Monday, November 28, 2005

The Fenian Invasion of 1871

You're probably wondering, now how in the world does a Fenian "Invasion" have anything to do with St. Vincent? Well, technically it may not, since it involves Pembina across the river. But saying that, since the two towns' histories are so intertwined - and there were many area residents of Irish descent that may have had sympathies with those directly involved - I offer this piece of history of my little corner of the world. It is fascinating to say the least - and definitely colorful!

The Fenian "Invasion" of 1871by Roy P. Johnson

The invasion of Manitoba in 1871 was one of the most fabulous episodes in the history of our Canadian and American frontier. It seems impossible that it could have happened at all ... yet it did. It is only when you know what the frontier was like, how its people thought and acted, that you realize it was possible.

Yet, even when you have learned a good deal about the frontier and the people on it, you know that it could not have happened but for two strange men. Those men were W. B. O'Donoghue and John J. O'Neill. They barked at the moon, and almost got away with it. There were not many like them. I might well have called my paper "Wild Scenes on Red River". I would like to explain that I might have borrowed the latter title from the newspapers of frontier times.

On any occasion when a disturbance broke out in those days, it was the usual thing for the editor to set up a row of headline type, reading "Wild Scenes" at such and such a place.

He would then insert it in a spot where it would attract most attention. It was a great circulation builder. There was something electrifying about those two words. They could be used to advantage for almost anything, but especially for rebellions, invasions, floods and boiler explosions.

It cannot he said that in all cases the article that appeared under the headline justified the dramatic introduction. But it made readers sit up and take notice. It probably induced them to suspect that the editor undoubtedly had more exciting details, which might be revealed in the next edition.

Probably this was the beginning of the exaggeration that marked some of the stories that were told, as well as written, in pioneer times. Certainly we know through our research that some of those tales do not stand the test of careful scrutiny. Of course, the blow-hard spirit is not gone. But modern communication facilities and competition tend to restrain it.

In addition to discussing O'Donoghue and O'Neill, I would like to try to throw a little additional light on the attitude of people south of the border to the invasion, to outline in some detail what happened in the United States courts when the leaders of the raid were brought before the bench.

I think it can be said with some degree of truth that the Manitoba raid, the counterparts of the Riel rebellions and similar disturbances, were common to the North American frontier ever since the time settlers started moving out from the eastern seaboard, in fact, even before.

The independent individualism of the frontier has always been rebellious when confronted with the first manifestations of organized government. Men of the frontier preferred to be asked to do ... not to be ordered.

The surveyor, the tax collector, the law enforcement officer and the court, all were viewed as representatives of oppression. There was a scorn of older society, impatience with its restraints and its ideas, and an indifference to its lessons everywhere in the advanced settlements.

Let me give you an example of a "wild scene" on the American side of the border. The year was 1861. Dakota Territory had been created and its officers appointed by President Lincoln. The first territorial legislature was in session at Yankton.

The speaker of the house turned out to be an officious gentleman. The members of the house, who took an instant dislike to him, asked the sergeant at arms, who was a noted desperado, to throw him out of a window of the legislative building. The speaker sought help from the territorial governor. The governor posted a company of armed militia in the building. Both the council which included Enos Stutsman of Pembina, and the house, revolted at this affront. They refused to proceed with their work until the militia was withdrawn. A day or two later the sergeant at arms was able to throw the speaker out of a window after all. He tossed him out of the window of a saloon, along with the window frame.

During the same session, the governor and the receiver of the United States land office engaged in a hair-pulling, choking and fisticuffs exhibition in a Yankton hotel. The governor was William Jayne, who had been Abraham Lincoln's family physician. Governor Jayne was militantly pushing a bill in the legislature to extend citizenship to halfbreeds who could read and write. Like Lincoln, he had a sympathy for downtrodden races. The land office man did not agree. The governor won in the hotel fight but lost in the legislature. No one on the frontier wanted to be told what to do.

No one can deny that the Dominion and provincial governments and the thinking people of Manitoba had reason to be tremendously disturbed when they learned in September of 1871 that an army was being assembled in the United States to invade the province. Manitoba was still writhing from the aftereffects of the violent rebellion of the previous year. Fenians had already made attempts to invade Canada at several other places.

Mr. John P. Pritchett in an article in the Canadian Historical Review in 1929 and Hon. Gilbert McMicken in a paper presented to this Society in 1888-89 have made contributions to the history of the raid that probably cannot be matched in this paper. I can only attempt to supplement their fine work.

At this point I would like to say that I heartily endorse Mr. Pritchett's view that the invasion was born as a result of the rift between Louis Riel and W. B. O'Donoghue. I would like to explore that point a bit deeper as I go on.

Somehow I believe we shall learn more about the causes and circumstances of the Manitoba invasion in a study of the lives of the two major leaders than in anything else. Perhaps we shall be able to reach a conclusion as to why this almost unbelievable episode happened at all.

For reasons readily understandable they seem to have left behind no completely believable answer to the question, why did you do it? So the best method to follow in seeking the answer, it seems to me, is to study these two men, to determine what characteristics and traits motivated their acts.

J. J. Donnelly and Thomas Curley, the other two leaders played such insignificant roles they seem hardly worthy of any mention at all.

I have examined the Pritchett and McMicken papers. My other sources are the files of the court of Pembina, some of the messages and letters of Presidents Andrew Johnson and U. S. Grant, frontier newspapers, minutes of the "Red River Congress" and an unpublished manuscript written by Gordon J. Keeney, a Fargo attorney who practised in the courts of Pembina.

Let us first take a look at O'Donoghue. I consider him one of the most amazing characters ever seen on the frontier. He is first met as a supporter and apparently a close friend of Louis Riel. He was an eloquent speaker and undoubtedly spoke both English and French. He was an able organizer. He was fiery-tempered, proud and egotistical. He probably was not a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, but he apparently was attracted to its principles. He was thoroughly sympathetic with the Métis of Rupert's Land and had won a following among them.

Riel liked him, at least for a time, and he became treasurer of the provisional government and a member of Riel's cabinet.

