by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
The residents of Emerson were greeted by a scene more reminiscent of Venice, Italy, than a community situated in the midst of a prairie landscape. But instead of a gondola, on April 26, 1897, at 10:12 a.m., they witnessed the steamboat Assiniboine, piloted by Captain Joseph Connell, with its stern wheel churning up water and propelling the vessel right into the heart of their town. To the residents’ astonishment, the steamer sailed down Emerson’s Main Street while dodging an assortment of small boats containing people who came out to greet the unusual visitor to their community.
At the Alexander Block, people peered out of second-storey windows at the strange apparition that eventually docked in front of the building. With the shock of the moment overcome, they were soon reaching out from the windows and shaking hands with the crew members standing on the upper deck of the vessel sent from Winnipeg to provide relief to the community inundated by spring flood waters.
A resident in an Alexander Block suite was startled by a blast from the steamboat’s whistle, and was said to have been the first greeted by Captain Connell, who reached out to shake the man’s hand from the pilot house of the Assiniboine.
Before embarking on his voyage of mercy, the captain told reporters, “I am prepared to take this boat anywhere in two feet of water and am allowed to carry 150 passengers; 500 in case of emergency.”
By sailing into the heart of the town of some 2,500 people, Captain Connell had made good on his promise, although the water was significantly deeper than two feet.
One notable incident occurred when a “little boy” fell overboard while the Assiniboine was docked at Emerson. The boy “would probably have drowned had not J.A. Black, a volunteer member of the crew, jumped overboard and rescued him,” reported the Thursday, April 29, Manitoba Free Press. For his brave act, Black was later presented with a medal.
The boy was among the crowd of local people, “young and old,” who came aboard the steamer while it was moored before the Alexander Block.
Ernest A. Blow, who was the Free Press staff reporter aboard the Assiniboine, described the unusual circumstances encountered by Captain Connell and his crew as they entered Emerson, which until the arrival of the steamer had been completely isolated from the outside world for the past week.
He reported that the citizens of Emerson through necessity had become proficient in log rolling and rowing.
“Between the river and the C.P.R. depot (the only dry business building in the town), a distance of half a mile, every sidewalk is afloat, but joined together with wire or over laid with a plank, but when two or three persons gather together there is certain to be an immersion up to the knees, consequently, all hurry by without stopping to exchange gossip. With the weight of one man walking, the boards undulate with a wave-like motion ...
“The crossing are the most dangerous. They are made with planks not firmly fastened and one must never relax vigilance for an instance nor affect familiarity with the narrow pathways otherwise he will speedily regret it.”
Beyond the business section of town, the only means of transportation was small boats, which crowded what had once been Main Street.
“Men leaning their weight on projecting signboards (ordinarily overhead) and carrying on conversation is another common scene, but a still more novel experience is that of entering the houses on a plank, one end of which rests on a staging outside and the other on the fourth or fifth step of the stairway leading to the second storey, where for the time being kitchens, parlors and dining rooms are located.”
In order to pass through a home’s doorway, people were forced to “half walk and half creep, and keep in the same position until the ceiling is cleared.”
Since the local residents had received sufficient warning about the impending flood, they were able to gather their furniture and belongings from the lower floors and place them out of harm’s way.
As well, merchants saved their stock by placing it above the water level.
The Emerson Journal on April 23 reported: “J.W.Whitman was doing business upstairs over his store on Dominion St. He also has some goods at the C.P.R. station, where Mr. Shaw waits on the customers.”
The newspaper reported that the stores in the Alexander Block were inundated by water nearly two metres deep.
Also aboard the steamer were Manitoba government representatives E.M. Wood and George Black who were sent south to oversee the distribution of the supplies from Winnipeg and 30 cords of wood for flood victims along the Red River. At the time, the Red had overspilled its banks in Minnesota, North Dakota and in Manitoba as far north as just north of St. Norbert.
From the deck of the Assiniboine, crew and passengers only saw a vast expanse of water periodically broken by the tops of trees and telegraph poles.
Prior to departing Emerson for the return trip to Winnipeg, arrangements were made to transport two horses that were to be used to carry mail. The Assiniboine went down Church Street to within a few metres of the Presbyterian Church where there was a strip of dry land. “The horses were got aboard without much difficulty and the Assiniboine backed out of town and steamed away amid cheers and waving of handkerchiefs.”
It was reported that water covered an area 40 miles (64 kilometres) long by 10 miles (16 kilometres) wide on the Manitoba side of the international border.
Farms and rural homes stood amid what the newspaper on April 26 described as “a modern Lake Agassiz” — the glacial lake that had once covered much of the province as well as portions of Northern Ontario, Minnesota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. The dwelling emerged from the lake as the steamboat sailed through it as if part of a mirage in the glistening water.
As the steamer made its way from Winnipeg to St. Jean Baptiste, it was observed that house after house and farm after farm was submerged in water ranging from a few centimetres to over three metres in depth. Adding to the plight of those in the flood’s path was a gale in the evening of April 25, which whipped by high waves that crashed against the homes, shaking them to their foundations and causing the inhabitants inside to fear for their safety.
