Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pembina County at 150: Ferries & Bridges

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!

Always dependent on the breakup of river ice – depth of water, or icing over of the river, the Pembina Pioneer Express reported “the Pembina and St. Vincent ferry commenced running on Monday (April 23) in its Friday, April 27, 1883 edition. The St. Paul Globe would report in its December 10, 1885 issue “the St. Vincent and Pembina ferry, operated by Messrs. Buie and Airth, finally shut down on Friday, since which time their thermometer has on one occasion recorded 22 degrees below zero”.

Calls for bid tenders continued to appear in the local papers, the St. Paul Daily Globe of May 14, 1886 reading “the St, Vincent village trustees have advertised the letting of the license to run a ferry across the Red River between St. Vincent and Pembina.” The Pioneer Express, in its June 21, 1895 edition called for “bids for license to run the ferry across the Red River within the limits of the city of Pembina, for the year 1895, will be received by the city council of said city at an adjourned meeting Monday evening, June 17.”

By 1899 the city of Drayton had put their ferry to rest, building a “pontoon bridge”. Reports indicated the bridge was made up of “three boats each about sixty feet in length with connecting aprons span(ing) 200 feet of river.” The total cost, including approaches to the bridge “is about $2,500”. Built by private subscription use of the bridge was free.

By 1902 W.G. Deacon, village recorder of St. Vincent “and lessee of the Minnesota side of the ferry” appeared before the Pembina city council on the subject of building a new ferry boat. After a considerable amount of discussion and on motion, a committee of three alderman were appointed to investigate the condition of the old boat and to find the approximate cost of a new boat. It was discovered a new boat had to be built, which would cost anywhere from $350 to $600. St. Vincent wanted Pembina to build the boat which they would then pay $100 per year rental. The Pembina City Council balked at this idea “preferring not to have anything to do with the boat at all, but let the ferryman furnish his own boat”. Realizing no one would build their own boat on a one-year franchise, and not wishing to enter into a five-year contract the Pembina Council issued an order for bids, calling for “first—bidders shall state the highest amount they will pay the city for the ferry franchise for the season of 1902, the city to furnish boats and other necessary apparatus—or, second—bidders shall state the highest amount they will pay this city for the ferry franschise for a term of five years; such bidders also agreeing to furnish good and suitable boats and apparatus for that time at their own cost and expense.”

Apparently a five year bid was accepted as a May 1906 report indicated “Commodore Akers had the ferry cable stretched across the Red yesterday and the ferry is commissioned for service this morning.” A year later Pembina was again advertising for bid tenders on a five-year basis.

During the years steam boats plied the waters of the Red, both high and low water situations dictated travel – the year 1909 would be no exception for the pontoon bridge at Drayton or the ferry at Pembina. August found the pontoon bridge “out of commission on account of the high water” while Commodore Aker “owing to the low stage of water in the Red River has had difficulties in navigating the ferry, and some dredging will have to be done before the season closes if it goes any lower.” Frank Simmons had the misfortune of “getting his auto into the river” while approaching the Drayton pontoon bridge. “Coming up the hill from the bridge on the Dakota side of the river, his engine died. His brakes were out of commission and the machine ran into the river before he could turn it around.” Ice on the approaches was also a problem. Bathgate's John Rockefeller, crossing in his carriage on the Pembina ferry found it impossible to land on the St. Vincent side of the river. Returning to Pembina, the carriage was too long to turn on the ferry so it was attempted to pull the rig off backwards with the team hitched behind. As the front wheels of the carriage came off the ferry, they swung under and lengthways of the rig which promptly turned the rig upside down. Miracously no damage was done except for some minor repairs, nor were the horses hurt.