I think it is important to re-emphasize at this point a serious break that had occurred between O'Donoghue and Riel at the Fort Garry gate, April 20, 1870. You will recall that Riel at that time held the fort and that a violent dispute took place when Riel ordered the provisional government flag with its shamrocks and fleur-de-lis lowered and replaced by the Union Jack. You will recall that Riel assigned a man to guard the Union Jack, with orders to shoot.

In a sense that probably was the germ from which the Manitoba invasion began.

The smouldering resentment that developed in O'Donoghue at this affront later was fanned into flame in the two violent disputes between the two men at the St. Norbert conference.

O'Donoghue was no little man. He was the man who was to carry a petition from the Métis to President Grant asking for aid. He knew big men in the United States senators, politicians, prominent newspaper editors. He conferred with many of them and he managed to hit the front pages. He liked that. He even had a personal interview with President Grant, and Grant treated him courteously, even though he rejected his plea.

Was O'Donoghue discouraged? Not a bit of it. He appeared before the Fenian Brotherhood council, in New York City, repeatedly seeking aid. Time and again he was turned down. But he didn't give up. After a trip west he tackled the council again, and they turned him down again.

But now O'Donoghue got a good break. General John J. O'Neill, a member of the council, was swung by his eloquence. He resigned from the brotherhood and stepped to O'Donoghue's side.

Let us now take a look at O'Neill. He was thirty-seven years old at the time of the Manitoba Invasion. Within the span of those thirty-seven years he had already lived a most colourful life. He had seen glory as well as defeat, but his unconquerable spirit had never been broken. He had become instead, a Don Quixote out of Cervantes, seeking a new world to conquer.

He was born in Ireland, after his father had died, and he had come to Elizabeth, N.J., a clever, resourceful, energetic boy of fourteen. He had no education beyond his fifteenth year and he became in succession, a shop clerk, a travelling book agent and a proprietor of a Catholic book store in Richmond, Va., by the time he was twenty-two.

He must eventually have found civil life dull because in 1857 he joined the Second U.S. Dragoons for the Mormon war. While he was with the Dragoons he exhibited one of his outstanding traits ... an unwillingness to submit to discipline. He deserted and made his way to California where he joined the 1st U.S. Cavalry.

By the time of the War of the Rebellion, O'Neill had become a sergeant. He soon found himself in the Peninsular campaign, where his leadership and courage advanced him in December, 1862, to the rank of second lieutenant in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He quickly won a reputation as an unusually active and daring officer and four months later was a first lieutenant. Thereafter he distinguished himself notably near Glasgow, Ky., and at Buffington Bar during Morgan's Ohio raid, and on December 2, 1863, was severely wounded at Walker's Ford.

At about this time we find another manifestation of his nature ... his extreme egotism and his temper, which made it hard for him to work with others. In 1864, because he had received no further promotion in rank he resigned from his regiment. He next appeared as a captain with the 17th U.S. coloured infantry. Even then he was not content and left the service in November, nearly six months before the war was over. In all this one can see the symptoms of instability and rebellion.

After the war he became a claims agent for the government in Tennessee. Now the Fenian organization came into being and he heard with interest the plans for an invasion of Canada proposed by the faction headed by W. R. Roberts. He became a Fenian organizer in his district.

With characteristic energy he led a detachment north from Nashville, Tenn., in May, 1866, to take part in the attack.

He now demonstrated his unfortunate propensity for impulsive action. Finding himself in command of a raiding party of 600 men at Buffalo, N.Y., he crossed the Niagara river and occupied the Canadian village of Fort Erie. When he and his men fled in the face of British troops he received his first acquaintance with the United States courts.

One could well ask, would it have made any difference if the courts had sent him to prison then; would that have averted the Manitoba invasion. The answer probably is that it would not. Only four years later, O'Neill was sent to prison, and from there, little more than a year later, he marched on Manitoba.

The raid on Fort Erie led to his appointment as "inspector general of the Irish Republican Army", and it is evident that he was more or less of a hero; almost a martyr to some of the Fenians. By the end of the next year he had replaced Roberts as president of the Roberts branch of the Brotherhood. It is almost possible to visualize his conceit at this stage of his career. Soon he began preparing for another attack on Canada and his bold attitude caused no little alarm in the Dominion.

Now we have another glance at a manifestation of his inability to get along with others.

He affiliated himself with a firm of land speculators in a programme of founding Irish settlements in Nebraska. The first was at O'Neill. Others were at Atkinson, Neb., and in Greeley county, Nebraska.

It was not a particularly attractive country about the village of O'Neill - vast stretches of semiarid soil, valuable chiefly as hay lands. But O'Neill apparently had some success in inducing his countrymen to come there. It was while he was engaged in this enterprise that he died in Omaha, Jan. 7, 1878.

The town of O'Neill somehow reflects the rebellious philosophy and independence of its founder even today. While most Nebraska prairie cities keep their stores open Saturday night, those in O'Neill are closed. By custom they open at 6.30 Sunday morning so people from the surrounding country who come to early mass may trade. The spirit of John O'Neill lives on.

The next year he quarrelled with his "senate" and when, on May 25, he attempted a raid at Eccles Hill on the Vermont border, only a fraction of the Fenian organization supported him. His men fled when the Canadians opened fire. Now he was arrested for the second time, by a United States marshal.

One can imagine how his soul rebelled as he sat in prison beginning his two year sentence, and his jubilation when, after three months, President Grant released him by presidential pardon. This was typical of Grant, who could not ignore the pleas of men who had fought with him. O'Neill, in a rapturous moment on the day of his release, declared he never again would trouble Canada ... this virtually on the eve of his Manitoba excursion.

The picture of O'Neill is not quite complete without pointing out that there is no record that he himself ever killed a Canadian in his pursuit of glory. But while he said he was a devout Catholic he was also a devout Fenian, and Fenianism was condemned by his church.

Later on I should like to sketch briefly O'Neill's life after the Manitoba raid and tell why it is that his name is spoken, written and printed every day in a certain city in the United States and probably always will be.

In the year 1871, we find these urbane gentlemen making plans for the invasion. What probably motivated them? Certainly they both were glory hunters. Was O'Neill really interested in the foolish Fenian scheme of winning independence for Ireland by harassing Canada? It is highly doubtful. Did he see in the new raid an opportunity to regain lost prestige, that he might lord it over other Fenian leaders who had laughed at him in recent months? Was he still looking for high office, or a fortune in a new land?