“One woman stated that she expected her house to be washed away every time a wave struck it” (Free Press, April 29). “In another house the water smashed the windows and the wild waters and wind drove through the building as though bent on destroying it.”
Fortunately, the majority of mostly new settlers had built their homes among trees, which provided some protection against the elements.
“Between St. Norbert and Morris a few farmers have been prudent to move back to the ridges before their homes were surrounded by water, but others, in fancied security on the high banks, while there was no water, decided to take their chances on the river, not exceedingly the ordinary spring level. Alas ..., they did not calculate on the water escaping from the lown places, and flowing down depressed portions of land immediately behind them.”
Those in such a position fled the flood in boats or wagons.
In some instances, people were forced into the second storeys of their homes with a boat parked in the doorway just in case they had to quickly evacuate the premises.
“A number, whose situation appeared to call for assistance of the steamer, were asked if anything could be done for them, but all declined aid and cheered the expedition on its mission of mercy.”
The people aboard the vessel saw livestock on small pieces of dry land, and atop stables or barns.
Near Morris, the steamer encountered sections of sidewalks, hen coops, barns and buildings floating downstream.
“As the boat swung around a bend a mile north of Morris the vista that opened up to the eyes of all aboard was one that will never be forgotten. For a few seconds no one said a word. The scene that lay before then was bewildering ... a large lake over which the waves rose and fell ... And right in the midst of it ... reposed the town of Morris. No dry land in the town could be seen.”
Most homes were abandoned with some refugees from the water taking shelter in the Commercial Hotel. The bridge over the Red was swept away.
Residents and businesses coped as best they could. Shopping for necessities was by boat and clerks served customers by wading through water behind counters wearing rubber boots.
Morris resident, Mathew Lawrie, who was one of the passengers aboard 16 boats in front of a store, said the flood “came down like a thief in the night. We saw what appeared to be cloud on the southern horizon, then rivlets flowed across the fields, and to our utter astonishment before ten hours had passed we were in the midst of a lake. Then the water kept on rising, and from Wednesday to Saturday it made a record, and here we are. Hasty scrambles for our household goods were made. We moved all we could upstairs, and what we couldn’t we conveyed by teams to warehouses before the depth of the water stopped the work.”
Lawrie’s home was on one of the highest points of land in the town, but even its lower floor was inundated by water.
The Northern Pacific Railway (NPR) parked some cars on tracks and these were used by residents to store their belongings and to stable cattle.
The tracks of the Northern Pacific were covered by water from Morris southward, while its Brandon branch to the west and along the Assiniboine River was also flooded over.
In Winnipeg, NPR superintendent G.W. Vanderslice, who earlier toured the disaster area, said all rail traffic had stopped in the flooded region, but the company’s tracks appeared to be holding firm (Free Press, April 26). In Plum Coulee, the NPR had placed a complete train across its bridge to prevent the structure from being swept away by the swift-flowing water.
When asked if the “reports of distress and suffering” were exaggerated, Vanderslice replied, “not at all.”
On the contrary, Vanderslice said the Winnipeg newspapers “failed to describe the scenes that meet the eye along the river. Buildings of all kinds have been floated away, and it was not an uncommon sight to see all sorts of household furniture, bedding, etc., being carried away in the current. One settler who was fortunate to possess a boat, drew to shore a large amount of valuable floatage, among the lot being an organ ... In some parts, animals, lumber, etc., have been caught and held in the branches of large trees, where they were finished by the waves on Sunday (April 25) evening.”
At Morris, the Assiniboine was moored to a large tree near the Red River channel. Boats were sent out from the centre of community to greet the steamer. Black was told that the only relief required was for two “French” families, who were recent arrivals.
After leaving Morris, the steamer tied up for the night a few kilometres south of the community.
When the steamer approached St. Jean Baptiste, a French settler came aboard to inform the crew and government officials that area residents were not only coping with the flood but a scarlet fever epidemic with one or more cases in each flooded home. The man said he went each day into town to get medicine for his three children who were sick at home.
The village itself hadn’t fared any better than Morris and Emerson and was flooded for a week, which was also the case at Letellier.
The Assiniboine returned to Winnipeg on April 28 at 12:50 p.m. after battling a gale and freezing temperatures. At one point on its return trip, waves crashed over the bow and ice formed on the entire forward portion of the vessel. Due to the freezing temperatures, one farmer floated 24 horses on rafts and blanketed them with his family’s bedding in order to protect them from the cold.
According to the February 22, 1897, Free Press, two conditions were necessary for a massive spring flood: “heavy snow fall and a quick thaw.” The first condition had been met, as the winter was plagued by an abundance of storms that dumped more snow than normal. In fact, not since 1882, which was another Red River flood year in Manitoba and across the international border, had so much snow fallen.
Later on April 12, the Free Press would report that the large amounts of snow that had blanked the prairies had quickly melted, meeting the second condition for a flood.
South of the U.S.-Canada border, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, under the headline, The Coming Flood, predicted “high water this spring.”
“If all reports are true,” continued the North Dakota newspaper, “there is more snow on the level now than there was in the Spring of 1861. That year the entire (Red River) valley was flooded from Big Stone Lake to Winnipeg, a distance of more than 300 miles (480 kilometres).”
(Next week: part 2)