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Heritage river
Jun 22, 2007

Winnipeg’s first industrial-age connection to the outside world was via the Red River. On June 10, 1859, the shrill whistle of a steamboat was heard for the first time as the Anson Northup pulled into the dock at Upper Fort Garry.

It was reported that children screamed and dogs barked, the bells at St. Boniface Cathedral rang out in celebration. The commander of the local militia ordered the firing of cannon to honour the momentous event in the Red River Settlement’s history.

Until the advent of rail travel, steamboats would rule the Red and bring much needed goods from the south.

On May 8, 1875, the Manitoba Free Press reported that 11 steamers and tugs stirred “up the mud in front of Winnipeg this year.” The levee in front of Lombard Avenue was the busiest area of the city that summer.” 

Two years earlier, the same newspaper reported: “One evening this week we strolled along the bank of the noble Red River and were astonished to find the levee transformed into one long business street. The responsibility for this scale of affairs rests with the proprietors of the flatboats which, from the steamboat landing to near the immigrant shed (at The Forks) present an unbroken string of floating merchandise, in some instances two or three tier deep. These swimming shops are replete with all sorts of articles — groceries, hardware, crockery, provisions, lumber and building materials. Here, in one, you will find conglomerate barrels of green apples and building paper, sugar and cut nails, sacks of oats and packages of confectionary, dried fruit and tobacco.”

In the days of steamboats, tugs and barges, Winnipeg was known as a “port city.” This designation may seem amusing to us today, but that’s exactly what it was in the late 1800s, in the same manner as St. Paul-Minneapolis, St. Louis or New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River. The Red was the lifeblood of the community and Winnipeg’s status as a port arose from this fact. 

Well before the Anson Northup signalled a new era in Winnipeg, the Red was an important waterway. Fur traders built forts Gibraltar, Douglas and Garry along its banks and Lord Selkirk chose it as the central location of the settlement he founded in 1812.

The discovery of ancient human artifacts along the Red River near Lockport and at The Forks serves as a reminder of its importance to Manitoba throughout the ages. 

Throughout the history of Manitoba, the Red has been the highway of travel and commerce. The people who inhabited the region before the arrival of Europeans located their seasonal camps and more permanent settlements along the Red to take advantage of their abundance. The archaeological record uncovered over the years shows that Lockport and the Red River region was a favoured settlement area. 

The first evidence of pre-contact agri- cultural practices in Manitoba are traced to Lockport. The native people who chose to live along the shores of the Red River near Lockport grew corn (maize), the very crop that allowed the building of the great pre-European civilizations of the Americas, including Mayan and the Aztec. 

The diet of the people living at Lockport was further supplemented by the fish found in the Red River, the animals that visited its banks and locally occurring wild plants. 

The Red was this province’s first super highway, linking  south and north as well as the west via the Assiniboine River which flows into the Red at The Forks. It was a major artery of the aboriginal trade route that brought flint from North Dakota, native copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, obsidian from Wyoming and pipestone from southern Minnesota, all of which were worked into tools, ornaments and weapons. 

The Red played a pivotal role in the exploration, settlement and development of Winnipeg and numerous communities along its banks. The benefits bestowed upon Manitoba — past and present — by the Red was finally recognized earlier this month when the waterway was declared a part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. A special ceremony was held at The Forks to celebrate the designation. Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers called the celebration the biggest fur trading party since 1821, because a canoe brigade headed by an actor playing famous explorer and fur trader David Thompson had arrived at the site.

“Having the Red River as a Canadian heritage river encourages co-operation and development on many fronts by helping to conserve the river’s cultural and natural values, and by encouraging recreational use of the river,” added Struthers. “It will also increase awareness of the river’s heritage and tourism values, locally, nationally and internationally.”

Today, The Forks is a major tourism attraction in Winnipeg, where thousands of people visit the area every year, and contribute millions of dollars to the local economy. Each year, tourists enjoy cruises down the Red and water taxi rides — when the weather and water level co-operate — shuttling them up and down the Red and Assiniboine rivers. 

Thousands more travel to Lockport where the area around the dam is a prime angling spot. The channel catfish caught in the Red River are famous throughout North America for their size and fighting prowess. But they are just one of many species which make the Red an angler’s paradise. In the fall, the river is noted for its “greenbacks” —  pickerel (walleye), obviously named for their colour — which are found in the  river in plentiful numbers. Both channel  cats and pickerel are a reason American anglers come in great numbers to fish the Red, putting cash into the pockets of local guides and the economy as a whole. 

In recognition of the fishery’s benefit to the community, Selkirk has erected a sculpture of “Chuck the Catfish.” 

The multi-million dollar Waterfront Drive development in Winnipeg is attractive to investors because of its location alongside the river.

Thousands of years of history show just how greatly Manitobans are indebted to the Red River’s presence. Keeping this in mind, it is important to nurture the Red River as a sustainable resource and a substantial contributor to the local economy which is significantly enhanced by its new status as a heritage river.