Manitoba Historical Society
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The Red River

by William Murdoch, Esq., C.E.

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 12
Read 24 April 1884

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Hudson's Bay Company established their first fort at Lake Winnipeg in 1744, but it was not until 1763 that they began to enter into the Red River country. It takes its rise or head waters at the Height of Land, front Lac Bois de Sioux, which divides it from one branch of the head waters of the Mississippi River, and only a short distance from it, near the 45th parallel of north latitude, and between the 95th and 101st degrees of longitude. According to the estimate of the United States authorities its valley extends east and west 225 by north and south 300 miles. It contains approximately 67,500 square miles, or 259,200,000 acres of land, 80 per cent of which acreage comprises

The Finest Farming Land

for the production of cereals and stock raising in the world. Wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and flax are raised in abundant quantities, and with less labor than in the older States or Territories. The Red River South of us up to the boundary line from Breckenridge, a distance of 396 41-100 miles by river, has a total fall of 197 22-100 feet, or an average of very nearly 6 inches per mile. Between the International boundary and Winnipeg there are some small rapids and shoals. From here in low water there is a fall of some nine feet to St. Andrews, from there to Lake Winnipeg there is a fall of some seven feet; at the mouth of the river there are several channels through the delta which has formed there, and which is rising nearer to the surface of the water every year, and extending into the lake it the lit, rate of

Six Feet per Year

The river is tortuous in its course, more south of us than to the north, and its bed has cut its course through the alluvian deposits and clays on an average of 31 feet below the prairie level to the ordinary low water mark. The depth of water varies from two feet in places to 20 feet (but this only in the unimproved portions), and averaging 400 to 800 feet in width, and in the year 1880 was open and free from ice 214 days, or over seven months. It passes through one of the most fertile valleys in the world. In 1815 Mr. Robert McBeth, surveyor of Kildonan, first knew Red River, and he says the river is now about one-third wider than then, and that in the fall of that year boats got aground at several points on the river coming up - viz., at St. Andrews, St. Pauls, and a short distance above where Broadway bridge now stands. At that time there was

A Belt of Timber

along the river on each side, in places a mile deep, and very good timber, oak, elm, ash and poplar. The Hudson's Bay post was where Fort Garry now stands, or what remains of it. There are people now living in St. Boniface who, 60 years ago crossed the Red River opposite the Archbishop's on horseback and on foot, jumping from one stone to another. Roger Goulet (surveyor) has walked across Red River opposite St. Boniface. Father Dugast has seen half-breeds crossing frequently on horseback, and says that the point between the Red and Assiniboine rivers has lost fully 400 feet in the last thirty years. In 1833 Father Thibault crossed the Assiniboine river on a fallen tree at the point where Main street bridge now stands. Mrs. Moyses, now living at Armstrong's Point, tells me that in 1851 a York boat would touch both banks of the Assiniboine in turning. Also at Moorhead, on the Red river, about forty years ago, Andre Beauchemin took a running leap and jumped across the river.

The St. Boniface Clergy

state that the river has increased in width some 150 feet on their side in the last sixty years, the same process going on the other side of the river shows some 300 feet added to its width, which can be easily accounted for from the combined action of the water and frost; the former, at high water, acts as an undermining agent in the very seluable and slippery clays, which occur in layers; and the latter, by downward as well as by side penetration in the banks, producing cracks along the shore line that become filled with rain and in time are forced by the ice expansion into great gaps, but this combined action slides huge masses into the river yearly, the lighter particles of which are carried

By Mechanical Suspension

to the delta of the river mouth, thus in time lengthening the river and filling up a portion of the lake, making new farms for future generations.

You will thus see from the foregoing evidence what remarkable changes have taken place in the memory of the old inhabitants, and men who are now living among you are witnesses of the fact; and these changes are going on at the present time, making the Red River yearly more capable of carrying off its own freshet water within its own banks, and unlike some of its tributaries not perceptibly lessening its depth. On the other hand all the evidence goes to show that the channel is deeper than formerly, as steamers now ply over in the lowest water where York boats used to ground - and the greatest of all changes since 1872 is the noble service it has performed in floating every requirement to build railways, bringing in locomotives, railway iron, immigrants and freights of all kinds.

Establishing Prosperous Cities

on its banks and settling its fertile valley with farmers. Now we have a railway on both sides of the river, which has for a time rendered it of little value as a highway for traffic except to supply the saw mill with timber from it sources and tributaries. Although there are more steamers and of greater tonnage now than formerly plying upon it from Winnipeg north only, the question now presents itself, what will its future be? and what part will it play in the development of this wonderful country of ours? It is the international commercial link which joins us by a natural highway to our cousins over the boundary line, which ere long will bring on its waters millions of bushels of grain seeking its natural outlet by Hudson's Bay. It was once supposed that the extension of railways would destroy the usefulness of waterways, but experience has shown that the navigation of the Ohio grows greater each year.

