by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The syndicate of proposed buyers of the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railway, which would form the basis of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway line, travelled to Minnesota in 1877 during a locust infestation. George Stephen, the president of the Bank of Montréal, was so alarmed by how the locusts had denuded the landscape that he wanted to back down from the deal, declaring the region to be too inhospitable to settlers, who were essential to the economic viability of the railway.
But when tens of people arrived at the tiny hamlet of De Graff’s rail station, Stephen became curious and asked for the reason behind their appearance. Jim Hill, another member of the syndicate, replied it was “but an instance of what is occurring along the whole railroad. This is a colony opened by Bishop Ireland one single year ago. Already the settlers brought in by the bishop are counted by the hundreds and hundreds of others are coming to join them from different parts of America and Europe. This is Sunday and the settlers are going to mass.”
Stephen was sufficiently impressed to change his opinion and agreed to help finance the railway.
Despite Hill’s assurances, it was more probable that the pious settlers were going to mass not to pray for more railroads, but for divine salvation from the locust plagues. In fact, Minnesota Governor John S. Pillsbury set aside April 26, 1877, as a special day of prayer to ask the Lord to smite the insect hordes.
At Cold Spring, Minnesota, in 1877, parishioners built Assumption Chapel, otherwise known as the “Grasshopper Chapel,” to secure heavenly relief from locusts.
In Manitoba, Thanksgiving Day, which had been annually marked by a provincial government proclamation since 1872, was cancelled in 1875. The locusts had killed off any justification for declaring a day of giving thanks for the harvest.
“There was, however, a day of ‘humiliation and prayer’ proclaimed on July 21, 1875, for the people of Manitoba to humble themselves and supplicate God to stay a locust plague of unprecedented proportions” (The History of Thanksgiving, by A. D. “Tony” Doerksen, Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975).
The locust plague destroyed so many crops of fresh vegetables north of Winnipeg that scurvy broke out. Dr. David Young, who practiced near present-day Selkirk, laboured day and night to alleviate the sufferings of those afflicted by the disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
A Toronto Globe editorial (reprinted in the August 27, 1875, Winnipeg Standard) said one grasshopper was not a formidable foe, but when “it comes in clouds; makes an attack upon every herb and every green thing ... one is lost in contemplation of an army” and “it becomes an object ... of fear.”
The insects became so formidable a foe that the Minnesota Legislature decided it had to draft a citizen army to battle the swarming hordes. It passed a law in 1877 requiring that all able-bodied men from 12 to 65 years old in every county be ready to gather locusts for at a least day. Failure to comply with the “grasshopper draft” could result in a fine from $2 to $10 or 10 days in jail.
In addition, Minnesota offered a bounty of $1 per bushel of locusts collected until May 25, after that date 50-cents before June 10, 25-cents between June 10 and July 1, and afterwards 20-cents a bushel until October 1, as by that time the locusts would have already done their damage. A bounty of 50-cents was offered at anytime for a gallon of locust eggs.
Each county was ordered by the state legislation to appoint a “measurer” of grasshoppers, who received the collected locusts, paid out the bounty and then destroyed the insects.
In Manitoba, the locust plague had abated by 1876, which allowed the first wheat to be exported from the province to the outside world. “We have great cause to thank the Almighty Giver ... (that) our land should be significantly blessed by abundant crops,” said the Free Press on September 16 in its annual crop report.
The newspaper reported that 480,000 bushels of wheat, 173,000 bushels of barley and 380,000 bushels of oats were harvested in 1876. Still, it was not sufficient to meet local needs and flour to make bread had to be imported from the U.S. It would be years before the Canadian Prairies became noted as the “Breadbasket of the World.”
Higgins, Young and Peebles, a Winnipeg store which sold everything from groceries to shoes and glassware, was commissioned by the Toronto seed company, Steele Bros., to collect seed wheat for shipment to Eastern Canada. Although an historic first, the Winnipeg retailer was only able to gather 857 bushels of wheat for its eastern customer.
While the locusts continued for two more years to plague Minnesota and the Dakota Territories immediately south of U.S.-Canada border, swarms failed to arrive in Manitoba during this period. And with the passing of 1878, the locusts had even ceased pillaging American farms, having disappeared from the landscape.
Actually, the reign of the object of fear and dread on the plains was by this time becoming quite tenuous. Just three decades later, a species that had once numbered in the hundreds of millions and destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops (the U.S. government calculated that in 1874 alone, $56 million in crops had been wiped out, or $1.12 billion today) went extinct.