How about O'Donoghue? Was he really eager to help the Métis, or was he, too, seeking to regain prestige? Or was he trying to revenge himself on Riel by stealing his visionary Métis empire away?

Were they both fanatical crusaders for a people they likened to the unhappy natives of their homeland?

Two presidents of the United States had issued proclamations against any invasion of Canada. They had said that any American arrested in Canada could expect no aid from them. They had ordered law enforcement officers to be on the alert.

To all this was added the prospect that the province might send an armed force against them, and that national troops might march west from Ottawa.

Furthermore, the United States and Canada had entered into an agreement permitting American troops to seize the invaders on Canadian soil.

O'Donoghue and O'Neill apparently did not know that, nor that the boundary line at Pembina was in dispute. Nor did they seem to reckon with the importance of the animosity of the Catholic clergy to the Fenian movement and their influence in dissuading the Métis from joining in O'Donoghue's scheme.

Whatever the motives of the two men they had decided now on one of the most incredible adventures of their times, an invasion of a Canadian province with a handful of men. The sheer bravado of it challenges the imagination, even when it is realized they probably expected to be joined by a Métis horde on the Canadian side.

Let us now turn our attention to Pembina, which that year had acquired a federal court. Lawyers and litigants had become weary of the long journey to Yankton, deep in the southern part of the territory.

So distant and inaccessible was this southern court, litigants without considerable means were virtually denied justice. The first officials of the court reached Pembina by travelling virtually the same route as the Manitoba invaders, except that they used either stagecoaches or river steamboats from Fort Abercrombie north.

There were sessions of this court in May and September, each marked by grand jury deliberations. The chief legal body was the territorial supreme court, consisting of three men, one of whom was designated chief justice. These three took turns at circuit-riding and when not sitting as the supreme court. presided over the several district courts which had been established.

The lawyers of that day were for the most part well trained and by any criterion might be described as clever. They were adepts at finding loopholes in the laws and were quick in taking advantage of technicalities.

Counsel for the government had to be resourceful. The judge had to be shrewd. There were instances when the judge proved to be not as brilliant as the bar, and there were times when the lawyers did not look like lawyers and when the courts did not resemble courts at all.

The Manitoba raiders arrived in the vicinity of Pembina while the court was in session. Judge French, then chief justice, was on the bench. The clerk of the court was George I. Foster, whose son, Charles S. Foster, still lives in Fargo.

George Foster had a dual position. He was clerk as well as court commissioner. In addition, he was correspondent for the newspaper, the Yankton Press. He wrote two dispatches describing the invasion. The first was dated at Pembina, Oct. 5, 1871, on the very day it occurred.

Here is what it said:

"The 'last sensation' in this country is taking place even now while I am writing. Perhaps a few words from one 'on the spot' will not be objected to.

For some days past, vague rumors of Fenians have been in circulation hereabouts among others that General O'Neill and other gentlemen of Fenian note were already in the vicinity of Pembina.

But most people apparently considered the new Fenian excitement rather a good joke until this morning when the news was brought to town that General O'Neill and party had taken possession of the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at North Pembina, some 21 miles north of this place on the Red River, and that Mr. Watt, the trader, was a prisoner in their hands.

And now nearly everyone in town, especially the 'new importations,' worked themselves up to a respectable degree of excitement. A few of the old settlers appeared to treat the whole affair in a matter of fact manner, and remained all day at their posts, working as though nothing was about to happen.

About 11 o'clock a.m., Captain Wheaton, Commander at Fort Pembina, with a portion of his forces, including surgeon, ambulance and hospital steward with his bag of lint, passed through town on their way to recapture the 'fallen citadel' and liberate the restrained trader.

This trading post is situated on disputed ground, the international boundary line having never been located west from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky mountains.

A survey made by Major Long and party in 1823 planted their 'post' about one-fourth of a mile this side of the Hudson's Bay trading post, and a later survey by General Sikes and Captain Heap of the U.S. Engineers Corps, in May, 1870, set their stake some three-fourths of a mile north of the trading post.

This latter stake, I am informed, is recognized by the Department of Dakota for military purposes-at least it will be seen by the sequel that it has been by Captain Wheaton today.

When within about half a mile of the scene of action, the captain's forces, about 30 in number, alighted from their wagons, deployed and started on the double quick.

About this time the newly established occupants of the post, doubtless thinking that the 'business' looked a little 'unfavorable' commenced to 'evacuate the premises' and were seen emerging from each gateway and taking up their line of march in rather a confused manner towards the North Pole.

And now the scene presented to eye-witnesses must have been grand and novel-an epitomized third Bull Run retreat.

But as we were not an eye-witness of these 'beauties,' we will return with our imagination to the place where we really are and have been most of the day, sitting in our office in Colonel Stutsman's building at Pembina.

About 3 o'clock p.m., Captain Wheaton and party passed through the town on their return to Fort Pembina, having in charge 'Generals' John O'Neill, Thomas Curley and J. J. Donnelly and ten of the rank and file of the routed party. It is reported that there were some forty men in the party at the trading post.

It is now, at 7 o'clock p.m., reported that W. B. O'Donoghue of Red River 'unpleasantness' fame, was, during the afternoon, taken prisoner by halfbreeds and sent to Fort Pembina.

The Hudson's Bay post is comprised of a store, warehouse, dwelling and a few outbuildings, all built of hewn logs, and the whole being surrounded by a stockade some eight or ten feet high, with bastions at each of the four corners, and gateways or entrances on the east and north sides.
It was built several years since, and constructed with a view to protecting the occupants - consisting usually of a trader, clerk and domestics - from Indians."

Since the arrested men were soon to come before Mr. Foster in his capacity as court commissioner, it may be well to cite briefly the provision of the Neutrality Law under which they were to be prosecuted.

The law was passed by congress in 1818 when a number of Americans participated in an expedition which attempted to join revolutionary forces planning to take over the Spanish colonies in Florida.

