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Arrival of stagecoach in Winnipeg — linked community with outside world
Aug 19, 2005

by Bruce Cherney

An 1880 photograph found in Alan Artibise’s Winnipeg: An Illustrated History depicts the Northwestern and Transportation Co.’s stagecoach office at the corner of Rorie and Post Office (Lombard) streets. According to the billboard in front of the office, the stagecoach company offered “Great through passenger & freightline to the East and South.” 

Above wicket, tickets are offered for destinations such as Bismarck, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit and Chicago. More distant destinations are given as Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and Memphis, among other North American cities. 

What is also surprising is the advertisement of far-flung destinations such as Glasgow and Hamburg “and all points in Europe.” Presumably, the company offered connections for ships upon reaching a port.

Stagecoach?

Isn’t that something associated with Deadwood or Dodge City in the American West? 

“Of all the symbols associated with the American West, few have been as enduring and celebrated as the stagecoach,” wrote Howard R. Lamar in his New Encyclopedia of the American West.”

Canadians, like countless others around the world, have come to associate stagecoaches, with Hollywood films, which show masked outlaws calling out, “Stick ’em up,” and demanding that the driver and his usually shotgun-toting sidekick — by now disarmed by the pistol-packing desperados or killed by gun-fire in the bone-jarring pursuit — to hand over the strongbox. Meek passengers are also told to get out under the threat of the gun and men are stripped of gold watches and ladies of their wedding rings.

Arguably, the most famous Hollywood example of this film genre is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford. In the opening scene, the villain robbing the stagecoach is played by Lee Marvin, who proceeds to beat up with his silver-studded whip a mild-mannered lawyer from the East played by James Stewart. Of course, Stewart eventually gets his revenge with the help of John Wayne (his first major starring role in a film was the aptly named Stagecoach in 1939, also directed by Ford), the proto-typical Hollywood  Western actor.

The Hollywood depiction of events surrounding stagecoach transportation is more fanciful than reality, though the odd robbery did occur. 

Stagecoaches were an essential mode of transportation in era prior to the dominance of railways. And, stagecoaches were actually a phenomena which first come into existence in 17th-century Britain, not the Old West. When the stagecoach came to the New World, it first appeared in the 18th century in Eastern cities like Montreal, New York, Albany and Philadelphia. From the East, stagecoaches spread westward with the advancement of settlement.

The first permanent communities along the banks of the Red River were started in 1812 with the arrival of the Selkirk settlers, but it would be decades before a stagecoach would reach the region.

By the time of Manitoba’s entrance into Confederation in 1870, Winnipeg was on its way to becoming the commercial and social centre of the settlement. But, there were still only 30 structures, many of them “rickety-looking shanties that looked for all the world as if they had been dropped promiscuously on the verge of the boundless prairie,” according to journalist William James Healy, writing in his book Winnipeg’s Early Days.

Only a year later, on September 11, 1871, the first stagecoach came to town.

“On Monday night, another link connecting Manitoba more closely with the world without, was made, as manifested by the arrival of one of Messrs. Blakely & Carpenter’s stages, laden with ladies and gentlemen, right through from Morris, the terminus of the St. Paul and Minnesota Railway,” announced The Manitoban.

“None but those who live or have lived in the Province, can appreciate this event in all its fullness. Hitherto, we have been in a great measure isolated. As to time, reaching a railway was precarious in the extreme; and frequently the obtaining of locomotion of any kind was all but an impossibility. Now, however, thanks to to the enterprise of the Minnesota Stage Company, we are within five days’ travel from the terminus of a railway which can start us off to any part of the American continent. The stages will leave Winnipeg for Morris on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and will arrive on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. All success to the new enterprise.”

The writer was right, Winnipeg and Manitoba was virtually isolated from the outside world and especially Eastern Canada. 

A corduroy road, called the Dawson Trail, was being built to provide a connection with Eastern Canada by 1868 and was completed nearly three years later. Corduroy roads were so named because they were made up of logs. The trail linked Fort Garry with the waterways from the East that ended at the North-West Angle, Lake of the Woods. 

This 160-kilometre trail became infamous for its bone-jarring ride. “It was bump, bump, bang and squash and squash, bang and bump; now up now down, now all on one side, now on the other,” was how Mary Fitzgibbon described her journey via horse-drawn wagon on the Dawson Trail in her book,  A Trip to Manitoba.

A smoother ride came with the advent of steamboat travel. The first steamship, the Anson Northup, arrived from the U.S. in 1859, and others soon were plying the Red River from the south to the community, but this mode of transportation was spotty, depending entirely upon the flow of the river. 

Manitoba businessmen realized that in the absence of reliable all-season transportation, mass settlement of the virgin prairie and prosperity was virtually 

impossible.

“The lack of transportation facilities made the approach to the colony difficult, to say the least,” said Artibise.

An advertisement placed by F. Braun, the secretary of the federal Department of Public Works in Ottawa on April 1, 1871, in the Manitoba Liberal, demonstrated just how difficult it was for settlers to reach Fort Garry (Winnipeg) from Eastern Canada.