Norm Criddle, a Manitoba naturalist and nature painter, was probably the last person to actually collect live Rocky Mountain locusts. On July 19, 1902, the young Treesbank farmer collected a male and female Melanoplus spretus (the scientific name for the locust) found on his father’s (Percy Criddle) estate. Half a century later, the two species found their way to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
The only other locusts that have since been recovered are specimens previously frozen in Rocky Mountain glaciers that emerged in recent years following thaws. Some of the specimens can be dated back to several hundred years ago, proving that the Rocky Mountain locust had periodically swarmed well before Europeans arrived on the Great Plains. Not surprisingly, aboriginal lore includes tales about locusts.
Scientists and farmers had become so accustomed to the periodic appearance of the insect that they refused to believe Criddle’s specimens were the last examples of the Rocky Mountain locust. For years after 1902, grasshoppers, a close relative, were mistaken for locusts when they appeared in large numbers. In fact, newspaper reports well into the 1930s were still mistakenly referring to grasshopper infestations as being perpetrated by Rocky Mountain locusts.
But with the extinction of the locust, grasshoppers were only filling an ecological niche abandoned by the other insect species when it went missing.
“There is somewhat of a mystery surrounding this insect at the present time which may, indeed, never be solved,” wrote Criddle after not seeing a live locust for 15 years. “We know that its breeding grounds once extended over a very wide area, much of this being classed as permeant by (Charles Valentine) Riley (a U.S. government entomologist) and others who investigated the plague at that time.”
In his book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (2004), Jeffrey A. Lockwood wrote that scientists believed the insect was hiding out in some remote corner of the continent and was prepared to emerge when the conditions were right.
It was known from the earliest days that the homeland of the locust species was the high dryland valleys on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains — hence its name — in Canada and the U.S. The absence of locusts was merely the result of them biding their time in some undetected location. Most scientists believed the locust would eventually erupt from their hiding places and once again wreak havoc across the plains.
It actually took several decades for scientists to finally agree that the Rocky Mountain locust had vanished altogether from the face of the earth, Lockwood added.
But as late as the 1960s, it was still speculated that the locust could return. In a June 24, 1961, Associated Press article entitled, Will the Locust Come Again? Warren G. Magnusson wrote that entomologists refused to accept that the locust was extinct. “Modern experts feel certain that a time will come when new swarms will again range over the fields they once denuded,” he wrote.
According to American entomologist Lockwood, the Rocky Mountain locust is the only species of pest to become extinct in the 11,000-year history of agriculture on planet Earth.
Essentially, locusts are grasshoppers on steroids. Grasshoppers are local pest species that seem to, but don’t, swarm due to population explosions during times of plenty — there is just more of them hopping around. Nymphs of grasshoppers look like tiny adult grasshoppers and grew into, well, grasshoppers, while locust nymphs can physically change under the right conditions and then turn into a species that takes flight and swarms.
In normal years, locusts are solitary creatures, but when an abundance of food is present, they breed until their numbers explode. If a drought follows a year of plenty and crowding and competition arise, females begin to lay eggs that hatch into insects predisposed to aggregating rather a solitary existence. The constant jostling and increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs results in an increase in levels of serotonin. This causes the locust to change colour, eat much more — the equivalent of their own body weight each day — and breed more easily.
The transformation of the locust from the aggregating to swarming variety is induced by several contacts per minute over a two- to four-hour period (Stephen M. Rogers, Thomas Matheson, Emma Despland, Timothy Dodgson, Malcolm Burrows and Stephen J. Simpson, Journal of Experimental Biology, 2003).
“Locusts not only behave differently to grasshoppers, but along with that come transformations in physiology and, more spectacularly, in their color, size, and shape” (interview with Lockwood, Days of the Locust, Insects, Spring 2007). The changes make the locust a migrating winged insect.
While there are many winged species of grasshoppers, most of these are only capable of unorganized individual short flights — some winged species don’t even bother to fly — but locusts take to the air in swarms and can travel as one gigantic super-organism for upwards of 320 kilometres a day.
Lockwood referred to the locust’s ability to change as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of thing.”
“For locusts, crowding means an impending famine, and migrating into the unknown is preferable to sure starvation,” wrote Lockwood in his book.