The Carriage of Freight

now far exceeds the traffic on any railway in the country and at a cost of less than half what would be required for its carriage on any railway. If any gentleman present will consult the annual report of the Chief of Engineers of the United States army be will find that the U.S. Government have been giving yearly appropriations for the improvement of the Red River of the North through Minnesota and Dakota. And what have they done? They have made a low water channel for 100 miles of three feet continuous depth on the upper waters of the same river of ours, which has increased the traffic from one bushel sent previous to improvement to twenty bushels since the improvement, and so much importance is attached to this work that they are voting $200,000 to construct a luck and dam at Goose Rapids to facilitate the increasing trade of the upper waters of this international and important highway. What are we doing to meet them? Well, we have made a good beginning; we have the necessary outfit to begin river improvements with.

The Dominion Government

have built for the Red River a first-class steam tug, a steam dredge and three scows similar to those used by the U. S. Government for river improvements, and by the time the ice is fairly out of Lake Winnipeg the outfit will be there to begin operation on the steamboat channel through the delta at the mouth of the river, which is the first step to making the city of Winnipeg the head of lake navigation, which means much to this place, and in order to attain this much desired object a lock, with a movable dam, could be constructed at St. Andrews, which would give a constant depth of water, and which in high water would be no obstruction. If Winnipeg and this Province have their interests at heart, and wish to sustain their prosperity,

Improve the Waterways

get Minnesota and Dakota grain via Hudson's Bay, and you can send Manitoba wheat to within 350 miles of the sea board for 2 to 4 cents a bushel according to facilities, and all other freights in proportion during the season of navigation, as against the rates by other out lets - surely the Red River of the North deserves such helping measures at comparatively small cost, as will enable the Province to reap richly for any outlay, and it will prove a perfect cure for farmers' resolutions and outcry about monopolies. It means the establishment here in Winnipeg of a great grain distributing centre, which will equalize the price of grain, cattle and all other products, over the entire country, thus making us a prosperous and contented people; time is the essence of a contract, and the distance between points of production and consumption reduces

The Cost of Transportation

and meets the requirements of commerce of the present day, and navigable waters such as ours, running in a direct line to the sea, 783 miles shorter than any other route to the great consumers of the world at a saving of from 9 to 10 cents per bushel of wheat; and on cattle and other products in proportion, this means to the producer in this country an immense profit. Last year it was conceded by commercial authorities that in this Province alone there was 2,500,000 bushels of wheat, which at 9 cents per bushel is $225,000 additional profit to the farmers on last year's product available for export on one article alone. With such a route, and the larger areas cultivated, even With the present population would be double, and with such incentives for others to come,

The Outlook is Bright

indeed, in the near future; always bearing in mind our youth as a country. Where in the wide world has such a transition taken place in so few short years As in this land we live in, which only ten years ago was called the Great Lone Land, and which is now the attraction of I the world, and to make it what it is destined to be, Providence has peopled it so far with its most energetic workers f r, from u all countries, and they are continuing to come in greater numbers year after year. In conclusion, I will quote I from a paper on the floods of the Mississippi valley, by "N. H. Shaler," whose remarks are equally applicable to Red River, its tributaries and the waterways of this heritage of ours. Applying it to the Northwest he says: Nature in giving us the

Finest River Valleys

for the benefit of our race that the world affords, has given with it a burden of labor worthy of our Government.

Unhappily at the present time the evils of our system of appropriations for internal improvement have brought a certain odium upon all the schemes for the betterment of our waterways. There is an unreasoning disposition among our people unreflectingly to condemn all such projects. This state of the public mind will, it is hoped, prove transitory. The problem of the Red and other river systems is a Dominion one, and it will soon become so urgent that it must be treated in a Dominion way. If the Federal Government, led by a sectional feeling that is in striking contrast with the state of the public mind a decade ago, refuses to undertake the matter, then it will be necessarily undertaken by some form of association among the provinces and States that are most immediately concerned therein. It needs no Daniel come to judgment to show that such an associated action of Provinces in a matter of continuous governmental work would be full of the gravest political dangers. It would be a federation within the Dominion for mutual protection against a danger that the Federal Government had failed to repel, it could not fail

To Weaken the Bond

of common interest, the source of common obligation, and fraught with danger to the Dominion at large. Once let it be established in the public mind that the vital interests of each section must be cared for by association of the Provinces and States immediately concerned there in, and the idea of a great all-sustaining commonwealth will be fatally weakened. Such a sundering of the moral union of the people would pave the way to it if it did not in itself warrant a political disintegration of the Dominion. It seems to me certain that no such policy of blind neglect can ever meet with continued approval in this country. Practical modern government exists for such duties, and will be properly judged by the efficiency by which they accomplish them. So the Government of the practical age we are entering upon will stand or fall by their power to combat the elemental enemies - pestilence, flood and famine, or what else of ill to which mail tamely submitted.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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