In the upper midwest, steamboats are most often thought to have existed solely on the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. The Red River, however, also had steamboats. The driving force behind steamboating on the Red River was Sir George Simpson, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Simpson wanted to reduce shipping charges for goods transported between Winnipeg (then called Fort Garry), Manitoba, and St. Paul, Minnesota.
The St. Paul business community strongly endorsed the idea and in the fall of 1858 the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce offered $1000 to the first person who could put a steamboat on the Red River. Taking up the challenge (for an agreed $2000) was a St. Paul contractor named Anson Northup.
He bought a steamboat named the North Star. Taking advantage of the high water in the spring of 1859, he guided his new acquisition up Sauk Rapids and Little Falls past Fort Ripley and on to Pokegama and Sandy Lakes. He dismantled the North Star on the Crow Wing River and hauled the pieces 150 miles through the cold and snow, reaching Lafayette, MN, on April 1, 1859. Lafayette was on the Red River about 10 miles north of present-day Moorhead, MN. It took about six weeks to reassemble the boat, including the 11,000 pound boiler that they had hauled overland. Northup launched the North Star (now christened the Anson Northup) on May 19, 1859. He sailed upriver to Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, about 45 miles south. A weeks later, on June 6, 1859, the Northup sailed north to Fort Garry, reaching its destination on June 10, 1859.
After returning to Fort Abercrombie, Northup left for St. Paul where he hoped to negotiate lucrative freight contracts, particularly with the Hudson Bay Company. He could not come to terms, however, and he sold his steamship to the Burbank brothers. The Burbanks had agreed, secretly, to give the Hudson Bay Company a 50% discount on freight charges in return for which the company underwrote the Burbanks' purchase. They paid Northup $8000 and renamed the boat the Pioneer. The Burbanks hired Edwin C. Bell (an experienced Mississippi riverboat captain) as Captain of their boat.
Captain Bell was able to make one more voyage down river to Fort Garry in 1859 before ice prevented further sailing. Over the winter of 1859-1860, the boat was completely overhauled, repairing the leaky boiler and adding a third deck. The refurbished boat was again renamed; it was now the Pioneer. By 1861, the Hudson Bay Company bought out the Burbank brothers and took control of the boat. Unfortunately, she sank during the winter of 1861-1862 at Cook's Creek, near Selkirk (north of Fort Garry). The boat's remains were dismantled.
Northup was not without competition in his quest for prize money. Captain John B. Pond, recognizing the high waters in the spring of 1859, attempted to sail his steamboat, the Freighter, to the Red River by way of the flooded Minnesota River. The ship ran aground and was abandoned by Pond. The Burbank brothers bought the abandoned steamship at a sheriff's auction in 1862. They transported the remains of the ship to Georgetown (about 15 miles north of present-day Moorhead), refurbished her, and launched their new steamboat as the International.
There is also a report of a Captain Davis who attempted to sail his steamboat to the Red River in 1859. While trying to pass over the normally dry land between Big Stone and Traverse Lakes, Davis' steam boat ran aground and was abandoned. This may be an erroneous version of the Captain Pond story.
The Burbank brothers sold the International to the Hudson Bay Company in 1862. The Company operated the boat at its convenience. Except for a weekly mail trip between Fort Garry and Pembina, the International rarely sailed. Thus, the dream of St. Paul merchants and others for the establishment of a steam boat trade on the Red River lasted only a few years and was forgotten by 1862.
In 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Moorhead, Minnesota. The railroad provided a quicker and more economical way of shipping goods from St. Paul to the Red River. This made steamboat traffic on the Red River attractive again. In 1871, James J. Hill and some partners built the Selkirk in McCauleyville, MN (about 30 miles south of Moorhead). The steam boat was named after Selkirk, a community on the Red River 23 miles north of Winnipeg). Both H.W. Holmes and a Mr. Griggs have been reported as Captain.
Steaming into Fort Garry in April 1871, the Selkirk stirred the competitive spirit of the Hudson Bay Company which immediately put the International back into full-time freight service. The competition was short-lived. In the spring of 1872, Hill ostensibly sold his steamboat to the Hudson Bay Company. In reality, Hill and the Company formed the Red River Transportation Line and placed both the International and the Selkirk under the management of "Commodore" Norman Kittson. In the winter of 1871-1872, Kittson built the third steamboat on the Red River: the Dakota. The Alpha and the Cheyenne followed in 1874. With five steamboats and twenty barges, Kittson controlled Red River transportation. He quickly raised freight and passenger rates.
In 1875, Kittson finally realized competition when businessmen from Winnipeg, St. Paul, and Moorhead built the Manitoba and the Minnesota, the largest boats on the river at the time. The boats were built in Moorhead under the management of James Douglas, Moorhead postmaster and merchant.
The new steamboat line was called the Merchants International Line. It is reported that the Manitoba arrived in Winnipeg in May 1875 with 102 cabin passengers and 181 deck passengers. In addition, it carried 365 tons of freight. First class passenger fare (cabin and meals) was $24 in 1875. Once again competition was short-lived as the two new boats were soon sold to the Red River Transportation Line.
The steamboats ran from April to October each year. The river was impassable because of ice the other months. The average trip from Moorhead to Winnipeg and back took 10 days. The International made the fastest recorded round trip at 5 days and 18 hours. Two crewmen were lost overboard on that trip. Wages were $35-$40 per month for the crew.
In 1879, James J. Hill's St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (later to become part of the Great Northern) reached St. Vincent, MN. The town was served from the north by the Canadian Pacific. At last a rail line ran from St. Paul to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and the eight year revival of the riverboat began to decline.The Hudson Bay Company finally had real competition for freight hauling in the Red River Valley. In 1887, the Northern Pacific also had a line reaching north to Fort Garry.