Monday, November 28, 2005

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.