Last year, Pembina County celebrated its Sesquicentennial. In celebration of this, local historian Jim Benjaminson wrote an ongoing series of historical essays for the local newspaper entitled Pembina County at 150. Jim has shared some of them with us here on St. Vincent Memories before. Today we're sharing one on a subject we've been discussing on our Facebook page recently...
Ferries and Bridges
To the fur traders of the late 1700's and early 1800's the Red River and its tributaries were their “highways”. As permanent settlers began infiltrating the area establishing farms and communities, the rivers were at first an asset – but as more and more settlers took up permanent residence further away from the main streams, the rivers began to take on a new persona – they began to be more of a hindrance than anything. As trails became roads, crossing rivers and streams became a challenge and a chore. From 1859 on, as steam boats began to ply the Red the movement of goods was made considerably easier, despite the fact river travel consumed over 395 miles from Breckenridge to the International Border despite land routes that totaled under 200 miles. But river travel wasn't always dependable. For at least 5 months of the year, the river was frozen over and in other years, the water level was too low to allow passage of the steamers between river communities.
Amazing as it may seem, crossing the Red into Minnesota meant at least a day's journey to either Winnipeg or Grand Forks even as late as 1910. The pages of the early Pembina County Commissioners books are filled with requests from county residents “praying for funds” to establish either a road or a bridge crossing in various locations of the county. But there was at least one other option – establishment of a ferry service between the two states.
At least three ferry franchises were authorized by the County Commissioners over the years. One of the earliest references found in the Commission records is dated April 13, 1872 which granted D.F. Brawley a ten-year franchise for a ferry at Pembina, for which Brawley agreed to pay Pembina County $26 a year for the privilege; G.F. Keney was awarded the Grand Forks ferry franchise at $50 a year. Ten years later, on page 60 of commission records, Robert Tweedlie of Drayton was granted a three-year franchise, effective October 2, 1882 through October 2, 1885 paying a franchise fee of just $10 per year to the county – by late August of 1883 the Pioneer Express was running the following: “Wanted, a good man to run the Drayton Ferry”!
Apparently the Pembina franchise was worth considerably more than the Drayton franchise, as commission records show (on page 90) James Airth of Pembina agreed to pay Pembina County $75 per year for three-years, effective January 1, 1883 through January 1, 1886 – placing his ferry in service April 23, 1883.
Exactly when Pembina County relinquished issuing franchises in favor of the cities (and how the franchise was honored from the Minnesota side of the river) is unclear. D.F. Brawley, a St. Vincent resident had been awarded a ferry franchise which was revoked by the Minnesota Legislature in January of 1878. Brawley would be involved in other dealings with the government when he sued the military over a contract he held for supplying cord word to Fort Pembina (he lost the suit). At the Pembina Council meeting of April 1, 1889, tenders to operate the ferry between Pembina and St. Vincent were offered by P. L. Messareur [Note from Trish: Could this be a misspelling of Philip Le Masurier's name?] for $160 for the year of 1889; Wilbur Kerns tendered an offer of $156 per year for three years while Alex Airth offered $169 per year for three years. The franchise was granted to Airth.
Although details are lacking, Pembina County jail records record that William O'Keefe was arrested and jailed January 19, 1881, as was James L. Fisk for “establishing, maintaining and running an illegal ferry in North Dakota”. The next day, January 20, J. Rich was also arrested and charged as was W. W. Nicholas on January 21st. Whether these men were interlopers from Minnesota or just trying to worm their way into the ferry business has not been discovered – nor has any court disposition! One has to question why they were arrested in January when there obviously was no ferry service!