Generally, it seems to have been rather ambiguous and difficult to apply to the cases in hand. The authorities chose provision No. 6 of the act, which made it a crime "to retain another person to go beyond the limits of the United States with the intention to be enlisted into the service of either belligerent."

This made it necessary to prove not only one man's act but another's intention. Everybody concerned made a bad job of it. They did the best they could with an inadequate law.

Just what happened was related by Mr. Foster in his next dispatch to the Yankton Press, dated Pembina, Oct. 16, 1871. Here is what he said:

"In my communication of the 5th instant, I left the leaders of the so-called Fenian movement under guard at Fort Pembina. On the 6th, Captain Wheaton filed a complaint with the United States commissioner, and warrants were issued for their apprehension and placed in the hands of Deputy (Judson) LaMoure, who immediately relieved the captain of the responsibility of further entertaining his distinguished guests. The complaint embraced Section 6 of the Neutrality Laws of the United States.

On the morning of the 7th, the examination before the commissioner commenced, Captain Wheaton appearing for the United States and Colonel Enos Stutsman and George F. Potter, Esq., for the defendants.

The prosecution was conducted as one case and occupied all day Saturday and until 7 o'clock p.m. on Monday, and resulted in the discharge of the prisoners, two of whom, Generals O'Neill and Curley, left on the Wednesday morning stage for St. Paul. Colonel Donnelly and Mr. O'Donoghue are still in town.

The ten 'followers' captured, together with the 'stragglers' of the vanquished party, in all about twenty, have taken up their line of march toward the rising sun and Pembina has again settled into its usual quietude.

Governor Archibald, in his proclamation to the citizens of Manitoba published in the Manitoban of the 14th instant, delivers himself of the following: 'I regret to have to inform you that on the same day, the United States civil authorities at Pembina, to whom Colonel Wheaton was obliged to hand over his prisoners, discharged these marauders for reasons which I am unable to comprehend.'

It may be an easy matter for Governor Archibald, sitting in his easy chair at the Government House in Fort Garry to sit in judgment upon and condemn men whom he has never seen and of which he knows nothing. But it is no easy matter for the United States commissioner at Pembina, sworn to faithfully perform the duties of his office, to hold for trial men against whom no traces of any crime having been committed by the prisoners against the laws of the United States or any other authority no person can deny who heard the testimony given on the examination."

Upon his arrival in St. Paul, October 16, O'Neill was re-arrested and again a court commissioner released him for lack of evidence. The day after his arrest a reporter of the Pioneer interviewed him.

"But really, the people of Pembina have exhibited no excitement over the little 'unpleasantness' except on the day of the capture by Captain (Lloyd) Wheaton.

But from Manitoba papers and from information received from other sources, these twenty so-called Fenians, together with a less number of French halfbreeds, created alarm and confusion throughout the whole province of Manitoba, causing Lieut.-Governor Archibald to issue a proclamation for the people en masse to organize and arm themselves preparatory to a brave defense of their country, and from the best authority we hear there were about 1,000 men in the province armed and 'spoiling' for a fight with the Fenians.

But the citizens of Manitoba were too slow to he able to figure at all in the capture of the reputed invading party, Captain Wheaton quietly stepping in and crowning himself with all the glory of 'bagging' in one sweep the leaders and many of the followers of this small but brave band.

The result of the captain's 'voice' upon the party was to entirely disorganize and disband the party, if they ever had an organization or were banded together, neither of which facts were shown on the examination before the commissioner."

The story was published in the Pioneer of October 17, 1871, and in it was O'Neill's denial that it was a Fenian movement and a statement to the effect that he had a thorough dislike for the British government and that he was always sympathetic with and willing to help people struggling for independence.

"The General looks to be in splendid condition physically, and so far as recent events are concerned, they do not seem to wear very greatly upon his elastic and hopeful mind," the reporter wrote.

Here are some of O'Neill's statements:

"I desire to state that if I had not been interfered with by the United States authorities, I would have had fully one thousand men with me. They would have been subject to my command for whatever I chose to do.

I had enough men to resist Colonel Wheaton had I desired to fight United States soldiers. I had fought too long under the Stars and Stripes to want to fight United States troops, whether they had crossed the line legally or illegally.

I desire to state the intimation has been thrown out that the men were arrested without a show of resistance. The three men myself, General and Colonel Donnelly have as good a record for bravery as Colonel Wheaton.

We had made as good a record as Colonel Wheaton in the late war for all that constitutes soldiers.

Instead of wearing the United States uniform, Wheaton would act with more propriety if he should wear the British uniform. As a prosecuting attorney, though, he made a perfect ass of himself, and showed a complete ignorance of the law.

I believe the action of Colonel Wheaton to be entirely unauthorized, in crossing into British territory and arresting anyone. Nor do I believe his conduct will be sanctioned either by the department commander, or at Washington.

He went upon British territory and ordered his men to fire, and they did fire several volleys. It is surprising that someone was not killed. It was no fault of his that there was no one killed. Had there been any killed, I have no doubt he would have been guilty of murder.

I do not fear any arrest. I have fought and bled for the United States government. I am not aware that I have violated any law of the United States."

The following year the four leaders were indicted at Pembina, but O'Neill was not found. The other three escaped punishment by some common technicalities. The indictments charged the men with violation of Section 11 of the Neutrality Law-beginning and setting afoot a military expedition against the province of Manitoba.

Double jeopardy and doubts as to the residence qualifications of four grand jurors were some of the stumbling blocks thrown in the way of the government. Some of the grand jurors in question seem to have disappeared; things like that happened on the frontier. The district attorney gave it up.

It might be expected that John O'Neill would never say die ... he didn't. He lived to see his name perpetuated forever.

If you find time some day you can see it for yourself. Get in your automobile, cross the boundary near Killarney, Manitoba, and drive directly south about 525 miles on U.S. Highway No. 281. When you have come 525 miles you will be in Nebraska and as you enter a little town of about 2,500 people you will see a sign reading "Welcome to O'Neill".

John O'Neill founded that town, May 12, 1874, and it was named in his honour. After he left the scenes of his last military expedition he promoted his last grandiose scheme.

* Mr. Roy P. Johnson was a member of the editorial staff of The Fargo Forum; a specialist in the history of the Red River Valley, the State of Minnesota and the frontier movements of population west of the Mississippi River.

