June 9, 2021 — On this date in 1859, Anson Northrup’s steamboat arrived at Fort Garry, in present-day Manitoba, and residents celebrated with both thanksgiving and gunpowder. It was the first time a boat had successfully navigated the Red River, and commerce there would be changed forever.
In “The Challenge of the Prairie,” Erling Rolfsrud wrote, “No real progress could be forecast for a region as remote as the Red River Valley until some form of transportation was perfected. The development of an organized transportation system in the Valley started in 1843 when the Red River carts, organized earlier by fur traders, provided the connecting link with the outside world. These carts with two high wooden wheels were pulled either by a single horse or by an ox,” he continued, “and they hauled loads of about 800 pounds. Sometimes one individual managed several carts by tying the animals and carts in tandem... Dog teams were also a part of the transportation system... Dog travel was fast and could function when all other means except men on snowshoes were stopped by storms.”
Beginning with the Panic of 1857, St. Paul businesses were suffering from an economic depression. The Red River carts that transported goods between them and the Hudson Bay Company were very slow, and businessmen dreamed of finding a way to move their wares by water instead.
In late 1858, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce offered a thousand dollars to the first person who launched a steamboat on the “Ruby Red” by the following spring. Anson Northrup, who had a steamboat on the Mississippi River, agreed to try for the prize, but only if it was increased to two thousand dollars. He set out to navigate west on the Crow Wing River.
By late February, they could sail no further; they had to dismantle the boat in order to move it overland the next 150 miles. Northrup had his men load the boat’s machinery, cabin and lumber onto sleighs. Historian Elwyn Robinson states that Northrup used 32 teams of oxen and 60 men, while historian Erling Rolfsrud states that he used 13 yoke of oxen, 17 teams of horses, and had only 31 men. Either way, the party headed due west without a guide.
On March 5, one of Fargo-Moorhead’s earliest citizens, R.M. Probstfield, found part of the Northrup expedition floundering in the snow near what is now Detroit Lakes. He later wrote, “Another part of the expedition had gone ahead to build a bridge across the Otter Tail River at one of the upper crossings, as the river was not frozen over. The snow was deep, some sixteen or eighteen inches. The bridge was built for the boiler and other heavy machinery.”
By the first of April, the Northrup crew arrived at the Red River, across from where the Sheyenne joins it north of Fargo. The men spent six weeks reassembling the boat and cutting oak trees for planking a new hull. Before launching it, they re-christened it the “Anson Northrup.”
On June 5, 1959, the journey north finally began. The spring thaw had raised the Red River’s water level, and the voyage to Ft. Garry took only four days. Three days later, Northrup headed back south to Fort Abercrombie with 20 passengers aboard. Then, leaving his boat behind, he hurried back to St. Paul to claim his prize. Soon after, he sold the Northrup for $8,000, and the new owners again sent it north. By then, however, the water level had dropped, and the crew had to tie up for the winter at Indian River, short of their Fort Garry destination.
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