The Heritage Highlights section of our newspaper has recently been focusing on the ferry crossing between Winnipeg and St. Boniface, noting that, “Winnipeg came to life as a child of its two major rivers — the Red and Assiniboine.”
Actually, our province can similarly be termed a child of its waterways, as throughout the history of Manitoba, rivers have been the highways of travel and commerce. They have also been a source of drinking water and have provided a plentiful food supply in the form of fish, fowl and fur-bearing animals.
The people who inhabited this province before the arrival of Europeans, located their seasonal camps and more permanent settlements along rivers and lakes to take advantage of their abundance. Lockport is of particular importance in unravelling the history of First Nations people who lived in Manitoba before Europeans penetrated the interior of the continent. The archaeological record uncovered over the years shows that Lockport and the Red River region were favoured settlement areas.
The first evidence of pre-contact agricultural practices in Manitoba is 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 civilizations of the Americas, including the Mayans and the Aztecs.
Corn was apparently a staple in the area from about AD 1200 to 1500. The diet of the people living at Lockport was further supplemented by the fish found in the Red River and by the animals that visited its banks as well as locally occurring wild plants.
The growing of corn only ceased when the climate took a turn for the worse, and what is typically a crop grown in more southern latitudes failed to thrive.
The Red was also the super highway to the 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 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.
When Europeans arrived in Manitoba, they also used the province’s rivers and lakes as their highways. Waterways were essential to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, who employed hardy Canadian voyageurs to convey trade goods and furs.
Well fed, the voyageurs were capable of extraordinary feats of strength. NWC fur trader Duncan McGillivray in his journal said when the Athabaska and Saskatchewan brigades meet at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, a challenge was issued to race the full length of Lake Winnipeg.
“They entered the lake at sunset, the one animated with the expectation of victory and the other resolved, if possible not to be vanquished. They pursued the voyage with unremitting efforts without any considerable advantage on either side for 48 hours during which they did not once put ashore ’till at length, being entirely overcome with labour, they mutually agreed to camp ... and cross the rest of the lake together ... On the second night of the contest one of the steersmen being overpowered with sleep fell out of the stern of his canoe which being under sail advanced a considerable distance before the people could recover from the confusion that this accident occasioned ...”
The man was rescued by his own crewmen, although the others in the brigades didn’t stop being still intent upon the race. The eventual victor remains a matter of speculation since McGillivray failed to mention a winner.
The waterways were also paramount to the era of permanent colonization, which commenced along the Red with the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers in 1812. The highways provided by the rivers and lakes of the province were the only means for the settlers to remain in touch with the outside world and receive much needed goods.
The importance of the Red was further emphasized when the first steamboat arrived. The Anson Northup chugged up the Red and arrived at The Forks after an 800-kilometre, four-day journey at 1:30 p.m. on June 10, 1859. The captain’s loud blasts on the vessel’s steam whistle signalled the beginning of freight and passenger travel by steamboat on the Red.
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.”
The steamboat era ended in 1909, but the rivers of southern Manitoba didn’t lose their significance, though their role would change. Today, The Forks is a major tourism attraction in Winnipeg. Without the Assiniboine and Red meeting at The Forks, thousands of people would not be stirred to visit the area every year, and millions of dollars would be lost to the local economy.
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 so many American anglers come to fish the Red, pumping cash into the pockets of local guides and the economy as a whole. In recognition of the fishery’s value to its community, Selkirk erected the sculpture nicknamed “Charlie the Catfish.”
To further emphasize the importance of the Red today, the multi-million dollar Waterfront Drive development in Winnipeg is only attractive to investors because of its location alongside the River.
In the end, it’s almost impossible to overstate the value of Manitoba’s waterways — past and present — to the provincial economy.