With no bridge crossing between Winnipeg and Grand Forks, the Drayton City Council began agitating for construction of an “all-steel bridge”, presenting the Pembina County Board of Commissioners with a petition at their July 1910 meeting, signed by one-third of the resident tax payers of Pembina County praying for an appropriation covering one-half the cost, up to $25,000 of constructing such a bridge, to be built “within the next 18 months” with the remainder to be paid for by the city of Drayton by the issuance of municipal bonds and subscriptions of the residents of Minnesota, said bridge “commencing at the foot of Almeron Street in Drayton and spanning the river to the Minnesota side”. What followed soon turned into a bruhaha of epic proportions. At its November 4th meeting the Commission voted to approve the petition; At its next meeting November 18th, the board voted to rescind its earlier motion based on Chapter 67 of the Session Laws of 1909 which forbid extraordinary expenses without a vote of the people. In bold headlines the Pioneer Express reported “For The Third Time The Board Reverses Itself”. The Commission's next resolution read “Now therefore, be it resolved, that the said resolution introduced by Commissioner Myrick and passed by this board on November 18th, and inscribed on the minutes of this board of that date, be and the same is hereby declared to be null, void and of no effect, and the resolution of this board passed on November 4th, 1910 is hereby declared to be in full force and effect.” Drayton was about to get its bridge – much to the chagrin of Frank Wardwell, editor of the Pembina Pioneer Express.

Wardwell, who had been carrying on a war of words with J. K. Fairchild, editor of the Cavalier Chronicle over the removal of the courthouse from Pembina to Cavalier, continued to harp about the County Commissioners actions which resulted in the County borrowing $100,000 for construction of a new courthouse in Cavalier, plus an additional $15,000 for a sheriff's residence and jail. Adding an additional $25,000 in debt to build a bridge at Drayton was the final straw.

At the bridge bid opening February 11, 1911 the Drayton council received bids from the Central Bridge Company of Indiapolis, Indiana, Fargo Bridge & Iron, A. Y. Bayne & Company of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Steel Machinery Company with bids ranging from $58,300 to $49,950. It was moved by Alderman Waldron that all bids exceeding $50,000 be thrown out. The final bid, for a 1,117 foot all-steel bridge with a 140' center lift span was awarded to the Minneapolis Steel Machinery Company in the amount of $49,965. The “lift” was counterbalanced by heavy concrete weights and rise 21 feet above the bridge level. Work on the bridge began late in June and was completed by November. The old pontoon bridge was put up for bids September 11, 1911 and sold to Pembina and St. Vincent for $800, to be delivered (floated down river) in the spring. When in place it was estimated the distance between the two cities “will be reduced one forth”.

At a joint meeting of the Commissioners of Pembina County and the Drayton City Council the steel bridge was approved by City engineer R. H. Slocum. After a report of the meeting was sent to the Minneapolis Steel Machinery Company a Saturday morning telegram was received by Drayton Mayor Edwards to open the bridge to traffic. At 1:30 that afternoon (December 2, 1911), after a “few fitting remarks” the mayor declared the bridge open to traffic. A short procession headed by Mayor Edwards and Dr. H. M. Waldron in Waldron's recently purchased 1912 E-M-F made the first trip across the structure.

The first team to cross was that of L.T. Gilroy (who had worked on the bridge during its construction) was first to cross from the Dakota side; Andrew Hanson “one of the most successful farmers of Minnesota” was first to cross from that side.

The pontoon bridge arrived in Pembina April 16, 1912 after a three-day voyage in charge of Drayton marshal John Barton. Moored on the St. Vincent side of the river the bridge was to be put in place as soon as the frost is out of the ground sufficiently to excavate the banks. By early June the bridge was still not operable to teams as the grading had not been completed. And there was still one further hurdle to overcome. As the Red River was considered a navigable waterway, it took special legislation from North Dakota Senator McCumber to push a law through the U.S. Congress permitting the pontoon bridge to span the river between Pembina and St. Vincent. The Pioneer Express commented “we think the ferry which has been the mode of crossing since the early '70s will be relegated.”

Upriver, the ferry at Joliette was now the only remaining operating ferry in Pembina County. Even with the new bridge at Drayton, business was sufficient in 1911 to warrant constructing a new ferry after the old one had gone adrift; when found it was “so badly dilapidated that it was not worth while towing back.”

