Floods at Red River: Some Tales of the Great Inundations of 1826, 1852, 1861
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1946-47 Season
I have thought that some notes on the three floods which visited this country in 1826, 1852 and 1861 respectively might be of interest historically to the members of our society. Various causes have been assigned for their prevalence in the early days and their comparatively rare occurrence in later years. It is contended, for example, by old timers who were here when floods did occur, that they arose from abnormally heavy snowfalls to the south, together with the fact that the swamps and low-lying land were filled almost to overflowing when the frost came in the previous autumn.
I myself recall the latter condition. The time was when in the rear of our river lots the country was composed largely of swamps, often filled with deep water and remaining so during the whole winter season. These swamps were like tumblers filled to the brim, which required very little to make them overflow. Others account for the floods by the blocking of the rivers by ice. Of course there were higher lands and elevated ridges in the rear, but between them were numerous low lying areas. In traveling weekly in the early days to Stony Mountain as chaplain of the penitentiary I encountered more than once deep swamps where, in a very wet spring or autumn, the water reached the bottom of my buggy and not infrequently came into it, with the result that I had to elevate my feet and legs on the dashboard to keep them dry. Moreover there were only certain districts by which you could make your way through these low places to reach your destination beyond them.
There was a trail going out from Old Kildonan and one also from what is now Logan Avenue that were fairly good, but not until you reached a point much farther north towards the Lower Fort was it possible in very wet seasons to get safely across the intervening swamps. I presume that may be the reason why Sir George Simpson and others, in giving evidence in 1857 before a committee of the British House of Commons on the suitability of this country for agricultural purposes, claimed that outside of a narrow strip of land along the rivers the whole hinterland was composed of deep swamps and mossy muskegs. I dare say that that was true when Sir George knew the country as it was in his day. With the system of draining which has since taken place, all this is now changed, with the result that what were deep swamps where some of us can recall shooting ducks are now cultivated fields for grain.
There were numerous creeks emptying themselves into the river containing large volumes of water. Some of these were large enough to have dams erected on them to supply motive power for several water mills which operated in those days. One of these creeks entered the river near my old home in East Kildonan, and higher up in the course was situated Long Angus Matheson’s water mill, which I remember very well, and to which I had often taken wheat to be ground into flour. By means of your modern drainage system, all these creeks are now as dry as a bone, and all the water flowing down them so far from running a water mill, would not move the wings of a mosquito, unless Dr. Speechly was on hand to give it a push.
In motoring out to Stonewall I have often passed by what we used to call “The Bear’s Swamp,” a regular rendezvous not only in the spring, but during the whole summer of crowds of ducks and other water fowl, but now a high and dry farm. My father owned it and used to cut tons of hay on it. I am of the opinion, therefore, that the claim that the chances of recurring flooding are minimized by drainage is a correct one. This view, however, was not concurred in by some of the old settlers, who continued to entertain fears that we might have a recurrence of a flood at any time.
The late Andrew McDermot, for example, for so many years a leading settler in what is now the City of Winnipeg, was so confident that the menace had not passed that he kept a large York boat at the back of his house at the foot of what is now McDermot Avenue and had it carefully pitched and caulked ready for embarkation by himself and his family in the event of a recurring flood in the country. Frequently when I visited him he took me to see his boat and emphasized the fact that he kept it in prime condition for an emergency. I remember also the late Col. Ruttan, for so long our city engineer, when questioned as to his view of the possibility of floods again taking place, remarking that, while the prospects were greatly lessened by the extension of draining, and while the rivers, especially the Red River, had greatly-widened and also were capable of carrying away rapidly a greater volume of water, he did not consider that the danger had entirely passed away. He gave as his reasons that, while doubtless the Red River was much broader all along its course than it once was, yet he had observed that its mouth where it entered into Lake Winnipeg, had remained the same width and he added that a funnel was only capable of carrying through itself what its small end could convey. Be that as it may, I have no desire to play the part of Noah and thus be an alarmist and picture to you the immensely increased population of Winnipeg and the Province trying to huddle together on Stony Mountain and Bird’s Hill and other higher spots, where the members of our little colony in olden days camped comfortably for weeks together until the tyranny of the waters was past.
