Thursday, April 15, 2010

Journeying from St. Vincent to Winnipeg

A pretty amusing and sometimes outright laugh-out-loud account of the 'thrilling' journey by steamboat from St. Vincent to Winnipeg...

For sake of saving your eyes, I have transcribed some of the article in an excerpt below, but also have attached a scan of the original article...
If the English statesmen who have been recently eulogizing the agricultural resources of Canada before the discontented farmers of Great Britain had ever visited the British Provinces here, so as to enabled to draw their conclusions from actual observation instead of deriving their impressions from the perusal of the rose-colored pictures presented in the publications of Canadian land agents, which are now being extensively circulated in Europe to influence emigration to Canada, there might have been a good deal more wisdom in some of the agricultural speeches lately delivered in England. If the most loyal Englishman had the privilege of being dragged along the bottom of the Red River of the North in a flat-bottomed boat for upward of 100 miles through the British possessions, as I have been on my way to Winnipeg, the capital of the Province of Manitoba, if his faith in the carrying capacity of the waters of a river which is represented as one of the principal outlets for Canadian products was not shaken, his nervous system would at least be badly shattered. The incessant jarring of the boat with the rocks or boulders along the bed of the river, the crawling pace at which it pursues its tortuous course, together with the delightful state of uncertainty in which you are placed as to whether it will take a day or a week to reach your destination - and uncertainty which the appearance of the stranded wreck of one of the Red River steamboats mingles with gloomy forebodings of shipwrecks and disasters - all this would have cooled down the fervor of the most enthusiastic Briton.

We left St. Vincent, which is situated on the boundary-line between the United States and Canada, at 6 o'clock in the afternoon by the steam-boat Minnesota, and did not reach Winnipeg until 1 o'clock the following day, although the distance along the river is not much over 100 miles. Owing to the uncertainty of navigation upon the Red River of the North, there is hardly any such thing as a regular time-table to govern the movements of the steam-boats running upon its muddy waters. If you happen to be in time at any of the regular places of landing you are taken on board. Should you find that the boat has started when you arrive, you can readily overtake it by walking at a brisk pace, and by holding up your finger - as you would hail the conductor of the Third-avenue car in New-York - the obliging Captain will accommodate you with a berth. At several points along the river I have seen a plank put out upon a mud bank to take up a passenger who signaled from the shore. The navigation of the river is a very difficult undertaking owing to the serpentine course which it pursues, and the almost total absence of any kind of landmark along the shores. During the whole of our journey from St. Vincent to Winnipeg we did not get a glimpse of the country through which we were passing, the bed of the river is so far below the surface of the broad prairies on either side, while the banks present such a never-ending sameness of thick brushwood, and the myriad bends, which are seldom more than 40 rods apart, appear so like each other, that, except where the rude hut of a half-breed Canadian here and there comes within view, there seems to be no means of distinguishing between any two points along the river. This difficulty is increased by the shallowness of the water. Although our flat-bottomed boat drew only 30 inches of water, it was scraping along the river bed nearly all the way.

Having arrived here by this route, of course you will return to St. Vincent by the Pembina branch of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which is now in operation from this place to that station, where it connects with the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad, in the hope of avoiding the vexatious delays of the Red River steam-boats. In this, however, you will be mistaken. The train leaves St. Boniface, which is on the outskirts of the town, at 4:30 A.M. You leave instructions with the hotel clerk to have you called up in time in the morning, and, although you may not have retired before 11 o'clock, you will be wakened up in all haste shortly before 1 o'clock, and informed that the omnibus is waiting to take you to the station. You naturally ask the conductor why he calls at the hotel fully three hours before the train starts, when 20 minutes would have been sufficient, and he replies, without the slightest concsciousness of any impropriety, that he happened to get up "a litte too early himself," and he though it better to call up his passengers also. After sitting about an hour in the omnibus occupying yourself with speculations as to the contents of the mail-bags from the Post Office piled in the centre, it is set in motion, but not to convey you to the depot. The conductor has first to call at all the other hotels, as well as at every private residence from which there is a passenger for the train; and as he halts in front of several houses in town you will hear the mistress given him positive orders to "wait an hour," that her husband would not get up yet awhile. Finally, all the passengers have been collected, and they are landed about 4 o'clock at St. Boniface, where, after sheltering themselves for three-quarters of an hour as best they can among the boxes on the platform or in the small frame building which forms the ticket office, waiting-room, and storehouse of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the engine having been wooded up, the train starts at length, and you traverse a boundless waste of prairie land on your way to the American frontier. Such has been the experience of a gentleman who traveled recently from here to St. Vincent by the Canadian Pacific...

[Source: New York Times archives, original publishing date of October 20, 1879]