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.