After these preliminary remarks let me now give you some particulars about those early floods, the records of which, though scanty, are still extant. The first took place in 1826, though the aboriginal inhabitants and old timers have traditions of another and a greater inundation in some former year. The following are extracts from letters of my grandfather, John Pritchard, in my possession, written in the autumn after the flood. He was an eyewitness of what had taken place and wrote this letter to a brother in England 106 years ago:
Extract from letter 21 August 1826.
Bishop Anderson begins his notes as follows:
It would take too long and possibly might be tedious to follow consecutively the whole narrative, so that I shall content myself with giving you excerpts illustrative of how events progressed. On Sunday, April 25th, we find the following note:
At the service on that day the Bishop preached in the morning from a text in the Prophet Amos:
Later on the Church at St. John’s which had been a house of refuge as well as a storehouse for valuables, was flooded, for the Bishop writes: “I went over to the Church and found the water had entered it. It was a melancholy sight to look down from the gallery and as I viewed the Church yard lying under water (the present cemetery at St. John’s) I thought, what could be done in case of death? There had been two funerals the day before at St. Andrews; what could I do if death occurred in the upper settlement?”
Apparently for a time part of the district of St. James was immune from trouble, and a great many went there in canoes or boats and took refuge in the parsonage, which was not yet finished. We are told that as many as thirty-five camped in one room. Later on, however, practically the whole population had to repair to Stony Mountain, Bird’s Hill, etc., and camped for many weeks on these higher spots. Such is the account of an eyewitness of the flood of 1852, which proved a serious setback to the settlement and, like a good many other misfortunes, tested the courage and constancy of those early pioneers who laid the foundations of the old Red River Colony with wonderful pluck and perseverance and of what subsequently became our Province of Manitoba. In these days of depression and difficulty may we, imitating their faith, continue steadfast and keep on our feet. Some of us ought to feel proud that we are descended from those intrepid pioneers who in the midst of disasters never said die. ...
I need not weary you with any further details of the disaster of 1852. I have said enough to indicate that it was sufficient to put a serious damper on the progress and development of the little colony at that date. For the records of the two floods which I have described I have had to depend upon the notes which I have gathered from those who were here when they occurred. In 1861, however, there was an inundation of which I was an eye-witness, though I was only a small boy. It was only of a partial extent and did not cover nearly as large an area as the two previous ones. The fact is, these succeeding floods seem to have grown less, both in extent and in their destruction, as time went on, which is an encouraging feature, bearing upon the possibility of any recurrent ones. That of 1861 appears to have made so small an impression on the public that I have searched in vain for any reference to it in the histories covering that period. Only the low lying lands were affected and as far as I can recollect not many houses were flooded. In portions of Kildonan and Middlechurch considerable inconvenience to the inhabitants was caused, with the result that homes were abandoned and a good many people migrated as they did in 1826 and 1852 to the higher lands.
The farm where I lived at the time was on the east side of the Red River opposite Old Kildonan church. It was located on the river bank and near it quite a deep creek (on which there was a dam and a water grist mill higher up) to which I have already referred, emptied itself into the river near our house. For that reason possibly our farm was seriously affected, in fact, it was covered with water reaching back for about a mile from the river. Just about the time that the floors of the houses were flooded the men removed our goods, chattels and livestock to a higher spot not far from where Transcona now stands. Those of us who were left behind, an aunt, a sister and myself, remained upstairs, which in those days was termed “the loft”, and where quantities of wheat and other cereals were piled up. It was arranged that within a day or two the men were to come back for us and take us out to where tents and board shacks were being built in the meantime to receive us. A heavy storm, however, ensued and we were left there for several days in great anxiety.
In the meantime the water continued to rise rapidly and I remember bringing a canoe, which was tied to a tree outside, into the downstairs rooms of the house, and for a time paddling about throughout the building, which was a commodious one, for it had been used for a boarding school by my grandfather in the early days. I recall that as time went on, the canoe came nearer and nearer to the ceiling of the house, until I had to duck my head when paddling about. One day I espied sitting on the roof of the stable (we called it the byre in those days) a very favorite white hen, but when I essayed to go out in the canoe to fetch her I was strictly forbidden on account of the possible risk.
