The Red River happens to be blessed with some of the best recreational angling opportunities in our province. Its waters are filled with monster catfish, greenback pickerel (walleye) in the fall, sauger, freshwater drum, silver bass, and a multitude of other fish species waiting to nibble on a baited hook.
With such plentiful fish available for anglers, the Manitoba Real Association had a good reason to hold its annual fishing derby on a stretch of the river between Lockport and Netley Creek. The derby is in support of MREA’s Shelter Foundation, which raises funds for charitable organizations that support shelter-related causes that improve the quality of life of Manitobans. This year the fishing derby raised $6,000 for the Shelter Foundation.
But for myself, there was more involved in the derby than just enjoying a pleasant day of fishing fun on a sunny, warm day in support of a great cause. It became a journey through history on one of Canada’s most historically significant rivers.
Our four-person derby team left the Royal Manitoba Yacht Club and Marina in Middlechurch in the 23-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser owned and piloted by Chris Wilks of the Prolific Group around 7:20 a.m. on September 23. My other fishing partners were Warren Shalay, also of Prolific, and Ron Nebre, the general manager of the Real Estate News. Middlechurch is noted as the site of the Red River Settlement’s second Anglican Church, St. Paul’s, which was opened in January 1825 and stands along the bank of the Red River about 16 kilometres from Winnipeg. Although the route from Middlechurch in the RM of West St. Paul to the Lockport locks is now dotted with some of the most spectacular — and expensive — homes to been seen outside the city limits, it is not hard to imagine the era over a century ago when the boats used to tranverse the Red were more primitive conveyances, such as canoes, York boats and wooden skiffs, propelled by paddles or oars or sails, whenever possible. On the morning of our journey downriver, there was hardly a hint of a air movement, so any unfurled sail would have been hard-pressed to catch a breeze.
The approach to Lockport is now easily navigable, but there was a time when 16 kilometres of rapids made the passage hazardous to river traffic. In fact, the nearly three-metre drop of the rapids was only barely passable by boats at times of extremely high water during times of spring floods. The rapids were frequently a deadly trap for steamboats. The Winnipeg Daily Sun on May 20, 1884, reported that the “the steamer Colville is stuck fast on the St. Andrews Rapids.”
In 1896, an attempt was made to dredge the rapids, but it proved to be futile. With this failure, Winnipeg city council sent a telegram to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier that it had passed a motion “to petition your Government for improvements to secure seven foot draft, low water, to Winnipeg ...”
The federal government approved an initial $200,000 and in 1901 tenders were sought “for Lock and Dam, St. Andrews Rapids, Red River.” But with changing plans over the years and construction difficulties — building the Caméré dam, the first of its kind in North America, proved to be one of the more difficult undertakings — the project would not be completed for a decade.
While under construction, the St. Andrews dam and locks became a popular destination for excursionists, who paid 45-cents from Winnipeg and return for a two-hour stay to view the progress made on what had earlier been referred to as “Kelly’s Hole.” The nickname arose from Winnipeg contractor Thomas Kelly’s inability to make any discernible progress, forcing the Canadian government to take over the project.
The first segment of the St. Andrews Rapids project to be completed was the bridge and the 270-metre-long dam. The bridge supported the moveable dam of Caméré curtains that were raised and lowered by electrically-powered cranes.
The nearly 70-metre-long, 13.7-metre-wide lock was filled and drained using gravity. In 20 minutes — about the same time it still takes today — the lock could be filled with water to accommodate vessels of up to about 1,600 tonnes.
As we neared the locks, I began to visualize the thousands who gathered to witness the official opening of the locks on July 14, 1910, by William Pugsley, the federal minister of public works, with Prime Minister Laurier among the officials gathered for the celebration. The official party arrived at the locks aboard the Winnitoba. Only those receiving special invitations were allowed to board the vessel, but the July 15 Free Press reported that they “numbered several hundred and included most of the prominent business and public men of the city.” Alongside, a flotilla of excursion craft, carried others to witness the historic ceremony.
Laurier told the people that while passing St. Andrews and Kildonan churches along the Red, “I asked myself what would be the astonishment and wonder of the old fur traders of the past ... if they were to come here and see this wonderful achievement.”
My first-ever passage through the locks was as marvelous to myself as it would have been to the people travelling the river 100 years ago. Part of the marvel was the realization that the wooden locks themselves had changed little over that period of time.
Once we passed the locks, the plentitude of the river became evident by the many people fishing from the banks of the Red or aboard boats hugging the current created by water spilling from the historic dam.
Before reaching Selkirk, we sighted Lower Fort Garry, built in 1830 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and more commonly in the past called the Stone Fort, which is now a National Historic Site. It was at the Stone Fort that the first treaty in Western Canada was signed in 1871 between the Crown and aboriginal people living in southern Manitoba.
Nearby St. Andrews on the Red is the oldest stone church in Western Canada being used still as a place of worship. The church was built between 1845 and 1849.
Along the west shore of the Red is the Marine Museum of Manitoba, where boats of a bygone era that plied the river and Lake Winnipeg are now on display. Using one’s imagination, a picture of boats lining the Selkirk harbour comes into view. In 1894, according to the Daily Nor’Wester, there were five large fishing companies ‘with their vast refrigerators, capable of storing thousands of tons of frozen fish. Add to this the fishing fleet, consisting of sailing craft, tugs, barges, and many more steamers, some of which are over 200 tons.”
This is only a snapshot of the historic Red downstream from Winnipeg — there’s simply too much to entirely relate in this column. But thanks to my entry into the MREA fishing derby, I was transported to another era which enabled my imagination to run wild with the current.