippewa,
opening the way for unimpeded use of the river by steamboats.
Not too surprisingly, Kittson
became Hudson's Bay Company's new American partner.
What the river provided you,
the river promised you
was the cheapest transportation you could find.
This is not to say that it was perfect.
The joys of steamboating on the Red River,
they were very small steamboats, they frequently sunk,
they frequently got stuck, and when you had floods,
you didn't know where the river was.
You just paddled across the prairie.
It was a very adventuresome thing,
but steamboating was not really very feasible on the river,
but compared to dragging carts through the mud,
it looked pretty good.
The boats themselves of course, were designed specifically
for travel in shallow waters.
They were all designed for a very shallow draft.
Most of those steamboats could operate
in only 3 or 4 feet of water,
and as for their size, well, yes, it does pose problems,
and I know they would often have sort of jacking equipment
that they would use if they tried to do a corner
and they maybe ran aground and they would have these poles
that they would use to kind of push themselves up and over.
So it was just an ongoing operational hazard.
There was a survey done of the Red River in the 1870s,
and they found it at the railroad bridge in Moorhead,
the Northern Pacific railroad bridge,
the river was 140-feet wide, that's about what it is today.
One of the steamboats, the "International,"
the biggest steamboat to run regularly
around this part of the Red, was 137 feet long.
So if you want to turn this thing around at Moorhead,
you've only got a foot or two on either end of the boat to do it.
In the 1860's the steamboat
was driven at one point upstream to Fort Abercrombie
and they found that the river was so narrow there,
that they couldn't turn it around.
They had to put it into reverse and back it up
all the way to where the Wild Rice River comes in before
they found a spot wide enough in the river to turn it about.
I understand there were places where the riverbank
had to be dug out in order to let the "International"
negotiate some of these sharp bends;
it's a real serious problem.
(narrator) Despite the difficulties navigating the Red,
by 1870 more boats were built, and the open prairie
began to see small settlements spring up with wharves, depots,
customs houses and boatyards.
Steamboats brought workers, then settlers, then merchants.
And the once-empty river banks began to bustle
in places like Emerson, Grand Forks, and Moorhead.
Emerson was the first city when you cross the border where
goods have to clear customs coming into the country.
There was at least 8 to 10 steamboats of different companies
that were transporting goods back and forth.
We became a rather Dodge City, you might say.
It definitely brought a lot of people in.
It was sort of the roaring 1800's, you might say.
Things were changing quickly, and Emerson was right in there
(narrator) It did not escape the notice of Winnipeg and St. Paul merchants
that Kittson and the Hudson's Bay Company
had a stranglehold on the steamboat trade.
In 1870, Kittson's former protege, James J. Hill,
launched a competing steamboat line.
James J. Hill had an infallible instinct for monopoly.
That was a great deal of
his success as a robber baron.
He made an arrangement with the U.S. government
that his operation would be the only one allowed
to carry goods in without going through customs.
(narrator) Hill's customs monopoly
meant Hudson's Bay Company
couldn't bring their own goods across the border
on their own steamboats.
(Dr. Rhoda Gilman) It was one year of competition, but Hill and Kittson
who knew each other, of course,
they were both strong St. Paul businessmen, got together.
And Kittson joined Hill as his partner in the steamboat trade.
Through a secret agreement,
Kittson became the head of the company that was established,
and that was the Red River Transportation Company.
And Hill stayed behind the scenes.
Donald Smith, who was the representative
of the Hudson's Bay Company,
actually was the major shareholder
in the Red River Transportation Company.
And what that allowed the Hudson's Bay Company to have
was a monopoly; you had to think of them as being pirates.
I mean, that's how they got ahead.
They're interest was their own interest
and anything to make a profit.
(narrator) In 1874, Winnipeg businessmen banded together
to challenge the monopoly by establishing
The Merchants International Steamboat Line.
In the new boatyard in Moorhead, two ships took shape,
the aptly named "Manitoba"
and her sister ship, the "Minnesota."
For perhaps the first time,
the Red River would see what true competition could bring.

On its maiden voyage, the "Manitoba"
was plagued by troubles.
Suspicious fires, customs delay,
vanishing cargo,
and all fingers pointed to Kittson.