One morning, however, when the surface of the water seemed smooth, we saw a hay rick and a portion of a stable with hens on it floating by. I slipped out quietly from downstairs in the canoe, paddled to the byre and rescued my hen. Holding her tightly between my knees, I used my hands for paddles, made my way back to the house and went aloft with the hen, which I remember made straight for a pile of grain and feasted on it, for apparently she had been starving for several days. The next day the hen rewarded us for my escapade by laying an egg, which we relished very much, for our supply of tasty food was becoming decidedly low.
Some days afterwards my uncles arrived in a York boat which they had borrowed from Donald Murray, I think it was, and took us out through an upstairs window and conveyed us out to the place where they had established our camp and temporary quarters. On the way out when we had reached land and discarded the boat we came across some livestock which had been left behind on the way out. Carts met us there and among the livestock was a pig and a fine litter of young ones. The mother and family were placed in a cart with a low rail round it and I was commissioned to drive it to our destination. When we came to what was called Bunn’s Creek and had to wade through it with the oxen cart, and when the water came into the cart, Mrs. Pig and her progeny became restless and, resisting my endeavours to keep them in, jumped into the stream and swam to the other side. When we collected them together I recall how some of the little pigs were bleeding around the throat and I was told that, while pigs could swim when they were compelled, they always incurred the danger of cutting their own throats with the sharp points on their hoofs, and if they swam far they were liable to cut themselves so seriously that they bled to death. Be that as it may, our little piggies arrived safely in camp and grew into fine porkers.
Life in our temporary encampment was quite pleasant. We had plenty of food and not too bad shelter and, as there were several families near each other, we had not a little social diversion. I remember how plentiful game was. Prairie chickens, partridges, plovers, etc., abounded on the ridges near us and a deep swamp hard by, encircled by reeds and rushes, seemed to be full of ducks. An uncle who was a good shot kept us supplied with all the game we needed. Every boy in those days had a bow and arrows and one morning, not to be beaten by my uncle, I crept into the reeds and, concealing myself, waited for the near approach of some ducks, which were swimming in the pond. When a large mallard swam close to me I let him have an arrow in the head. He tumbled into the water and, lest he should revive, I hurriedly waded after him, despatched him and carried him proudly to the camp. My foster mother said that I was becoming a Nimrod, but as I did not know the difference between a Nimrod and a ramrod I failed to appreciate the compliment.
On Sundays we used to ride on horseback—for the swamps were too deep to go through in carts—to Bird’s Hill some miles away, where the settlers from Middlechurch were camped. They attended church services there conducted by the Rev. John Chapman, who rowed out in a boat from his parish on the river about three miles away, and who had been living in the gallery of the church, in which he had also taken refuge in the flood of 1852. Twenty-six years before, Bishop Anderson speaks of Mr. Chapman holding services on the same spot and also in the large tent of Mr. Pritchard, who, as he states, had been debarred by infirmity for many years from regular attendance at public worship. ... I recall very vividly an incident which occurred at one of those services at the end of which Mr. Chapman made a painful announcement to us to the effect that Dr. Bunn had passed away that morning. The Doctor was very popular from end to end of the settlement, and was not only an able practitioner but a most devoted family physician. He was the much loved “Dr. McClure” of Ian McLaren’s book Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush. I was only a boy of eight at the time, but I shall never forget the profound impression made. I had seen women break down into convulsive tears but I had never seen full grown men collapse and try to hide their emotions by disappearing one by one into the grove hard by to weep there. A good family physician is a possession of great price.
I am afraid that I have kept you too long already, but let me add, that, as in the case of the other two floods, though we planted nothing much before July, in the good providence of God, nature seemed to adjust itself to our needs and mishaps, with the result that both grain and vegetables matured in time to supply adequately our wants.
Page revised: 20 June 2014