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For over fifty years, steamboats plied the Red River

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Colorized postcard photograph of a steamboat on the Red River near Moorhead, MN, in 1879.

Beginning in 1859, steamboats on the Red River linked St. Paul, Minnesota, and Winnipeg, Manitoba (Fort Garry), for over fifty years. The boats are credited with helping Winnipeg grow quickly in the 1870s. Eventually, railways and motor vehicles replaced Red River steamboats, but the network that the steamboats strengthened still exists in the twenty-first century.

The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce prompted the construction of the first steamboat for use on the Red River. People in St. Paul had been trading with Fort Garry using Red River carts, but the chamber looked to steamboats to reduce travel time. In 1858, it offered $1,000 to the first person to put a steamboat on the Red.

This challenge was met by St. Paul resident and steamboat captain Anson Northup. Northup won the prize money — by then raised to $2,000 — but his boat was not known for its quality. One of its captains referred to it as “a lumbering old pine basket…which you have to handle as gingerly as a hamper of eggs.” Northup’s steamboat was eventually taken apart, and its engines were used for a sawmill.

The first steamboat on the Red for commercial purposes was built from the remains of John Davis’ steamboat, the Freighter, which had run aground near Big Stone Lake. The Hudson’s Bay Company hired J. C. Burbank & Company of St. Paul to turn the Freighter into a working vessel. Burbank & Company built the International, which, at 137 feet, was one of the largest steamboats on the Red River on the US side. At Moorhead, the Red was only three feet wider than the boat.

The International first reached Fort Garry in 1862, but it would take another nine years for steamboating to become common. Steamboating was delayed because of low water, lack of freight, the American Civil War, and the U.S.-Dakota War. After the Northern Pacific Railway reached Moorhead (by early 1872), trade and travel by steamboat took off. The organization of Manitoba as a Canadian province the year before had also prompted settler-colonists to migrate. Many going to Canada went through Fargo-Moorhead, which would become the head of steam navigation. The head had started in Breckenridge, Minnesota, but it moved further and further downstream: to McCauleyville, from there to Moorhead, and finally to Georgetown, Minnesota.

By the time steamboating became popular, the International was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a free trade agreement with the US Treasury. The company had the first monopoly on international trade on the river, but the Hills–Griggs Company introduced competition in 1870. This prompted Hudson’s Bay to expand services to those outside the company.

By 1873, the competing companies had joined forces to create the Red River Transportation Company. In 1875, another company, the Merchants International Steamboat Line, introduced more competition with the steamboats Minnesota and Manitoba. That same year, the International ran into the Manitoba, which sank. This incident fueled people’s unease toward the Red River line’s tight hold on steamboating on the Red. In the same year, the Merchants Line launched its first steamers, the company was bought out by the Red River Line.

People who resided by the Red River, on both the Canadian and American sides, often complained about the Red River Transportation Company’s monopoly and high shipping rates. Another drawback of steamboating on the Red was the difficulty in navigating the river—it was shallow and muddy, and had sharp bends. Still, people continued to use the steamboats. Canada exported mainly furs and buffalo robes, and exports from Minnesota included everything from flour and bread to printing presses and church organs. New immigrants also arrived in the Red River region via steamboat, and trips on the steamers were fashionable in the summer. In all, at least eighteen steamboats were built for use on the Red River, plus hundreds of flatboats.

By 1878, Winnipeg had railways and no longer had to rely on the steamboats on the Red River. But the switch to railways took time, and steamboats were used for years after. Stopping steamboat traffic between the US and Canada would take another thirty years.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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