Finally, when it got underway,
they were able to get
to Winnipeg on May 14th, 1875.
There was a banner on it that said, "We've got him,"
referring to Kittson, of course,
'cause they thought they had broken the monopoly.
What they didn't sort of count on
was what Kittson would do next, or allegedly do next.

On the return journey,
they got as far as a place called Le Mays Mill.
And there, the "International," which was a Kittson steamboat,
refused to cede ground; the "International" captain
managed to ram the "Manitoba" with his steamboat,
and that literally sank it.
All these manipulations by Kittson resulted in,
they couldn't deliver their freights.
There was a lawsuit launched against them
by businessmen from Minneapolis and from St. Paul,
and from, believe it or not, New York City,
which made the court seize the "Manitoba."
The same thing happened to the "Minnesota," which again, was seized.
The merchants line tried to negotiate with Kittson.
They came up with an agreement with him, but what happened was,
Kittson again had a monopoly because he basically
gained the steamboats for a pittance as to their value.
So that was the end of it; the great dream
of having competition on the Red River ended very abruptly.

Despite the lack of competition, steamboating flourished.
In 1876, Kittson bragged that he shipped
more 76 million pounds of freight
on the Red River between Fargo and Winnipeg.
More than on the Mississippi
between St. Paul and St. Louis.
The 1870's were really the decade of prosperity
for steamboating on the Red River, and what was going on,
by 1870 Manitoba was formed as a province,
the railroad was inching across Minnesota,
and by 1871, it had reached the banks of the Red River.
And this whole area changed tremendously during that period.
(narrator) As steamboats became more common, they did not
become more comfortable for their passengers.
It sounds very romantic and Mark Twainish and stuff,
but apparently, it was not a lot of fun to be on.
Mosquitos would come out in clouds,
people were sleeping outside and the boat shakes
because the big paddle really vibrates the boats.
It was not a pleasant ride, it was overcrowded,
expensive for those days, but you didn't have a choice.
You either went overland, it took weeks or months,
or you took a riverboat, it took you days.
(narrator) Despite the reality of riverboat travel,
steamboats took on a dashing air.
They were seen as colorful and romantic,
and it became fashionable to be aboard.
Upper class tourists became a new clientele.
One such traveler was Lady Dufferin,
wife of the Governor General of Western Canada.
Although at first charmed by the gaiety, decorated boats
and effusive welcoming ceremonies,
she was less impressed after the boat pulled away from the dock.
(woman, as Lady Dufferin) "Imagine sailing through
hundreds of small ponds all joined together,
the second concealed by the curve of the first,
and you may form some idea of the Red River.
We run against one bank, a steam is shut off,
and in some mysterious manner, we swinground
till our bow is into the other, then we rebound,
and go on a few yards till a sharp curve,
brings us up against the side.
Our stern wheel is often ashore, and our captain and pilot
must require the patience of saints."
[acoustic guitar plays in bright rhythm]
The river was so shallow in places that there's no way
a vessel fully loaded would get down that river.
I know you hear reports of they would occasionally have to
just get off the boat because they can make it light enough
that it would float and it would become sort of an operational,
okay, everybody off, everybody back on, get going.
Then, a little while later, okay, everybody off again.
(narrator) The steamboats that plied the Red
were not designed for comfort, but for capacity.
'Cause it was all about commerce, the tonnage,
is what was crucial.
Remember, you're talking about a hundred tons of freight,
and there's a going rate for freight in 1870s of
$2 per mile a ton, first class from St. Paul to Winnipeg.
It's all about moving goods.
(narrator) For $2 per ton per mile,
the boats were crammed with cargo of all kinds,
including imported goods, food,
farm implements, wagons,
horses, sheep, and cows,
and as many passengers as possible.
During one memorable trip, the captain of a boat
loaded with Mennonite immigrants,
recorded 7 births in a single day!
People really became attached to the steamboats.
When the boats tied up, people would come running
down to the shore to see what kind of immigrants are coming,
and what kind of freight's being offloaded
and who was going on for the next trip.
In Winnipeg when the boats landed,
they had to have special police to keep back the crowds
until the boat could be unloaded
and all the passengers disembarked,
and the people getting on their way.
So it was the thing .
In the fall, when the last one left,
apparently people sighed a big sigh of regret
and the steamboats are gone for another year,
even though they were not very happy
with the owners of the steamboats who were
gouging them in every corner, they still loved the steamboats.
(narrator) As settlement grew and railroads extended to the Red,
buffalo robes and furs were displaced by a new cargo
headed to the Twin Cities.
Hard number one spring wheat.
Beginning in the late '80s,
early '90s, you'll see images
of elevators along the Red River.
That's because the Red River and the riverboats
were a crucial portion of the grain industry.
The farmer would harvest his grain,
haul it in a wagon to the elevator
to be offloaded from the elevator onto the riverboat,
and there the grain would be taken to a major shipping point
like Fargo, North Dakota, where it'd be offloaded
onto a railroad car, then be taken to a mill.
The thing was to try and get the best price for your wheat.
Those boats were crucial
to agriculture in the Red River Valley.

