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William Garrioch and the Swan River Valley

by Fred A. Twilley

Manitoba Pageant, April 1959, Volume 4, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

William Garrioch. 1907
Source: F. A. Twilley

How would you like to go for a ride in this cariole? The man in the picture has just travelled thirty miles through the bush and stopped long enough to have his picture taken. He is ready for some more miles, and the dogs are ready too.

He is William Garrioch of Minitonas, the grandson of the William Garrioch who was in charge of the Swan River post of the Hudson’s Bay Company as far back as 1812-1818, which is a very long time ago. So you see he is part of Manitoba’s wonderful history and has played no small part in it himself. He is also the uncle of Billy Grayson of Island Falls who has the record of having won The Pas Dog Derby no less than three times.

Mr. Garrioch, now in his eighties, still enjoys life, and would not mind a run with the dogs again in preference to a ride on the highway in a fancy car. Moreover, he is a real Canadian in that he likes a game of crokinole on a winter’s evening.

What? Never heard of crokinole? It is the great Canadian indoor pastime, and to qualify for real citizenship you must know how to play it. Now if you have never played this wonderful game, you had better get started. When you hear people talk of what is, or should be, considered as the true Canadian emblem, whether it is the buffalo, the beaver, or the maple leaf — just you tell them not to overlook the good old crokinole board. So it was that, last Christmas, the Garriochs and ourselves got together for a game, or several of them, to pass the time enjoyably.

I asked a few questions of Mr. Garrioch. When driving through the bush, did he encounter much in the way of animal life? “Why yes,” he said, “at every turn of the road almost. There would be rabbits sitting up on the trail, ears cocked, trying to figure out what in the world was coming and deciding that it was no time to be sitting there but to get moving. There would be partridges which had been holed up in a little igloo, taking off for other parts at my approach, and occasionally a lynx would stare at the apparition, almost too long, and finally climb up a tree.”

“Did your dogs ever succumb to the urge of chasing a rabbit through the trees, as one would suspect?” I asked him. “No,” he answered, “but a friend of mine had trouble that way when a moose stood in the way. The dogs took after it and wrapped everything around a big tree.” “Ah,” he continued, “there is nothing like a spin through the woods on a frosty morning behind a good team of dogs.”

Now to look at this picture, it is hard to realize that good roads and waving wheat fields are all that you would find now, for this is the famous Swan River Valley that lies about 250 miles north of the city of Winnipeg.

I say famous because it really was so. It was perhaps better known a hundred or more years ago than it is today. It was a route of the Hudson’s Bay Company in its quest for the furs which the natives had to barter. From York Factory, up the Hayes River, across the lakes and along the Shoal and Swan Rivers came the boats and canoes carrying goods to the many posts and forts and returned laden with the catch. Other fur companies such as the North West Company and the XY Company, as well as free traders, had posts along the route.

The Swan River Valley in those days was considered to reach much farther west than today. It reached into what is now Saskatchewan as far as Pelly, and Fort Pelly has always been considered a Manitoba fort, being included in the Swan River Department of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Livingstone (Saskatchewan) was in the police district known as the Swan River Post.

It was here, on the banks of the Swan River, that the newly-formed North West Mounted Police made its headquarters, and here also, that the government of the North West Territories was located. A Governor’s house was built and Lieutenant-Governor David Laird and his Council took up residence in 1876. History was made here.

With the famous Fort Pelly ten miles to the south on the banks of the Assiniboine, (what a list of famous explorers, governors, company factors, Lords, generals who have sheltered between its walls could be made out; a veritable “who’s who” of Canada) and with the projected railway line of the Canadian Pacific Railway destined to pass through, (or rather it had so been decided) on its way to the coast, the valley was becoming almost as important as the Red River Valley. Already, it was connected with the outside by a telegraph line.

Then the change came. In 1878, the Liberal party under Alexander Mackenzie was defeated and the new administration at Ottawa changed all the plans. Now the railway was to be built 150 miles to the south and so the telegraph line fell into disuse. We used its wire for fencing. The North West Mounted Police and the new government of the Territories moved west. Many traders folded their tents like the Arabs and stole away. The fur trade used the southern route more and more and it was to be twenty long years before a train whistle was heard echoing through the trees.

Now back to our friend William Garrioch. Having lived his life here he saw a good part of this drama and had a good part to play in subsequent events. In 1897, the government decided to throw open the valley for permanent settlement and thus give it more lasting fame as one of the choicest spots in the whole north-west. Who could doubt that it was such, bounded on the north by the Porcupines, on the south by the Duck Mountains, and watered by innumerable rivers and streams, abounding in game and the soil of the richest? So the surveyors were put to work.

The Canadian Northern Railway was inching its way north and was now only thirty miles away, at a place now going by the name of Cowan. Yet a road was needed for settlers to come in with their oxen, horses and household goods.

The late William Sifton was called upon to build one and with William Garrioch and a fellow named Charlie Taylor went to work immediately. Starting at the Valley River, near Dauphin, they proceeded north and blazed a trail as far up as where Garland now is. On and on until they came to the Duck Mountains where a problem confronted them—how to find the easiest way across and down into the valley. Well, a friendly Indian, and most of the Indians were friendly, seeing the smoke of the campfire, came over. He knew quite well how best to cross, and showed them.

Back to the start of the blazed trail, the three men cleared the way, spanned the creeks, bridged the streams, and found suitable fords across the rivers. The Old Colonization Road came into being.

Blazing trails, fishing on the lakes, steam-boating, cooking for survey parties—it was all in the day’s work for men like William Sifton and William Garrioch, men well-fitted for the time. Mr. Sifton has gone now but his memory lives. Mr. Garrioch is still very much around and can still show, even the women, how best to bone and cook a whitefish.

What did he think of the motorcar when he first came to be acquainted with it? Not a great deal. He still likes a good horse better.

One day, about 1910 or 1912, he was sloshing along on horse-back on his way to Minitonas (the roads were seas of mud after rain) when he saw a car stuck fast. Did they want a pull? Of course they did. But, what use was a horse without harness and collar? Taking off the halter shank, he tied one end to the car and the other end to the horse’s tail, and away they went. Had the horse any way of knowing that someday the car would push him off the road and into near oblivion, would he have budged an inch?

Page revised: 11 January 2015

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