by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
When he first viewed the Sault la Biche (Deer Rapids), North West Company fur trader Alexander Henry was quite impressed by the bounty of the land surrounding the rapids. On August 16, 1800, after passing by canoe through the central channel of the Red River Delta and travelling upstream on the river, he eventually encountered the churning waters of what would later be renamed the St. Andrews Rapids. At the head of the rapids, “where there is a beautiful plain upon the west shore, which is more elevated than that of the east, formally the Crees and Assiniboines were accustomed to assemble in large camps to wait the arrival of the traders.”
Early accounts mention the numerous fish in the rapids: shoals of whitefish swam in its current, as did sturgeon, catfish, pike, pickerel and goldeye. The fast-moving water of the 16-kilometre-long rapids provided ideal spawning grounds for fish. The Cree word Kenosewun (there are many fishes) is now applied to the area.
On the adjacent land, moose, red deer, bears, muskrats, beaver, rabbit, wolves and foxes abounded, and vast herds of bisons used the shallowness of the water at the rapids to cross the Red River. In turn, aboriginals were attracted to the rapids by the abundance of fish and game.
Periodic floods spread fertile silt over the land, enabling the adjoining land to produce plenty of hazelnuts, wild cherries, raspberries and strawberries to be harvested. Pre-European native farmers, the first known on the Canadian prairies, used the fertility of the land to their advantage. Archaeological evidence from excavations at Lockport revealed that aboriginal people planted and harvested corn along the river in AD 1400.
But where aboriginal hunters found plenty, the later promoters of commerce saw only wild water that had to be tamed.
Winnipeg dealers complained that wood from along the shores of Lake Winnipeg was increased in cost due to the inability to ship freight over the entire length of the Red River from Lake Winnipeg to the city due to the rapids. A September 22, 1897, front page cartoon in the Daily Nor’Wester, showed a cord of wood selling in Selkirk for just $1.50 to $2, while the same cord of wood sold for $4.50 to $6 in Winnipeg.
The same newspaper on April 13, 1894, quoted a city wood dealer complaining that the arrival of spring meant the road to Selkirk would be impassable due to prairie gumbo. “‘By he way,’ he continued, ‘I have not seen or heard anything about the St. Andrews Rapids scheme (to build a dam and locks) since (Manitoba Attorney-General) Joe Martin went gunning to Ottawa. Nothing appeared on the (federal government) estimates (budget) of the year about it, and it looks as if it were to be left over for another period. Till that improvement takes place, Winnipeg can have no cheap wood.’”
The nearly three-metre drop of the rapids was only barely passable by boats at times of extremely high water; that is, during spring flooding, but such inundations of water were extremely bad news for the people residing in the vicinity. While skilled paddlers in shallow-draft canoes could “shoot the rapids,” frequently, the rapids were a deadly trap for heavier craft such as steamboats. The Winnipeg Daily Sun on May 20, 1884, reported that “the Steamer Colville is stuck fast on the St. Andrews Rapids.”
At a joint meeting of the Winnipeg Board of Trade (today’s chamber of commerce) and city council, resolutions were passed calling for construction of a lock and dam at the St. Andrews Rapids to have Mayor Richard Jameson and businessman James Ashdown meet with Joseph-Israel Tarte, the federal minister of public works, to convince him of the need to tame the rapids (Daily Nor’Wester, October 21, 1896). Tarte and his departmental engineer, Louis Coste were scheduled to soon arrive in the city.
Tarte visited the rapids in the company of local politicians and Winnipeg businessmen, but he seems to have only regarded it as a pleasant drive out into the countryside and didn’t make a firm commitment to press the matter in Ottawa.
In 1896, an attempt was made to dredge the rapids, but it proved futile. The failure reinforced the belief that the only real solution to making the rapids navigable was the construction of a dam and locks.
At a meeting of city council on February 9, 1898, Alderman (councillor) H. Wilson claimed that a reliable source had told him “that Winnipeg was depleting the whole country around of its wood.” The same source said only by making improvements at St. Andrews Rapids could the city be assured of obtaining a “secure supply.”
On February 25, 1898, Winnipeg Mayor Alfred Andrews, Winnipeg MLA Col. Daniel McMillan and board of trade secretary Charles Bell were in Ottawa attempting to convince Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier of the need to build a dam and locks at St. Andrews Rapids. The prime minister, according to local newspapers, was “non-committal.”
The board of trade emphasized its position by passing a motion on February 1, 1898: “That this Board would again respectfully and strongly urge upon the Dominion Government the carrying through at the earliest possible date, the improvement of the navigation of the Red River at St. Andrews Rapids, as a matter of general interest and paramount importance, and that the City Council be requested to act with the Board.”
The council complied with this request, sending a telegram to Laurier outlined that the council had passed a motion “to petition your Government for improvements to secure seven foot draft, low water, to Winnipeg, including power dam and delivery of power at Winnipeg by electricity.” The telegram was sent to Ottawa by Mayor Alfred Andrews.
