Steamboats on the Red

A very short history of Red River Steam Navigation in the Fargo-Moorhead Area.

Whistle from the International. Steamboatmen used whistles to announce their approach to ports and to communicate with other boats on the River.

Whistle from the International. Steamboatmen used whistles to announce their approach to ports and to communicate with other boats on the River.

Many visitors to and residents of the area are amazed to find that steamboats on the Red River provided an important transportation link 150 years ago. “The river must have been wider or deeper or straighter then,” many people have suggested. Not so. Surveys from the period indicate the Red hasn’t changed much. The images of steam powered paddle wheels chuffing and churning the muddy waters of our border river, difficulties with low water, tight bends, bells, whistles and the arcane jargon of the steamboat men provide one of the most colorful chapters in our local history. But as much as local investors and residents at the time wanted to believe differently, the boats were destined to be never more than a temporary link in a changing transportation network. Railroads would be Clay County’s lifeline, not the twisting Red. Steamboating went through three phases as markets and technology changed:

Fur Trade Days

In the 1850s, St. Paul and Fort Garry (Winnipeg) were about the only settlements in the area. Minnesota merchants used horse or ox drawn Red River carts to ship goods for sale to their northern neighbors. The carts were cheap but slow – the 500 mile trip took a month. A steamboat on the Red could cut the trip in half.

The Anson Northup was never much of a boat. One pilot described her as "a lumbering old pine basket you had to handle as gingerly as a hamper full of eggs." She was rebuilt in 1860 as the Pioneer and sank in 1861. Harpers New Monthly, August 1860.

The Anson Northup was never much of a boat. One pilot described her as “a lumbering old pine basket you had to handle as gingerly as a hamper full of eggs.” She was rebuilt in 1860 as the Pioneer and sank in 1861. Harpers New Monthly, August 1860.

In 1859, Anson Northup dragged a steamboat’s engine, boiler and hull from the Mississippi River through a nasty Minnesota winter to a spot on the Red near Kragnes, built a new steamboat and named it after himself. The Anson Northup wasn’t much of a boat, but it was a start. The fur trading Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Garry built a steamboat terminal at Georgetown to transfer furs and trade goods between ox carts and the boat. Soon trains of hundreds of carts were squeaking their way from St. Paul to meet the Anson Northup and the International, a second steamboat built at Georgetown in 1862. Steamboating was a hit!

The International tied up at Moorhead, early 1870s. At 136 feet long, she was the largest steamboat to run on the US portion of the Red. The river at Moorhead was only 140 feet wide!

The International tied up at Moorhead, early 1870s. At 136 feet long, she was the largest steamboat to run on the US portion of the Red. The river at Moorhead was only 140 feet wide!

Railroads Reach the Red

In 1871, the Northern Pacific Railway reached the Red River at Moorhead and steamboating really took off. Trade with Winnipeg increased dramatically and thousands of eager settlers bound for Canada poured through Fargo-Moorhead. Moorhead became a ship building center. Soon the waterfront (just north of today’s Center Avenue bridge) was choked with steamboats and barges heavily loaded with lumber, flour, farm implements, beds, pianos and just about anything people in Canada and along the Red might want to buy.

Steamboat Selkirk tied up beneath the unfinished Northern Pacific Railway bridge over the Red River between the two brand new cities of Moorhead, MN and Fargo, Dakota Territory, spring 1872. Workmen completed the bridge later that spring. The first train crossed into Dakota June 6.  The view is to the southwest from the Moorhead side of the river.

Steamboat Selkirk tied up beneath the unfinished Northern Pacific Railway bridge over the Red River between the two brand new cities of Moorhead, MN and Fargo, Dakota Territory, spring 1872. Workmen completed the bridge later that spring. The first train crossed into Dakota June 6. The view is to the southwest from the Moorhead side of the river.

But in 1876, rails reached Fisher’s Landing on the Red Lake River, a major tributary of the Red east of Grand Forks.

Steamboats pulled out of Moorhead for the new railhead. Locals turned to building flatboats. There were little more than rafts piled high with goods. After a LONG float to Winnipeg, their sailors sold their wares on the riverbank, tore apart the flatboats and sold the lumber. By 1878 Winnipeg had its own rail connections and steamboating began a long decline.

Steamboating’s Final Days

Steamboats could not compete with the much faster and cheaper railroad to Winnipeg, but there were lots of new farmers along the Red with wheat that needed transport to the railroad at Fargo-Moorhead. Steamboaters turned to short-hauling grain, lumber and other items.

Steamboat J. L. Grandin at the Grandin Line's grain elevator on the Fargo side of the Red, 1879. Note the device lifting bulk wheat out of the barge in the foreground. Barges tied alongside or towed behind the steamers carried all sorts of cargo.

Steamboat J. L. Grandin at the Grandin Line’s grain elevator on the Fargo side of the Red, 1879. Note the device lifting bulk wheat out of the barge in the foreground. Barges tied alongside or towed behind the steamers carried all sorts of cargo.

In 1878, the huge Grandin bonanza wheat farm near Halstad, MN built their own steamboat, the J. L. Grandin, and a big elevator on the Fargo bank for handling their own wheat and that of others. Brothers Henry W. and Charles Alsop followed with two steamers at Moorhead, the H. W. Alsop and the side-wheeler Pluck. The local waterfront buzzed with activity again.

But within a few years, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba (later called the Great Northern) Railway built branch lines up and down the banks of the Red. Steamboaters struggled for a few years then gave up.

Fargo-Moorhead waterfront, probably spring 1887. This was the last year steamboats ran regularly out of Fargo-Moorhead. On the Fargo bank, left, the Grandin Lines' elevator and steamboat J. L. Grandin are visible. On the Moorhead side, the Alsop Brothers' name is still painted on their old elevator, but the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway owned the boats by 1887. Shown in the foreground is the side-wheeler the Pluck. The construction in the center foreground is a toboggan slide, built the previous winter for local snow enthusiasts.

Fargo-Moorhead waterfront, probably spring 1887. This was the last year steamboats ran regularly out of Fargo-Moorhead. On the Fargo bank, left, the Grandin Lines’ elevator and steamboat J. L. Grandin are visible. On the Moorhead side, the Alsop Brothers’ name is still painted on their old elevator, but the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway owned the boats by 1887. Shown in the foreground is the side-wheeler the Pluck. The construction in the center foreground is a toboggan slide, built the previous winter for local snow enthusiasts.

The Grandin Line parked its boat the same day rails reached their farm and the Alsops sold their boats to the railroad. Although steamboats operated near Grand Forks until about 1912, the big boats quit running regularly out of Fargo-Moorhead in 1887.

Originally published in CCHS Newsletter, April/May 1995 © Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

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