Historic Sites of Manitoba: Emerson Customs Building / Pembina-Emerson Area Plaque (Emerson, Municipality of Emerson-Franklin)
Manitoba’s first customs office on the border of the United States was situated on the west bank of the Red River in a log house built in 1868 where, it is alleged, Louis Riel stopped for the night when he was leaving Manitoba in 1870. When the customs office opened in 1871, it was known as the “Outport of North Pembina,” named for the community to the south, where the Pembina River flowed into the Red River. When the Boundary Commission mapped the Canada-US border between 1872 and 1976, they discovered that the Canadian customs office at North Pembina was, in fact, located about a few hundred feet inside American territory.
Frederick T. Bradley was appointed as supervisor of this first customs office. In addition to performing his duties as a customs officer, Bradley speculated on land in new town of Emerson and reportedly made a small fortune. In 1879, the customs office moved out of the log house and into a new building in Emerson owned by Bradley. The original log house was moved to the Canadian side of the border in 1901 and, in 1955, to a site on the south side of Highway #75 near a newly-constructed bridge over the Red River. In 1958, a group from Emerson cleaned up the old building and turned it in the Gateway Stopping Place Museum, with exhibits of indigenous artifacts, North West Mounted Police paraphernalia, and pioneer tools. The site was a provincial roadside park with washrooms, picnic tables, and an especially popular item in the 1960s—a re-creation of a Red River Cart. Premier Duff Roblin unveiled a wooden historic marker prepared by the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba.
The museum operated until September 1980 when a public notice said that “flooding and non-support” forced it to close. The former customs building was moved to its present site, near the turnoff from Highway 75, and left empty, with plans of moving it near a newly constructed visitors centre. Those plans never came to fruition and, today, the building is deteriorating. Beside the former customs building is the first gaol at Emerson, built in 1879 at the junction of Park and First streets and moved beside the former customs building in 1955. It was apparently called “Hotel de Bell” after Jack Bell, the police officer in charge.
The original wooden historic marker was replaced by a metal one beside the two log buildings that provides a brief description of the history of the Pembina-Emerson area. After 1790, the junction of the Red and Pembina rivers was the site of fur-trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, North West Company, and XY Company. At Fort Daer, the early Selkirk settlers hunted buffalo when food was scarce at the Red River Settlement. In 1874, a town site was laid out on the east side of the Red River, just north of the international boundary. Emerson was named after the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and incorporated in 1879. The village of West Lynne, established by the Hudson’s Bay Company hoping to settle the land near their post at Pembina, united with Emerson in 1883.
Photos & Coordinates
“Old log customs house, Emerson” by Lillian Gibbons, Winnipeg Tribune, 12 October 1955, page 15.
“They’re putting Emerson back on Manitoba’s historical map,” Steinbach Carillon News, 30 August 1963, page 14.
[Notice - Museum closure], Steinbach Carillon News, 3 September 1980, page 10.
We thank Wayne Arseny for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 28 May 2023