The call to generate electrical power at the St. Andrews Rapids became a non-starter when the city decided to finance a hydro-electric power dam at Pointe du Bois Falls on the Winnipeg River, which was begun in 1906 and completed in 1911
“When Hon. Mr. Tarte came here he was favourable to the improvement,” said Martin at the annual meeting of Winnipeg Liberal Association (Morning Telegram, October 20, 1898, “and this work was therefore expected by everyone from the party. The interests of the city and the province were for the improvement of the rapids. Who, then, were against it? The C.P.R. The West had a representative in the cabinet, and the C.P.R. had a representative in the cabinet and these positions were filled by the same man. Whatever the West did was undone by a whisper in the cabinet.”
Martin had placed the blame for the inaction on the shoulders of Brandon MP Sir Clifford Sifton, who was the minister of the interior in the Laurier Liberal government.
The thought in Winnipeg was that rural Manitobans were against the dam and locks as the project allegedly would only benefit the city. There was some truth to this assertion, as it was Winnipeg businessmen who looked wistfully upon the many natural resources surrounding Lake Winnipeg, as well as the large fishery it contained, imagining the massive profits they could earn, if the means were at hand to exploit the bounty, which could only be realized when the rapids were tamed.
The call for improvements to navigation over the St. Andrews Rapids went unanswered by whatever party was in power. Prior to the Liberals becoming the ruling party in Ottawa, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was equally evasive on the issue. During a visit to the rapids, a Daily Nor’Wester reporter asked, “I suppose that you are convinced that the Red River should be made navigable to Selkirk?”
According to the article published on September 14, 1895, the prime minister replied, “I haven’t said so, I hope.”
The issue become so important to Winnipeg, regardless of party affiliation, that a motion was passed at the 1898 Liberal association meeting urging Winnipeg MP Richard Jameson “to press the construction of the St. Andrews Rapid improvements at the next session (of the House of Commons).”
In a July 7, 1899, editorial, the labour-oriented The Voice said the local Liberal and Conservative parties both used the proposed St. Andrews Rapids dam and lock as a political plank. “To remove it by constructing the works would be like taking a bone from two dogs who have been quarreling and snarling for a long time ... But setting aside the party aspect of the question, if the scheme is a good one and calculated to benefit Winnipeg and the province generally (which we believe) we may fairly ask why is not an appropriation made and the work begun?”
The pressure exerted in Ottawa finally paid off when the Laurier government announced $200,000 had been set aside in the federal budget for the project and tenders were being sought. The total cost of the three-year project was pegged at $469,000. Notices began to appear in local newspapers for “sealed tenders ... for Lock and Dam, St. Andrews Rapids, Red River,” that were to be received in Ottawa by July 16, 1900.
Two days later, the contract was awarded to Kelly Bros. of Winnipeg, a construction firm headed by Thomas Kelly. It was reported that Kelly had purchased a steam shovel for excavations at the rapids and needed to hire about 200 men to undertake the work.
Actually, Kelly had begun preparatory work at the rapids before the federal contract was awarded with funds provided by the Manitoba government. Boulders were pulled from the river by workers, but with Ottawa funding the full project, the work was expected to begin in earnest in the spring of 1901.
From the beginning, Kelly struggled to fulfill his contractual obligations, as the task was more difficult to accomplish than originally conceived. In addition, the actual design of the dam and locks was far from finalized.
While Kelly expressd confidence that the project would be completed within three years, he was soon asking for changes to help the Winnipeg firm’s progress, which was minimal at best.
In addition, the work site was plagued by outbreaks of smallpox and thyroid among the workers, many of whom died. Other workers perished in industrial accidents, such as being crushed during excavations and drowning during periods of high water.
Construction of the dam involved primarily manual labour with men using picks, shovels and wheelbarrels, as well as horses drawing scrappers, wagons and slushers. Later, the government would question whether Kelly had sufficient machinery to complete the project.
The Lockport site was chosen for the dam and lock as there was a long bend at the river, which made it possible to cut a channel through the adjacent land in order to build the lock to bypass the dam. As well there was a natural fault in the rock strata, resulting in the ground being higher and giving easier access to the bedrock below for footings.
According to the terms of the contract, the locks were to be completed by July 19, 1903, although little progress had actually been made. The Voice on May 29, 1903, contained a speech in the House of Commons by Tarte, the former federal minister of public works who had been responsible for setting the terms of the project, claiming the contract bid had been too low. “I do not know what induced him to take that contract at the price he named,” said Tarte. “His tender was a regular one, he made a deposit and I signed the contract.”
Since the contract was too low, Tarte said Kelly company officials soon began asking for changes. “They stated that in their opinion it was better to have stone than concrete. Of course anybody who knows anything abut works of that kind is aware that concrete is better than stone in that climate. I declined to make the change.”
Tarte said he was willing to ask the new minister of public works to return Kelly’s deposit if he decided to give up the contract, “although in the ordinary course of business, we should confiscate it.”
By this time, there was talk of expanding the project by adding a bridge and a hydro-electric generating plant.