The insects can also reverse the transformation. Females lay eggs predisposed to a scattered existence when nature causes locust numbers to decline and there is less crowding.
The spectacle of millions of flying insects darkening the sky, as well as their ability to munch their way across the prairies, fascinated — as well as terrified — early Canadian explorers and residents alike.
On August 1, 1857, John Palliser, who led an expedition to explore the prairies from 1857 to 1860, noted as his party forded the Pembina River that the insects were picked up in a breeze and then “began to fall as thickly as snow. The locust cloud had now passed to the south-east, and by the action of the opposing wind had formed into a massive bank, passing from which we observed several pillars like waterspouts, two of these were especially fine, and one had a curious twist about halfway up, as if the centrifugal force was tending to overcome the columnar shape.”
Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the North West Company, wrote in his journal on August 17, 1800, that at Grand Marais along Lake Winnipeg, “the beach was covered by grasshoppers (locusts) which had been thrown up by the waves and formed one continuous line as far as the eye could reach, in some places from six to eight inches deep in a state of putrefaction, which occasioned a horrid stench.”
Eight years later on June 15, he again wrote of a swarm of locusts, “generally in clouds from the South” that “spread destruction: the very trees are stripped of their leaves. Grasshoppers pass northward until millions are drowned in Lake Winipic (Winnipeg) and cause a horrid stench.”
The Free Press on August 7, 1874, reported a similar scene, but at Lake Manitoba, where the locusts were half a metre thick on its beaches and released a putrid odour into the air as their bodies decomposed.
In their nymph stage and confined to hopping and walking, locusts were observed to hop to the edge of streams and rivers, cast themselves into the water and form a bridge that succeeding insects used to cross to the other side. With aggregates numbering in the millions, if not billions, it is not difficult to image this actually happening.
James W. Taylor, the U.S. consul in Winnipeg, writing to the Winnipeg-based Manitoban (published in the newspaper on August 22, 1874), said the Red River Settlement had “years of suffering and exemption” from locusts, since it was established by Lord Selkirk in 1812.
He wrote that “the locusts have appeared in 1818 and 1819 (actually the locusts continued into 1820), then a long interval to 1857-8, next in 1864-5, doing slight injury; in 1867-8, the famine year; in 1869-70; in 1872-73, and now in 1874, with the probability that the ova (eggs) deposited will threaten the crops of 1875.”
As it turned out, the forecast by Taylor of impending peril in 1875 was correct.
The infestations in 1818 and 1819 nearly brought an end to the fledgling colony at Red River, which had already been plagued by early frosts killing crops and having what little grain remaining burned by pillaging Nor’Westers and their Métis confederates, who hoped to drive the unwanted agriculturalists from the district.
“On several occasions clouds of these destructive insects have visited Red River,” wrote George Bryce, who came to Winnipeg in 1871, in his history of the province, “and their ravages are not only serious, but they paralyze all effort on the part of husbandmen. The description given by the prophet Joel was precisely reproduced on the banks of the Red River, ‘the land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them is a desolate wilderness; yes, and nothing shall escape them (locusts) ...’
“In the next year they sowed their scanty seed, but the young ‘grass-hoppers,’ as they were called, rose from the eggs deposited in the previous year, and while the wheat was in the blade, cleared it from the fields more thoroughly than any reaper could have done. This scourge continued ’till the spring of 1821, when the locusts disappeared suddenly, and the crop of that year was a bountiful one.”
Alexander Macdonnell, the HBC governor of the Red River Settlement, who became known to history as the “grasshopper governor,” wrote that the spring of 1819 was at first favourable to planting, but when the settlers began to sow their seeds, millions of locusts emerged from the ground from eggs that had been laid in the previous year. The settlers persevered and continued their seeding, and at first the locusts did little damage.
“Upon the 12th of May we had a fine appearance (of plants), when, all of a sudden, they (locusts) increased to such number and gained such strength that all the crop above the ground was eaten up so bare, that no vestige could be seen.”
The crops were devoured by locust nymphs that had yet to develop into adults and gain the ability to fly. It wasn’t until mid-July that the transformation got underway, and “they began to fly in millions in a southern direction, still leaving those that were too young to fly, and these continued to destroy everything.”
Bishop Alexander-Antonin Taché in his book, Sketch of the North-West America (1869), wrote that too often locusts swarmed upon the settlement, “and their serried squadrons are devouring phalanxes that do not hesitate to starve the poor settler.”
(Next week: part 4)