The rate for passage from Toronto to Fort Garry in the advertisement was $30 for adults and half price for children under 12. Travellers were restricted to 150 pounds of luggage, and anything over that weight cost and extra $1.50 per 100 pounds. “No horses, oxen, waggons (sic), or heavy farming implements can be taken.”

But, it was not so much the cost as the “mode of conveyance” which made the journey arduous — actually a downright test of endurance and survival skills. 

The advertisement give the distances and methods of transportation:

• “96 miles by Railway from Toronto to Collingwood.

• “532 miles by Steamer from Collingwood to Fort William (now Thunder Bay).

• “45 miles by Waggon (sic) from Fort William to Shebandowan Lake.

• “310 miles broken navigation in open boats from Shebandowan lake to North-West Angle (Minnesota) of the lake of the Woods.

• “95 miles by Cart or Waggon from North-West Angle, Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry.”

The advertisement further said: “Between Fort William and Fort Garry, huts and tents will be provided for the accommodation of Emigrants on the Portages. Passengers should take their own supplies. Provisions will, however, be furnished at cost price, at Shebandowan Lake, Fort Francis, and North-West 

Angle, Lake of the Woods.”

It’s no wonder that the community welcomed “another link connecting Manitoba more closely with the world without ...”

Another important feature of the stagecoach was for regular mail service. This important early means of delivering mail was commemorated on June 6, 1958 when a Wells-Fargo stagecoach pulled up to the city’s new $11.5-million downtown post office, disembarking were then Canadian post-master general William Hamilton, postmaster G.A. 

Foord, Manitoba Historical Society president Dr. Murray Campbell and CPR vice-president G.E. Mayne.

Stagecoach travel became a link to other communities within the province. Another advertisement in the Manitoba Liberal of June 15, 1872, gives rates and a schedule for travel between the Stone Fort (now Lower Fort Garry near Selkirk), St. Andrews, St. Paul, Kildonan and Fort Garry.

Stagecoaches left daily except on Sundays. A trip from the Stone Fort to Fort Garry cost $1.75 and return the same day was another $1.25. A trip from Kildonan to Fort Garry was 62.5 cents and return the same day was another 37.5 cents. These fares were quite a tidy sum for the time period. By comparison, fares today on a transit bus are relatively cheap: a regular adult fare is $1.85 to travel anywhere in Winnipeg.

During the summer months, the stagecoach was often taken from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the steamboat landing. Joseph James Hargrave, a fur trader and author, wrote in his book Red River, a history of the settlement during the 1860s, that he embarked on one such adventure to Fort Garry in the spring of 1861. (Written accounts of stagecoach travel are rare for Manitoba, so Hargrave’s book provides invaluable information about travel conditions on the prairies.)

“The stage or express line of coaches ran between St. Paul and Georgetown, a post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the upper waters of the Red River of the North (Georgetown is now a village of 107 people and is 23 kilometres north of Fargo, North Dakota, on the Minnesota side of the Red) and the settlement was the joint property of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Messrs. Burbank, the later being employed by the former as their freight agents,” wrote Hargrave.

“The stage line, besides the purposes served in carrying the mails, was much used by those traders who, not caring to travel by the slow conveyance of their own freight carts (Red River carts), the rate of of progress of which was about twenty miles a day, took passage in its coaches, and by travellers of various kinds whose business or pleasure took them westward.”

Hargrave said the distance between St. Paul and Georgetown was 300 miles and could be reached by stage in five days, “this accomplished by relays of horses stationed in postal establishments situated at intervals, varying from fifteen to twenty-five miles in extent, along the route.”

It should be noted that the situation of stations along a route in stages led to the name “stagecoach.” 

Hargrave said the stagecoach that greeted the travellers was “a capacious, comfortable old vehicle, constructed to contain nine inside, and, I think, three outside passengers. It was drawn by four horses.”

He added that for a five-day journey only during daylight hours such as he was undertaking, the choice of seat was not overly important, but that was not the case when travelling day and night on other routes for great lengths, “... the experienced traveller knows the value of of the slight head support afforded by the stuffed back and sides of the conveyance ... as the coach jolts and tumbles its way along a (corduroy road) ...”

Along the route, stops were made to change horses or to have a meal. Station-houses provided food which Hargrave described as being sometimes good and occasionally bad — pork and beans being a staple which was served at times with potatoes and some vegetables. He said that when they stopped at the house of a “Dutchman” on a solitary farm, “His house was miserable, but his fare was 

admirable.”

Stagecoach travel in the 1870s was the primary mode of communication with the south and north during the 

winter.

James Jerome Hill, a Canadian entrepeneur who settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, experienced the vagaries of winter travel via stagecoach. Hill is of interest in Manitoba history because of his business ties to Fort Garry and St. Paul. 

Travelling from St. Paul to Fort Garry  in February 1870 to investigate the effects of the disturbances in Red River under the leadership of Louis River, Hill caught a stagecoach at Breckenridge, Minnesota. The stage didn’t go all the way through to Fort Garry in 1870, but it did provide transportation on the American side of the border. 