St. Vincent Round House

My grandmother Elizabeth Fitzpatrick sometimes mentioned a 'round house' as I was growing up. It was long gone by the time my mother was born, let alone me. But it had been a significant feature of the town at one time.

Due to managerial judgement calls made my railroad men in smoke-filled back rooms somewhere in St. Paul, the St. Vincent Round House would fade into history...

Round House Of St. Vincent
by Bobbi Jo Schulte
[A historical essay by an area student]

Mr. Ed Krues, a resident of St. Vincent, would walk to work every day. What was this man's job and what made it so significant?

Perhaps this man's job began with the starting of railroads, or you could say, it started with a man's dream. A man's dream of railroads in the north which developed, and they called this railroad line, The Great Northern.

In was James J. Hill's dream. His dream was to put railroads through and through they came. Through to St. Vincent, through to Emerson, and right into Winnipeg the Flyer would go.

The Great Northern owners had big dreams for the railroad. When the road reached St. Vincent, they planned to build over the Red River coming from the West. The Northern Pacific was to meet them on the North Dakota side. Together, these railroads would build a bridge over the Red River.

Among the great plans for the railroad was the inclusion of a round house, to be located at St. Vincent, Minnesota, where the engines could be repaired.

The men who built this round house made it of wood and iron beams. This was done so that the building wouldn't burn. Fortunately, there were no fires that happened while the railroad operated the round house. A turning table was included in the round house which was used to turn the trains around.

Mr. Krues's job would begin when the trains would come in. The trains come in from the east so that the engines would face west. The engine of the train would be left here.

In order to keep the trains running, an employee of the railroad was stationed at the round house. Mr. Krues was this man who had to keep these engines going. He and the other man, Bill Buckly, would feed the engines with coal during the night so that the fires wouldn't die out during this time.

Mr. Bill Gooselaw can remember when he was a child, that he and some other children would ride on the "cow catcher" to the round house. There they would get off and walk back home. They weren't supposed to be doing it, but it sure was fun.
In front of the trains there is a piece of iron that is shaped in a "r" It got its name from the purpose it was to serve, the cow catcher. If the cows were on the track, it would shoo them off. In the process of shooing them off, it would usually break the cows leg or injure it in some way.

The Great Northern trains would usually come north from Crookston and stop at the round house in St. Vincent for a new crew and a new engine. The men of this crew would stay in St. Vincent at different homes that would take them in.

Before this time, there was a Great Northern Hotel in St. Vincent. But by the time that the round house was built, this hotel had been torn down all except the kitchen. The residents of St. Vincent called this kitchen the "Great Kitchen" because of its size. A few of the men, however, would stay there in this kitchen.

The Flyer would go to Winnipeg and then get another fresh crew and come back to St. Vincent. Here the crew that they left would go on and the "Canadian" crew that was on it would stay at St. Vincent. They also traded engines again.

The engines in the round house would be turned around until it faced the east. In front of the St. Vincent elevator at this time there was a "y" track. After the engines were faced to the east, they would be driven on the "y" track and then would go north up to Winnipeg or south to Crookston.

Unfortunately, the Great Northern plans didn't work out as had been planned. The Central Pacific and Great Northern never joined together to build this line over the Red River. Because of this, there was no more need for the round house. In the year of 1902, the round house of St. Vincent was torn down. What could have been a great railroad round house is no more, and now the Great Northern train goes through St. Vincent [ed. note: actually the edge of town, by the 'junction'; and it's the Burlington Northern now...] without even a stop until it reaches Winnipeg.

Bibliography: Gooselaw, Eli - Interview, January 23, 1971

St. Vincent Firehall

Another historical essay by a Humboldt-St. Vincent student, written in the 1960's, tells of a significant fixture in the village of St. Vincent - the St. Vincent firehall. The firehall was still there when I was growing up, but was eventually torn down after the last flood before the dike went up, sometime after 1966.

The firehall tower bell was donated to an area museum, but I'm unsure if it was the Pembina Museum or the Kittson County Museum...
St. Vincent Firehall
by Richard Clow

As you drive through St. Vincent, Minnesota there is a building that catches your eye. It is an old firehall of the past. It is one of the few remaining old buildings of a once large town.

The St. Vincent Firehall was built in 1903 by Edward Cameron, a carpenter, and his sons. It was built on a corner lot on Main Street, four blocks east of the Red River bridge. Originally the forty-two by twenty foot firehall faced Main Street and was painted red. When the building faced north, there was a big wooden bridge across the ditch. In the winter a snow bank blocked the doorway so the building was moved to face the east side street as it does now. It has a single and a double door in the front. Two windows are on each side. A large square steeple was built around the southeast corner, with heavy beams across the middle of it to hang up the wet fire hoses, to dry after a fire.

In the top of the steeple is the belfry with the fire bell inside. The chimney was built on the west side for the stove which was used to heat the building. A fire was kept burning constantly in it during cold weather to prevent the water from freezing in a ten thousand gallon cistern that was underneath the firehall. This cistern held enough water to take care of most of the local fires. It was filled from the river by the engine on the firewagon. Whenever there was a big fire near enough to the river for the hoses to reach, the firemen pulled the firewagon to the river by hand and pumped the water from there to the fire. The business district of St. Vincent was located mainly between the firehall and the river so most of the water for the fires was supplied from either the cistern under the firehall or the river. But to take care of the dwelling places firewells were dug at several locations throughout the town. This kept the insurance rate down on these buildings because of easier access to water.

The first firewagon was a wagon with four big wheels that was pulled by a team of horses. The driver sat up front behind a kind of buckboard. The wagon had a firebell on it that was rung by a foot pedal. The fire chief would ring it while driving his team of horses to the fire. A large centrifical gasoline motor was mounted on the back of the wagon to pump the water. The pressure was great enough to send the water eighty feet in the air. A separate cart was used to haul the two thousand feet of hose. This cart was pulled by hand to the fire. Later they got another fire engine which was an old Chevy motor mounted on a four wheel trailer. Finally they bought a regular fire engine that was pulled by a truck or tractor. This last fire engine and cart with the hoses is still in the firehall.