In 1878, a Twin Cities based railroad
and a branch of the Canadian Pacific
met in Pembina.
So you have a rail link established
between the Twin Cities and Winnipeg.
And that's a great turning point
in the history of Red River navigation.
Our first train in Western Canada,
the "Countess of Dufferin,"
they brought the steam train up on a barge,
being pulled by one of these steamboats
up from Fargo to Winnipeg.
So that was the first train in Western Canada
and they fired up the train in Pembina,
so that they could blow the whistle on the train
as it cleared the border at Emerson.
(narrator) Ironically, that whistle
sounded the eventual death knell for the steamboat trade.
In 1909, to commemorate the 50th anniversary
of the maiden voyage of the "Anson Northrup,"
the Red River Transportation Company planned one final cruise
for its flagship the "Grand Forks,"
which they hoped would revive the failing steamboat industry.
(Wayne Arseny) The steamboat stopped
in Emerson that last time.
The mayor and the town came out with the band
and had the captain and everybody for dinner,
and had quite a celebration.
When the boat arrived in Winnipeg,
it was no to-do affair at all and barely made the news.
(narrator) On its return, the Grand Forks
ran into a bridge piling in Grand Forks and sunk,
the last of the great Red River steamboats.
But for its owners, the end of the steamboat era
was not the end of the world.
So you have a stereotypical image
of a crusty steamboat captain
who can't do anything else.
When steamboating ends, he's sort of
reduced to nostalgic memories.
The rest of his life is ruined;
it's a complete misrepresentation
of what these people were like.
Steamboat people were not
solely speaking "steamboat people."
The steamboat people were businessmen.
This is James J. Hill,
this is Norman Kittson,
but what they're really doing is
providing a unified transportation system
and if it entailed a combination
of railroads and steamboats, fine.
If you reach the point where railroads can do it
and you no longer need steamboats,
they're not going to stay awake at night crying about it.
They've made their money.
[cash register bell rings]
[5-string banjo & guitar play softly]

I think when we put Red River steamboating in perspective,
the entire history of transportation
in Red River Valley, it's not a huge chapter,
but it's an important chapter.
They were the transitional cog
between the oxcarts and the railroads.
Once the railroads came in,
that spelled the end of steamboats on the Red River,
but they served an important purpose
at a time when the Valley was just really opening up
to commerce and settlement.
And at the core of it all, of course,
is this twisting, winding river that we have here.
(woman) Winnipeg unloads, old tables, printing presses,
Flour, paper, plows,
Fancy dresses,
Whistles screech, paddles ping,
Time to fill the hold,
Boat returns from Moorhead with furs and buffalo robes.
Place your bets on the first spring day,
The steamboats on the Red,
Steamboat round the bend, it's a steamboat on the Red,
Whistle on ahead,
Got a steamboat on the Red, Red River.
Steamboat round the bend, it's a steamboat on the Red,
Whistle on ahead, got a steamboat...
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Production funding is provided by:
the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund,
with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota
on Nov. 4th, 2008;
The North Dakota Humanities Council, a nonprofit
independent state partner of
the National Endowment for the Humanities;
The Winnipeg Foundation;
and the members of Prairie Public.