Unfortunately for Hill and his fellow travellers, a winter snowstorm broke out and the passengers were forced to shovel out a route for the stage through gigantic snowdrifts. They also slept in snowdrifts each evening. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Hill then hired a dog team and guide for the remainder of the journey to the Red River Settlement.

In fact, stagecoach travel to Fort Garry and Winnipeg was sporadic at best because of weather and road conditions.

During the winter of 1872-73, stagecoach service was suspended because all the horses came down with epizootic, a nasty equine disease that swept across the continent, according to a report in the Manitoba Free Press from the era.

In another Free Press account of February 18, 1873, it was reported that “the stage, due Wednesday evening, didn’t arrive until Thursday noon, the delay caused by the driver at the south end, who, having taken too much hot water and sugar and stuff, contrived to lose his way.”

The implication of the article was that the driver was in fact drunk, since a following article said that the stage later in the month “settled down to sober regularity again.”

The April 12, 1873 Free Press, 

reported, “The stage arrived Thursday with a good load of passengers, baggage etc., but the roads are almost impassable. It having taken a week to accomplish the trip from Moorhead and 26 consecutive hours dragging through the mud of Pembina.”

Yet again, the Free Press told another tale of woe on May 6, 1873. “The stage which left here Sunday morning can’t be said to belong to the great unwashed, for when crossing the Assiniboine on the ferry pontoon, the whole concern, mail, passengers and all were precipitated into the river. The horses, breaking loose, swam ashore and the vehicle and contents were rescued with some difficulty.”

By 1875, the Minnesota company established daily service between Winnipeg and Moorhead (Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873). The Free Press reported that stages began to run day and night which improved mail and passenger service. Of course, the service was only improved for those passengers who could stomach the continual jarring.

“Recent arrivals on the stage report a pretty rough passage, sticking in the mud, ploughing through ice thick enough not to bear and swimming the horses across coulees being a few of the incidents which enliven the tedium of riding across our blooming prairies,” according to the Free Press of April 19, 1875.

The Free Press also reported th cost of a special journey made by Donald A. Smith, Hudson’s Bay Company director and Manitoba MP, who went from Winnipeg to Moorhead at a cost of $150. It appears that Smith made the journey in haste to catch a connecting train at Moorhead in order to get to a meeting in the East — the stagecoach line promised he would make it in time and he did. 

By 1874, a tri-weekly stagecoach service was established from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie and connections were made from there to other communities as settlements arose.

David Allan Cameron, who arrived at the White Mud River (Gladstone) on June 12, 1876, set up his own stagecoach company to serve the region which operated out of his self-named Cameron Hotel. The Cameron Coach left every Wednesday at 7 a.m. for the Little Saskatchewan area, arriving in Rapid City, Manitoba, on Friday evenings. The one-way cost of a trip to Rapid City was $5. His stagecoach business was augmented by a government contract to carry mail to the west. Even after his hotel burned down on June 17, 1885, Cameron continued to operate his stagecoach out of Gladstone, though he lived on a farm in nearby Livingstone District.

Other communities also received stagecoach service. For example, the stage out of McAuley ran twice a week on Tuesday and Friday, returning the next day.

George Winship, a newspaperman from Eastern Canada, left his mark on stagecoach travel from Breckenridge to Winnipeg. He first came to the Red River  in 1868 after being hired by John Christian Schultz, the owner of the Nor’Wester, to be the newspaper’s printer. It was Winship, who using subterfuge, managed to print the proclamation of proposed Manitoba lieutenant-governor William McDougall. The ill-fated lieutenant governor (he never would officially hold this post in Manitoba) had been stewing in Pembina after his entry into Manitoba was barred by the Metis during 1869-70.

Winship worked on the Nor’wester in Winnipeg for two years and then relocated to Pembina, where he met with William Budge, an American entrepreneur and future politician. The two formed a stagecoach company and erected a station on the Turtle River, some 14 miles from Grand Forks to accommodate passengers. Their business prospered, but Winship later sold his share of the company to Budge and relocated to St. Paul.

The greatest failure of stagecoach transportation in Manitoba came in 1877. A horse-drawn omnibus (stagecoach) opened for service between the old Customs Building at Main and 

McDermot and Point Douglas. The stagecoach started service on July 19 and shutdown the same day. 

“It was ahead of its time,” reported a local newspaper editorial.

By 1881, streetcars drawn by horses were providing public transit in Winnipeg, followed by electric-powered streetcars.

Stagecoaches actually were a brief mode of transportation from the south to Winnipeg, lasting only seven years.

Ira M. Carpenter seems to have anticipated the impending crisis. On March 10, 1878, a few months before the arrival of the first railway train in Winnipeg from the south, he began to shutdown the The Minnesota Stage Co. office.

The last mail via stage from the south arrived in Winnipeg on January 8, 1878 and the following morning the first mail by train left from St. Boniface. And, in 1881, the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway line came to Winnipeg and began to push westward. In the same year, the CPR reached Portage, Brandon and points beyond. The stagecoach era was effectively at an end in Manitoba.