William McCreary, the MP for Selkirk, told the House that the proposed new additions to the project meant that if the project was too low at $100,000, it was too low at $200,000.
Arthur Puttee, the first Labour MP elected to the House of Commons, said the project was in the same position as it was a year earlier, and feared that would be the same state of affairs in the following year. In fact, Kelly had only received $28,045 since signing the contract three years earlier, which indicated little work had been performed at St. Andrews.
The Winnipeg Labour MP urged the minister of public works to take action to complete the project.
Public Works Minister James Sutherland announced that an investigation would be made into the St. Andrews Rapids project and when completed the findings would be disclosed in the House of Commons.
During an interview with the Free Press, published July 13, 1903, McCreary said a federal engineer would be coming to “look into the question of the St. Andrews Rapids locks with the idea of so changing the plans that a bridge may be put up across the river suitable for street railway traffic as well as for passenger travel or railway purposes. If it is found possible a dam may be so constructed as too generate water power.”
By this time, the federal government was coming to the realization that Kelly & Bros was incapable of completing the project, as work had come to a virtual standstill. In November 1903, Ottawa announced it was taking over the contract and would finish the project. Despite Ottawa’s intervention, the project was virtually at a standstill over the succeeding months.
“Another year has passed,” reported The Voice on January 15, 1904, “and very little progress had been made on the St. Andrews Rapid improvement.”
At a Winnipeg Liberal Association meeting on October 11, 1904, attended by Brandon MP Sifton and Winnipeg MP D.W. Bole, the question of St. Andrews Rapids dam and locks resulted in one of the more bold — if not daring under the circumstances —promises ever to be made in Manitoba political history.
“I want to make a promise to you,” said Bole, “and that is that if the improvements at St. Andrews Rapids are not sufficiently progressed within a period of two years I will resign my seat ... I can assure you that these works will be finished within the period of my parliamentary term.”
The Telegram, a newspaper opposed to the Liberal government in Ottawa, reporting a day after the meeting, claimed Bole’s announcement was greeted by both applause and laughter. The newspaper said Bole was the “latest actor to take one of the parts in the St. Andrews rapid lock comedy.”
It was also possible that the construction delay resulted from a federal public works department being in a state of flux. First, Tarte was dismissed from the cabinet in 1903 for opposing the Liberal policy of reciprocity (free trade) with the U.S. Sutherland, the next MP appointed by Laurier to head the department, became ill and as a result resigned his seat and died two years later. From 1903-04, Charles Hyman was temporary head of the department as a minister without portfolio, and was given the cabinet post in 1905. After just two years as the public works minister, Hyman was forcd to resign due to an election scandal, and was then replaced by William Pugsley.
In 1905, the federal government appointed the Montréal construction firm of Quinlan and Robertson to complete the project.
The April 11, 1906, Telegram reported Hyman said $115,743 had by then been spent on the St. Andrews locks and the government intended to push the completion of the project. When asked, Hyman said he was unaware of Bole’s promise two year earlier that the Winnipeg MP would resign his seat if the project wasn’t completed by 1906. By this time, Bole was far removed from the local battle to complete the improvements at the rapids as he was then living in Montréal, although he remained a Winnipeg MP in the House of Commons until 1911.
On July 24, 1906, Bole announced that work would recommence on the St. Andrews Rapids the following month, and would cost $1 million and take three years to complete.
The task was amplified in difficulty by the plan to construct a “unique” Caméré dam with the ability to open many wooden curtains (gates) on short notice to control water levels. The design was invented by French engineer M. Caméré, and while many such dams were built in 19th-century Western Europe, it would be the first of its kind in North America.
Montréal architect H.E. Vantelet was sent to Europe to find a solution to the constant difficulties posed by the strong currents that hindered construction. After viewing the operation of a Caméré dam on the Seine River in France, he modified the design to suit the conditions in Manitoba. The jinal drawing of the dam were in place by 1907.
As work progressed, the project captured the imagination of people living on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, which culminated in the sailing of the Grand Forks to Winnipeg in 1909, the first steamer from the south to make the journey in 28 years. The Free Press reported the steamer pulled up to the Norwood Bridge on June 7 at 6 o’clock in the evening. The vessel was originally scheduled to dock at the foot of Lombard Avenue at the Pioneer Navigation Company wharf, but it could go no further as “through some misunderstanding no person was on hand to swing the Norwood bridge.”
“Navigation open for a thousand miles in the interior of the continent,” announced the article published a day after the North Dakota arrived. “That is what the present interest in the Red River trip means — a steamer route from Grand Forks to Norway House — international in its character and doing for Manitoba and North Dakota what the Mississippi does for the states along its shores. It means the handling of non-perishable goods on which low handling tariffs are the main consideration, and which, if it is proved feasible, may develop into one of the great trade routes of the west.”
The article claimed the success of the inland waterway depended entirely on the completion of the dam and lock at St. Andrews Rapids.
The same article predicted “that within a decade Winnipeg’s water front will be one of the show pieces of the city.”
(Next week: part 2)