Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Heritage Highlights: International Incident

Manitoba's rudder (Marine Museum of Manitoba)


I recently discovered Bruce Cherney and his Heritage Highlights; it appears that Bruce, like myself, has a real passion for local history! Some of his older articles are available through the Manitoba Historical Society.

Below are excerpts from Cherney's excellent article Collision on the Red - published in two parts - that he recently posted on a near "international incident" which involved Pembina...
But for all the “huzzahs” in Moorhead with the steamboat finally underway, the mood turned to anxiety when the Manitoba was delayed at the border crossing at Pembina, North Dakota...The newspapermen said they were aware of the circumstances of the delay in Pembina and decried “those who regard monopoly as their right.”

The enforcement of the delay almost created an international incident with a top Washington official having to intervene.

The newspapermen said they were aware of the circumstances of the delay in Pembina and decried “those who regard monopoly as their right.”

In a May 4 letter to the Free Press, Colonel Charles Stephenson, the supervising custom inspector at Pembina, said he wanted to “state briefly the facts of the case.”

Stephenson wrote that when James Douglas, the agent of the Merchant’s International Steamboat Line aboard the Manitoba, attempted to get him to conduct the inspection, he was engaged elsewhere “and unable to attend the Manitoba on time.”

The inspector was under the impression that the Manitoba would proceed and be inspected on the steamboat’s return trip. “As this had been permitted during previous seasons to the boats of the Kittson line.”

According to Stephenson, a newly-hired custom official at Pembina was unaware of the practice and was overly zealous in conforming to the letter of the law at the urging of the former customs inspector who still resided in Pembina.

“As soon as Mr. (Jacob) Frankfield, the present customs officer at Pembina refused to pass the boat, Mr. Douglas telegraphed the fact to the Secretary of the Treasury at Washington, who replied referring the case to Colonel Stephenson at Galena ... A telegraph was sent to Stephenson at Galena, giving all the particulars.”

Stephenson sent Douglas the following telegram, “Ask collector at Pembina to permit steamer Manitoba to make trip and return to Moorhead. I will meet her there on the 8th inst. for inspection.”
While being temporarily held in Pembina...
...the passengers enjoyed the sights of the community, which included a drunken man brandishing a “repeater and firing shots at some unseen foe.” The drunk...who appeared to be somehow above the law — possibly a “deputy sheriff” — enthusiastically shook the hands of any Manitoba passenger he encountered.

The only known photograph of the
prairie warship captains, including
 the two who worked the Red River:
William Robinson (standing), and
Aaron Russell, John Segers, and
Jerry Weber (left to right, seated).
One passenger was heard by the writer to have expressed the opinion that if the man had behaved in such a manner in Canada, “the bobbies would nab him quicker than a wink.”
Fascinating trivia regarding the two steamboat captains featured in this story involving Pembina - river pilots/navigators that plied their trade and learned their craft on the Red River of the North:
- Captain Jerry Webber, was originally from Winnipeg but later operated out of the U.S., later gaining a measure of fame as one of the “old Red River navigators” hired by the British during the Nile Expedition of 1884-1885 to rescue General Charles “Chinese” Gordon under siege at Khartoum. Although the relief of the Sudanese city was unsuccessful and Gordon was killed by the Mahdi’s forces, the four Red River steamboat captains were praised by the British for their skill while ferrying supplies and troops on the Nile River in Egypt.

- Captain John Scribner Segers' career as an “old Red River navigator” was as colourful as Webber’s. He also took part in the Nile Expedition, and was the captain of the steamer Northcote (commanded by Webber in the early 1880s until Segers took over), which was ordered converted by General Sir Frederick Middleton into a gunboat. The steamboat participated in the May 9-12, 1885, Battle of Batoche during the North-West Rebellion, but was crippled by the Métis who used ferry cables to take it out of action.
I found an excellent book on the very subject Bruce writes about, called Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the North-West Rebellion, in a chapter called Hudson's Bay Workhorses: The Red River Regime. The chapter reads like a thriller - a frontier business thriller - no wonder men like James J. Hill (cutting his teeth and filling his pocketbook with money made on the river way before the railroads were built) and Norman Kittson made a killing - they had a lot of foresight, energy, and yes ruthlessness, necessary to not only see opportunity but to seize it, and they did!

Below is an excerpt from the book's colorful version of the collision, with some fascinating background on the two ship captains involved...

[Click on image to enlarge]

From Prairie Warships, by Gordon Errett Tolton