Learn how steamboating on the Red River of the North became an important method of 19th century transportation in the U.S. trade with Canada.
In 1859, merchants in St. Paul, Minnesota, had good reason to promote steamboating on the Red River of the North. Local businesses had been suffering from an economic depression, but putting steamboats on the Red could turn things around by opening up a fast, cheap way to transport wares to the Red River Settlement at Fort Garry, Canada.
The question was, could the Red River of the North accommodate steamboats? And would steamboating prove to be a viable and lasting mode of transportation in the trade with Canada?
Early 19th Century Transportation in the Trade With Canada
So far, St. Paul merchants had ox carts (also known as Red River carts) to thank for stimulating trade with Canada. These two-wheeled wooden carts gained popularity during the 1840s and 1850s as a feasible means to haul goods along the trails between St. Paul and the Red River Settlement. But the merchants of St. Paul believed that combining the river steamboat with overland transportation would greatly reduce freight costs.
Transporting goods to the Red River Settlement using the Red River seemed simple enough. Although no steamboats had ever been launched on the Red, a muddy, north-flowing river known for its catfish, the St. Paul merchants had already sent a search party to investigate whether the waters were high enough for a steamboat. The reports had come back favorable: For several months out of the year, it could be done.
Anson Northup and His River Steamboat
But finding a captain of a river steamboat willing to attempt the Red River of the North for the first time would require an incentive. So in January of 1859, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce offered a prize to the first party to put a steamboat in service on the Red. For $2,000, former hotel builder and steamboat owner Anson Northup took the challenge.
His river steamboat, the North Star, had already been disassembled near St. Cloud, Minnesota. Northup’s plan was to carry the steamboat’s heavy parts 150 miles across rough terrain, during one of the coldest winters on record, to the Red River of the North. There, he and his crew would rebuild the vessel with the proper dimensions. Needless to say, it was a bold plan.
Despite hazardous weather conditions and the loss of many animals used for hauling, the Northup expedition arrived in Lafayette, Minnesota, near the banks of the Red River of the North, in April of 1859. Six weeks later, the new river steamboat, christened the Anson Northup, began its journey upriver. And on June 10, 1859, the Anson Northup puffed into the Red River Settlement, signifying a new era in the trade with Canada.
Other Historic Boats on the Red River of the North
Although the Anson Northup paved the way for steamboating on the Red River of the North, the steamer soon changed hands, was renamed (the Pioneer), and later dismantled. However, other notable river steamboats traveled the Red for much longer, many of them in later years.
These historic boats worked in conjunction with ox carts, stage coaches, and railroads in transporting people and freight between St. Paul and the Red River Settlement during the months of April through October (ice kept steamboats off the river during the cold months).
Some of the most notable steamboats that traveled the Red River of the North include:
- the International (1862)
- the Selkirk (1871)
- the Dakota (1872)
- the Alpha (1874)
- the Cheyenne (1874)
- the Manitoba (1875)
- the Minnesota (1875)
- the Henry W. Alsop (1881)
- the Grand Forks (1895)
The End of Steamboating
In the early 1900s, low waters and railroads, considered much faster and cheaper than steamboats by then, brought steamboating on the Red River of the North to a halt. Many of the historic boats noted above either sank or were dismantled, like the Anson Northup. Still, the era of steamboats on the Red spanned nearly fifty years.
Today steamboating on the Red River of the North is remembered as a 19th century transportation method that served a useful purpose in the trade with Canada. And it all began with a vision of Minnesota businessmen.
- Heifort, James. “Steamboating on the Red River” (North Dakota Agricultural College, 1960).
- Lilleboe, Donald, “Steamboat Navigation on the Red River of the North, 1859-1881” (University of North Dakota, 1977).
- Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, “The Anson Northup.”
- Rolczynski, John, When Steamboats Plied the Red: Interesting Aspects of Steamboating on the Red River of the North (Grand Forks: John Rolczynski, 2000).
- “Steamboats on the Red River,” fargo-history.com