Wallace Cameron, the town Marshal, was janitor of the firehall and kept the fire going in the winter. He also ran the firebell at 9:00 every night as curfew. Phil Ahles, who was fire chief, kept the fire equipment in working order. The firemen were volunteers and that was almost any man in town that was available. A few of these were R. H. Lapp, R. E. Bennett, N. E. Green & J. A. Monroe. There were also young volunteers to bring the cart with the four ladders to the fires if needed. The firebell whose rope hung almost to the floor was rung by whoever saw the fire first.
One of the largest fires they had to fight, was the one that burned down the Lynch Saloon and living quarters. Mr. Lynch went to sleep while smoking a pipe and ashes fell out and burned the place and himself. His wife got out but died shortly after. Later the Lynch barn burned down in about the same way. A man crawled into the barn to take shelter for the night and went to sleep while smoking and the hay caught on fire. Besides himself, a good team of horses was lost, the firemen arrived too late to save either of these places, but they did save the surrounding buildings.

One night the firebell rang to herald the fact that the Rube Smith Restaurant was on fire. The fire spread rapidly to the implement building nearby and destroyed both buildings. This time the fire engines were used to spray water onto the Lapp Store nearby and save his tin covered building from too much damage. Only the wood around the windows was burned. The last time the fire engines were used was to put out the fire at the Harold Easton barn which was located one block south of the firehall. They managed to save most of the barn and Mr. Easton remodeled it. The firehall closed down about 30 years ago and St. Vincent arranged with the Pembina Fire Department to take care of the fires. It was cheaper to pay them than to hire men and keep the building and equipment up.

At one time the firehall housed the village light plant. It was run by a hydro, but in 1916 the Pembina Light and Power Plant supplied power to St. Vincent. Later Otter Tail Power came in and extended their line to St. Vincent.

The Firehall was also used for a morgue in the olden days. A man who drowned in the Red River, the man who died in the Lynch barn fire, and others, such as some who died in jail, were brought into the Firehall Morgue.

The firebell in the "Old St. Vincent Firehall" may never ring again to summon firemen to a fire, but if the St. Vincent Historical Society have their way, this building will be preserved along with the few remaining other historical landmarks of this old historical town of St. Vincent, Minnesota.

Interviews: William Ahles; Eli Gooselaw; Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lapp
Another essay, with other details including descriptions of some of the more famous fires fought by the St. Vincent Firehall volunteers, can be read here...

Mr. Deacon's Legacy

According to oral history taken from Richard Lapp in the 1960's - an early 'town father' (along with my own grandfather, Sheldon Albert Fitzpatrick...) - St. Vincent's boom may have bust thanks to one man...
St. Vincent was a booming town then with a population of about five hundred. It almost died...because of a man named Deacon.

At one time the Great Northern Railway wrote a letter to the Mayor of St. Vincent, William Deacon, telling him that they would move all the buildings in the town 2 miles east and make the border port there instead of having it in Noyes. Deacon wrote back and said that he couldn't find anyone who was interested in moving without asking a soul. Because it no longer had the railroad it all but died out.

Today St. Vincent is just a small village with a mere population of 150 and has only one store, one gas station, and a post office. It seems a shame that a town that could have grown quite extensively like St. Vincent was destroyed to almost a ghost town because of the decision of one man.

St. Vincent Boom Times, Part II

From what was popularly known as 'historical essays', written mostly by high school students throughout Kittson County over a period of many years, comes this piece about St. Vincent's better days...
St. Vincent
by Barbara Bostrom

Today, cities have taken the place of the many small towns across the country. In the cities a person may live for years in the same house and never know the names of his next door neighbors. There are very few small towns left. Even St. Vincent, Minnesota, the oldest town in Kittson County, is dying. There are approximately 170 people still left in St. Vincent, most of them old people. There are few evidences of the type of town St. Vincent once was.

The Great Northern Railroad brought most of the people here. The first people came as traders, because of the Red River. That was in the 1870's. They used to cart the furs up the river on barges. But since the fort was built at Pembina, North Dakota, most of the fur traders, and nearly all the other residents of this northern area, lived there. Part of the reason they would want to live in or near the fort was as protection against Indians. Especially after Fenian's Raid in the 1870's, people usually preferred to live by the fort. When the Sioux Indians were forced out of the state, the danger of Indian attack was reduced to nearly nothing. But they were not far away. Around l880, the talk of the town was Chief Sitting Bull's camp across the Canadian border in Emerson Manitoba.

Pembina was the "big town" when St. Vincent was born. Pembina, along with the rest of the valley, gained attention in both the United States and Canada, "owing to the so called rebellion in Manitoba under Louis Riel and O'Donhue, of Fenian fame, and many who were on their way to Fort Garry that year... were forced to make an unwilling sojourn at Pembina, waiting for the submission of the rebellion in order to go on to their destination. The quelling of the insurrection in June by British troops restored the tranquility and the noise attached to the whole affair seemed to have drawn the attention of the outside world and caused quite a stream of emigration into the valley."

Fort Pembina was built in 1870 and abandoned in 1897. At the time the fort was built Hills, Griggs & Company, of the Red River Steamboat Company, opened an extensive general store which usually carried $100,000 worth of merchandise. Henry MoKinney opened a saw mill in 1871 near the junction of the Red and Pembina Rivers, opposite St. Vincent. Nathan Myrick of St. Paul, opened a trading post near Ft. Pembina.

Saint Vincent is the oldest town in the county. The first meeting of the township board was held on May 15, 1880. R.W. Lowery, G.A. Hurd, F.M. McLaughlin, L.A. Nobels and F.M. Head were the township's first officers. Hardly a year later it was reorganized as a village, on April 16, 188l. The first president was James L. Fisk, possibly the son of the Hon. Charles J. Fisk, who was an associate justice )f the supreme court of North Dakota; recorder, J. W. Morrison; assessor, John A. Vanstrom, who afterward served as register of deeds, and later was elected sheriff.

