Saturday, July 02, 2011

Ballad of a Steamboat

SS Anson Northrup / Source:  Archives of Manitoba
A song about steamboating on the Red River, that mentions Fort Pembina...

Anson Northrup
by Dwight Peters

© 2005

In eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, out on the great west plain
The Prairie Schooner & ox cart, ruled the golden waves
In old St. Paul a bounty was set, by the shaking of the traders’ hands
To bring the mighty steamships to La Verendrye’s lands

Down on the Mississippi, Anson Northrup was heard to say
“That eight thousand dollar bounty’s mine and my riverboat’s the way”
We’ll launch at Crow Wing River and then go up the Red
But first we’ll have to strip her down and take it north by sled

The little girl playing on Fort Garry’s wall cried, 
“Sounds like someone blowing in a bottle”
The great bells chimed at St. Boniface
as the Captain leaned on the throttle
The children screamed, farmers ran to town, 
Metis feared the waking of the dead
Their muskets roared and William Ross implored
There’s a steamboat comin’, there’s a steamboat coming,
The Anson Northrup’s comin’, comin’ ‘round the bend

The ragged ship set its compass north, followed the old Red River Trail
And only three dared to get on board, so sure that it would fail
As sparks roared from the smokestacks, rainin’ down on the dry cargo bins
The furnace drew such a colossal draft, might take the fireman right in

The trip up the windy Red River was to take just four days
But the bison still ruled the prairie and their crossing caused great delays
“Well I bet my last bottle of whiskey, that boat must surely run aground”
Said the rector at Fort Pembina as he heard its disappearing sound

Riverboats on the prairie, strange as it now seems
Ruled the Red and Assiniboine, these vessels run on steam
A four days west to Grantown, just 2 as a crow might fly
Would burn a chord of wood an hour, and blacken out the sky

The riverboats hauled the cargo, the traders got their reward
The ox-carts creeked out one last song, to a chorus of ‘all on board’
And a way of life kept changing, for some said to be doomed
Each time the steamboat sailed the Red, each time its whistle boomed

Captain Northrup1 got his bounty, left his boat to a watery grave
A Horse of Iron replaced the steamers, men of white sealed the bison’s fate
Though the Metis never perished, their lives would never be the same
You still can hear their muskets roar at the sound of Anson Northrup’s name

1 - …Captain Anson Northrup whipped a team of oxen to drag an old boat called the North Star over the dry land divide to the Red. Successfully plunged into a new river, Northrup’s none-too-modestly renamed vessel, the Anson Northrup, proudly sailed across the border on June 10, 1859, yanking the Red River at last into the age of steam…

- From Prairie Warships

NOTE:  I contacted the composer of the song (which is part of an album called Red River) to ask him about it, and he had this to say...
Anson Northrup is still one of my favourite songs. I wrote it during a period when I was reflecting on Manitoba's and the prairie's history which is rich, remarkable and colourful and sadly becoming forgotten. Red River (Wpg & Riel) and Last Village Waltz (disappearing grain elevators & farm towns) and Lazy Prairie Moon (the old barn dance) all reflect this theme. There is a wonderful history of Manitoba Metis culture and music waiting to be composed or written and may be next.  You can hear the song on our myspace  in all its orchestral glory, it was the last song recorded for that CD so we got a bit carried away. We have enjoyed your blog, and the boat certainly would have passed through Pembina.  
I set out to write an odyssey similar to one of my favourite Robbie Robertson songs "Acadian Driftwood". The idea for the song actually came from a childhood memory of seeing an old abandoned river boat off McPhillps Ave near the perimeter in Wpg. Never discovered the story of that  boat but the possibility of a river boat on the Red got things going. I wanted the song to have a solid factual basis and so I googled and read as much as I could about steamships in Manitoba. What I learned fascinated me and the uniqueness of the name Anson Northrup itself seemed to beg for the man himself to be the focal point. Sadly, his memory seems to have disappeared from Wpg itself and there's not much info out there. 
"In 1859", there was a great deal of north south trade along the Red River through Fort Pembina (which at that time was part of the NW Territory and not the US)  down into the US. This link would expand to Chicago when the railway came in. Until then trips to what is now Minnesota (" in old St Paul a bounty is set") were made by Red River carts along the well travelled "Red River Trail",  small boats or "prairie schooners" in the winter. The steamers came north thanks to Anson but he didn't stick around long. Neither did the Anson Northrup or steamers. While the Red River/Wpg to Lake Winnipeg route was quick and reliable the Red is quite windy further south. The Assinaboine River is windy and shallow so it wasn't uncommon for people to walk faster than the boats on that route and running aground was a real problem but they somehow made it to Fort la Reine ( Portage) and beyond. The railway was the final straw when it came in in the 1880's to quell ironically the Northwest Rebellion and that more or less did it sealed it for the streamers.  The AN itself changed hands a few times and I believe was out of commission by 1870, more or less ditched in its "watery grave"  just north of Red River/Wpg .  Even after learning all this , the imagery of a steamer on the Red was captivating, Manitoba's own Mississippi!

So, to your question, Fort Pembina was very real as was the risk of running aground. I'm not sure if there was a rector at the Fort but I had it in my notes that someone in authority at the Fort had predicted that the boat wouldn't make it to Wpg when it passed through. I used rector because at that time there were a lot of Catholic missions in the area and very likely a church ( St. Vincent?)  near the Fort and a rector would have been a VIP. In those days, men drank "whiskey"  (probably home brew!) and a bottle would have been a common and very serious bet. The "sounds like someone blowing in a bottle" was  apparently really spoken and I believe it was actually said by a young girl. In those day, Upper Fort Garry was still a functioning Fort and people did assemble on its walls to see what was "coming around the bend " and making that noise. The other references in the song, launching at Crow Wing River, Anson being "down on the Mississippi" in 1859, and the "bounty' being put up at St Paul all came from histories. Once I got the perspective, the song wrote fairly smoothly and I was pleased at how authentic I was able to keep it while still getting things in rhythm and rhyme!  
So there you go. Thanks again for listening and let me know if you have any other ?'s.