Of the three Pembina County ferries, the Joliette ferry would prove to be the deadliest. An accident in August of 1913 claimed the lives of four Drayton people. John Anderson of Drayton was chauffeur on the ill-fated trip. Leaving Drayton in the morning, the group crossed the lift-bridge at Drayton and motored to Hallock for the day. For whatever reason the party decided to return via the Joliette Ferry. Dressed in their finest and with the convertible top in the up position, the auto travelers remained in the car, (a Hartford, Wisconsin-built Kissel Kar,) while Mr. Johnson parked on top of the hill to see if the ferry boat was ready. Unable to make the brake work, the big car rolled off the end of the boat into the water. Drowned in the accident were Mr. and Mrs. R. A. Stewart, Mrs. John A. Johnson and 12-year old Willie Johnson. Only Mr. Anderson, who was not in the vehicle, survived.

Cars rolling over the edge of ferry boats was not uncommon. A 1915 accident near Letellier, Manitoba saw that driver escape the sinking auto while an accident five years later at the same location resulted in the deaths of four people. A 1922 swimming accident at the Joliette ferry claimed the life of John Bartlett of Walhalla. Married just two weeks, Mr. Bartlett and his wife had hired out to work for a Joliette family.

Exactly when the Joliette ferry ceased operation is unknown. The winch and pulleys used at the ferry have recently been donated to the Pembina County Museum west of Cavalier and are currently on display. The pontoon bridge at Pembina was still in use as late as 1924 with plans “to “be put in use again next spring and will carry the traffic until the new bridge now under construction is finished.”

The Drayton lift-bridge remained in service until late 1954. Replaced by a 1,058 foot long bridge known as the Robbin Bridge, the deck was built to be two and a half feet higher than the record flood waters of 1950. Built at a cost of $653,081 the bridge was a mile and a quarter northeast of Drayton. There was just one problem – the road to the bridge was prone to being flooded; over the years workers traveling from Minnesota to the Pembina bus plant or Drayton beet plant had to find alternate routes. According to the Red River Valley Leader of November 25, 1954 “as the new bridge was feeling its first day of traffic, work had already begun on the removal of the old lift bridge. The contractor for the new structure will remove the old bridge with nothing to be salvaged for the two states.”

According to local people interviewed for that article, it was claimed the center lift-span was raised three times but only once for a river boat to pass. Considering the last steam boat passed through Drayton two years before the bridge was constructed, it would seem that statement is not accurate. There are rumors that the center lift-span is now a single bridge crossing the Pembina River in Pembina but that has not been substantiated.

The only remaining items of the Drayton lift-bridge are a builders placque on display in the Blessing Museum at Drayton and two large pulley wheels that operated the counterweights at the entrance to Drayton's Schumacher Park.

The Robbin Bridge was demolished in 2011, replaced by a 1,246 meter structure, making it the second longest bridge in North Dakota (surpassed only by the Four Bears Bridge at Newtown, ND).

The Golden Grain Bridge, built in 1970, now spans the Red River between Joliette and Hallock, Minnesota. At 1,311 feet, it was (at the time) the longest bridge crossing the Red River. Like the Robbin Bridge before it, the bridge deck remains high and dry during floods – but the approach road from the west is underwater.

St. Vincent ferry coming from Pembina towards St. Vincent...
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Pembina County Trivia

1. How many bridges are there in Pembina County?
2. What is the oldest public bridge still in use in Pembina County?
3. What is the second oldest public bridge still in use in Pembina County?
4. What is the oldest private bridge still in use in Pembina County?

1A. There are 502 bridges in Pembina County
2A. The oldest public bridge was built in 1907 and is located on 1st Avenue North in Cavalier
3A. The second oldest public bridge was built in 1917 and is located in Hamilton township
4A. The oldest private bridge was built in 1896 to service “The Island” in Cavalier