In 1910 St. Vincent had a population of about four hundred. It is located in the northwestern part of the county, directly opposite Pembina, North Dakota. It was the terminal between the Great Northern and Canadian Pacific Railways, and also a port of entry for the purpose of collection of customs duties. Near Lake Stella, on the eastern side of town about a mile from the Red River, there had been a roundhouse, for trains, which burned down in 1905. There was the train depot in the middle of town. In the west end of the building was the customs office. From 1900 to 1905 J.A. Noyes was the head customs officer there. In 1905 he succeeded in having the customs office moved from St. Vincent to the Canadian border across from Emerson, Manitoba, where the town of Noyes is now.

There were three hotels in the St. Vincent of those days. the Thedore, the Ontario House, and the Northern Hotel. The Thedore was in the west end of town, on the main street. The Ontario House was owned and operated by the Ryan family. Mr. Ryan managed the hotel, but when he died, one of his daughters, Elly O'Connor, took over. The Northern Hotel was north of the railroad tracks that ran through town just south of what is now Highway 171, and it was owned by the Great Northern Railroad.

Until 1925 there was a black smith shop about a block east of the Northern Hotel, and earlier there was another in the west end of town.

There were four stores: Nelson Greene's Store, which sold nearly everything under the sun; a large store west of the Ontario House which sold mostly candy, and was owned and operated by a Mr. John Reynolds; and another store in the west end of town. This store contained the post office, which was run by Richard Lapp's father.

There were two beer distributing companies, one next to the tracks in the west end of town, and one a block from the other company, also next to the tracks. The first was Hyland's Low Start Lagger, the latter company was a Hamms Beer distributor.

Next to the Ontario. House was the Catholic church. It was purchased from John Reynolds and made into a church.

There was also an Episcopal church and a Presbyterian church in town. The Episcopal church was the first church built in the territory, and the lumber was all hauled in from eastern portions of the territory by oxen cart. It still stands today, on the "outskirts" of town, north of the railroad tracks. There was also a Methodist church in St. Vincent.

Between the train depot and the Hylan beer distributor, was the St. Vincent fire hall; which still stands today. It is a small, wooden frame structure with a bell tower in the southeast corner. St. Vincent had two fire engines, and a carriage that, I believe, carried fire hose.

The school was built in 1903. It is a two-story, square, white frame building which originally held grades 1-12, but now has classes for only kindergarten, and second through fourth grades.

It looked like St. Vincent was blessed with everything a good town needs: easy transportation, jobs, and good soil, and water. But somewhere they lost whatever it was they had had. For St. Vincent is no longer a little town with a lot of growing to do-- but now St. Vincent has little to look forward to except a slow death. In 1909 these words were written:

"Today we have abundant evidence that we are standing at the threshold of a new dominion that is to arise on this plateau of North America...

With unshackled hands, free thought and liberty of conscience, the people of the valley of the Upper Mississippi and Red River of the North may add much to the luster of the Great Republic, born on the 4th of July, 1776. Let us pursue no narrow policy. Let us welcome the Dane, the Swede, the Norwegian, the Russian, the German, and all newcomers.:"

Somewhere along the line we forgot how to use this potential, and now we are paying for it. We will probably never regain our way of life and the promises it showed, but this area will always be rich with the memories of the bright past.

St. Vincent Boom Times, Part I

Old Times In The Red River Valley: St. Vincent, "Uncle John," The Pacific Hotel, "Col. Flake," Boom and Bust
By George B. Elliott

No. 5
The Northwestern Farmer and Breeder
20 September 1886

"The Valley of Eden" had its Tapley "who was always jolly under difficulties, but it was left to the Red River Valley to have a man who was "the same" no matter whose lot was "criss-cornered," or whose stake was pulled up. Uncle John Stewart is a type of a New Englander not often found in frost-bound latitudes. In the palmy days of '74 Uncle John was proprietor of the Exchange Hotel, Winnipeg, in which city he still has many warm friends.

The same fatality which drove many thousands to California in '49 induced Uncle John to erect the Pacific Hotel in what was then thought to be the coming Frisco of the Northwest - St. Vincent.

A man was found who could demonstrate to a certainty that what Helena was to Montana so would be St. Vincent to Minnesota. The Gamaliel who instilled this enthusiasm into the hearts of even old timers was "Colonel" Fiske, who on the completion of the St. Paul & Manitoba road to the International boundary line, was placed in charge of the town to "boom it or bust."

The road was completed early in the fall of 1878, and the scale of the boom which followed, though not such as occurred in the "Valley of Eden," was nevertheless the sliding variety.

Uncle John Stewart went into the middle of a poplar brush and cut out two lots on which he erected his Pacific Hotel. Jim White, who subsequently ran Huron City "for all it was worth," had declared that in '71 he had paddled all over St. Vincent in a dugout and shot ducks where the depot was located. Mac Cavileer corroborated this statement and produced a doubled barrel shotgun in order to relieve any one of any unnecessary doubts. Daniel Brawley, whose name must always be identified with that of St. Vincent, emphatically maintained that St. Vincent was "booming." Even when cross questioned by a citizen of Pembina, who invariably objected to the great future which was the alleged destiny of St. Vincent, Brawley would remark that it was "booming nevertheless."

The railway people, however, played sad pranks with St. Vincent. They scattered the place all over like sage brush on an Arizona cattle range. They put the depot in one place, they ran a spur down to the river, and the inhabitants were informed that sometime in the near future they would build a jetty at the end of the spur, and Mr. William Moorhead, of Pembina, waggishly observed that they would eventually extend the jetty across the river and thus have a bridge. Then by way of variety the same railway company located their engine house about half a mile from the town. Then half way to Emerson they built another depot - a kind of an opposition establishment - and then about half a mile further east, in another direction, they built a section house. They scattered their buildings around promiscuously, expecting to see the town fill up in a hurry, but the town never filled up. It was attacked early - - in the first stage of its career, and it never rallied. Col. Fiske had build a ditch to drain a swamp which covered half the neighborhood, but the swamp after bestowing a portion of its contents into the ditch refused to part with the major portion of its contents. Still those who located at St. Vincent were there to stay; they had stout hearts, and it was not their fault if the place did not come up to the original anticipations.

There is no western town without its redeeming features, and when railway magnates induce people to locate at their terminal towns, they should stay with the people and not leave them to their fate. "Conductor, throw this town overboard, we've got to build another further on."

