Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Doc looks at current affairs, circa 1900

  • Print

This is a documentary that will drive you around the bend.

And then, around the next bend. And the bend after that, and so on, and so on.

All, it needs to be said, in the most fascinating, entertaining and enlightening manner possible.

Steamboats on the Red, a new film produced by North Dakota-based Prairie Public Television, tells the story of the brief but very colourful chapter in local history during which steamboat trade along the Red River created a vital link between Minnesota/North Dakota and Manitoba.

The half-hour documentary is packed with archival images and interviews with historians on both sides of the border who have studied the era extensively. The result is a film that moves along briskly -- much more so than any steam vessel navigating the muddy, constantly curving Red ever could -- but contains so much information that it somehow feels much longer than it actually is.

"It's an interesting river," says Gordon Goldsborough of the Manitoba Historical Society. "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."

Still, the Red -- from around what is now Fargo-Moorhead to Fort Garry -- was the site of a booming steamboat trade from 1859 until the turn of the 20th century. Motivated, as most great business ventures are, by money, the arrival of the first steamboat in Minnesota was actually the result of a competition that offered a $1,000 cash prize to the first entrepreneur able to get a working steamboat onto the Red River.

Prior to 1858, the Hudson Bay Company moved all its goods from Europe to the Canadian prairies via the northern route to Hudson Bay -- a costly, dangerous venture that took a year to complete, to a port that was only accessible a few months each year.

HBC governor Sir George Simpson, having observed the Métis traders in Manitoba doing business with St. Paul, Minn., using ox-drawn carts, decided to try another strategy. He sent a shipment from London via "the Minnesota route," which involved an ocean voyage to New York, rail and steamboat transport to St. Paul, and from there, Red River oxcarts overland to Fort Garry.

The trip only took six months, at a fraction of the cost of the Hudson Bay route. Trade began to flourish, but oxcart travel was difficult and dangerous. In 1858, a group of St. Paul merchants commissioned a study to determine whether it was feasible to put steamboat navigation on the Red River. Armed with that study's positive result, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce launched the aforementioned $1,000 competition, and an enterprising steamboat owner named Anson Northrup devised a plan to move his craft, the North Star, from the upper Mississippi (near modern-day Brainerd, Minn.), to the Red River.

How that was achieved is fodder for a documentary all its own, but Northrup's against-the-odds effort launched what soon became a lucrative transport industry on the slow, winding Red. The film's subtitle -- A Story of Buccaneers and Robber Barons -- is an apt description for the decades of steamboat trade that followed.

In the end, the steamboats' ability to move heavy cargo on a very difficult river turned out to be the industry's undoing -- in 1878, a steamboat-pulled barge delivered the Canadian Prairies' first locomotive, the Countess of Dufferin, across the border and into Manitoba. With a rail line established between the Twin Cities and Winnipeg, steamboats simply couldn't compete.

By 1909, after a vain effort to revive the river trade with a special 50th-anniversary voyage from Moorhead to Winnipeg, commercial steamboats had ceased to exist on the Red.

It's a great story, however, and it's beautifully told in this modest but efficiently executed film.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2011 C3


Updated on Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 10:38 AM CST: Adds photo, fact box

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


150+ dead in France plane crash, cause unknown

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(  Standup photo)-    A butterfly looks for nector on a lily Tuesday afternoon in Wolseley-JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- June 22, 2010
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you in favour of relocating Winnipeg's rail yards and lines?

View Results

Ads by Google