Nothing shocks your staid man from the East, more than the odd fashion the Western people have of living in tents and shacks, and then pulling up stakes and going off further west. The eastern man's momentum has been of the slow description; he cannot move fast at first, even if you kick him; his joins are stiff, and how can you expect him to move with the celerity of a western rustler? When he locates it is like the dump of a pile-driver, he makes an impression on the soil and there wants to remain and conduct matters in the old fashioned way, but the western man cannot allow such foggyism, and the eastern individual soon discovers that he must do likewise or be "a bump on a log." If he has snap he does "likewise;" if has not he remains as a surveyor's mark, sure to be found around the same old spot many years afterward.

The life incident to a new town in the west is real and earnest. Such activity as might have been observed about St. Vincent in the palmy days of its career was of the western type. Like Moorhead to Fargo, it defied its neighbor across the river, but the old inhabitants of Pembina shook their heads ominously. Mr. Moorhead would vary the occasional solemnity by observing that "he did not think it was fair to attack a place because it was hard to see." But when Col. Fiske undertook to interrupt the ferry and thus cut off communication with Pembina, Mr. Moorhead remarked that it was a "territorial offense" to interrupt communication across a navigable stream, and so Col Fiske was foiled, pending the question as to which side of the river was the stronger. It was not long before the people of the territorial town found that even a territory has rights, and so they continued to vindicate them.

For a long time St. Vincent bore the unequal struggle, first against the railway company then against Pembina; the latter, of course, being its natural rival. But between the contending forces from a thriving, ambitious town it was "flattened out" until natural growth would assist it. It was not without its virtues, and like many a railway terminus, its promoters were promised a great deal and the promises were not kept.

The price of lots went down from considerable to nothing. The town site company expended a good deal of money in making improvements "but the west side always" seems to have a withering effect on the right bank of the Red.

One of the incidents connected with the early history of St. Vincent was the celebration of the arrival of the first train. That was a glorious occasion! There was no dearth of champagne on the occasion either. There was a happy time for it really meant through trains to Winnipeg from the far East.. Many of the chief actors in that scene are gone - - among the number poor Brawley, "the member for St. Vincent" who certainly believed that some day his town would rival St. Paul.

The illustration shows the Pacific Hotel with Uncle John Stewart at the door, in his good, old fashioned way.

Many an interesting anecdote "Uncle John" is able to tell, for he has handled the ribbons in his time as a stage, and he can tell his story with a dry humor that is inimitable. A warm heart and a kind and hospitable landlord is "Uncle John" to all.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The River

The native Cree called it Miscousipi, meaning 'Red Water River.'

The Red River of the North has provided a focal point up and down the Red River Valley.

1893 FloodThe River is the thing that separates St. Vincent from Pembina, and also the thing they share. It brought people to them, took goods away, and flooded.

As long as there have been records, and surely even before, the Red River of the North has flooded on a regular basis. A few years may go by without a major flood, but not one year goes by when those living by the river don't watch with apprehension as the snows melt and the spring rains come down, hoping that the waters stay within their banks.

1897 FloodA recent report suggests that indicators in the natural record (sediment, tree rings, etc.) can help us understand the climatic environment and probable flooding patterns of the Red River's past.
" suggest that [the] climate has been much more variable in the past and that these past climatic changes have substantially increased or decreased the frequency and magnitude of local flooding...research confirms historical accounts that suggest that [the region] was much wetter in the 19th century."

1950 FloodThis photo shows St. Vincent and Pembina from the air during the infamous 1950 flood. My sister Betty was born just as waters started to recede. There's another photo of my mother in a small boat with my sister Sharon, getting helped from it by my Dad, with my Grandpa looking on; they are on main street, looking towards the river, the rest of the town under water...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


When you mention the one, it's inevitable you think of the other. At least you do, if you lived there for long like I did. St. Vincent (Minnesota) and Pembina (North Dakota) are only separated in the modern mind. Once, before there were maps and borders, there was only the rivers winding through the land that would one day be the foundation of the homes and towns they would come to be.

While this blog will be mainly about St. Vincent, there will be mention from time to time of Pembina; the why of it goes without saying to natives, but to you who may be reading about our little corner of the world from afar, let it be known we are next door neighbors, friends, and many times family, and that's why...

St. Vincent Depot, circa 1910

Albert and Richard Fitzpatrick, sitting on the St. Vincent depot loading dock...I don't really know when this photo was taken, but I have a rough idea. It shows my grandfather, Al Fitzpatrick, and his brother Dick, sitting on the loading dock by the St. Vincent depot. My great uncle Dick worked for the railroad, and my grandpa was still putzing around doing some drayman work for the town, so they ran into each other quite often. St. Vincent was, and is, a small town - some would say barely a village - but it had it's moments. I'll be tracking them down and posting them here. I hope you'll come back and join me...

NOTE: If you or someone you know have photos and/or stories about St. Vincent, please contact me; I'd like to share them here!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Place Memory: My Own Lifetime

McCall's (Henniman's). Skogmo's. The Spot. Dick's Corner. The Hartz Store. The Tastee Freez. Coast-to-Coast hardware. Ice rink on the banks of the river, lights strung overhead. The dam. South Pembina. The airport. The museum. Crossing the Red, then the Pembina. Ukranian church dome. Old 81. Old Pembina with the vines growing up the side of the old Methodist Church. Ancestors' rocking chairs in the museum...the old museum that seemed like a treasure chest of old area artifacts. Many a summer was spent touring the row upon row of exhibits, taking in as much as possible. Imagination working overtime wondering who the people were that once owned that dress, that gun, that book. So MUCH stuff that each display area was a Fibber McGee open closet. Even the walls were covered with treasures all the way up to the ceiling. The Park nearby had a monument towards the back, almost hidden by the now older trees. The white pyramid-like steps led up in the center to a pillar. Names and a dedication, barely legible, told of a war to end all wars, and the local boys that wouldn't be coming home again. I would climb that monument thinking it was magical, touch the white stone, rough and hot in the summer sun. Who were these people who were just names now, I wondered as a child. I was in awe of someone who would sacrifice so much.