Collision on the Red — rival steamboat company implicated in numerous setbacks suffered by the Manitoba

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Hundreds of Winnipeggers turned out to greet the new steamboat that W.B. Nickles, the editor of the Moorhead-based Red River Star, nicknamed the “Queen of the River.” As the Manitoba steamed into the Winnipeg landing at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard), the vessel sported a large banner proclaiming “We’ve got ’em,” and received “three lusty cheers.”

Aboard the Manitoba that eventful day were 102 cabin passengers, 181 deck passengers and 365 tons of freight.

Champagne bottle corks popped in the spacious saloon of the newest steamboat to ply the Red River, which had just completed its maiden voyage from Moorhead, Minnesota, to Winnipeg. It was said that the bubbly alcoholic beverage flowed freely all that night and into the next morning as the  merrymakers celebrated the establishment of steamboat competition on the Red. 

The Manitoba was indeed the “Queen of the River,” breaking the speed record for the river by completing the trip to Winnipeg in 45 hours on May 14, 1875.

On behalf of the ladies of Winnipeg, Mrs. P. Sutherland presented Captain Jerry Webber with “two magnificent red ensigns, one for the Manitoba and the other for the Minnesota,” her sister ship which had yet to be launched onto the Red. Both vessels were built by the newly-formed Merchant’s International Steamboat Line (MISL) whose shareholders resided on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

Webber took one of the flags and wrapped it around him, “and remarked that he had never felt so happy in his life,” reported the Daily Free Press. 

With the hoisting of the colours, several rounds rang out from a small artillery piece placed on board the steamboat for the momentous occasion.

Steamboat Captain Webber, who was originally from Winnipeg but later operated out of the U.S., would gain a measure of fame as one of the “old Red River navigators” hired by the British during the Nile Expedition of 1884-1885 to rescue General Charles “Chinese” Gordon under siege at Khartoum. Although the relief of the Sudanese city was unsuccessful and Gordon was killed by the Mahdi’s forces, the four  Red River steamboat captains were praised by the British for their skill while ferrying supplies and troops on the Nile River in Egypt. 

Winnipeg businessman James Ashdown said the Manitoba would break the monopoly held on the river by the Red River Transportation Company (RRTC), which forced local merchants to pay exorbitant rates to bring goods to the city from the south.  The RRTC was established in 1872 by Norman Kittson and Jerome Hill, two Canadian-born St. Paul, Minnesota-based businessmen.

“He (Ashdown) detailed the doubts of success on the part of himself and others interested in the line, regarding ultimate success; spoke of the hard work which was necessary to secure so great a boon to the inhabitants of the country, and after speaking ... took his seat amid enthusiastic cheering,” reported the Free Press.

Following the speeches, the colours were hoisted above the vessel and several rounds were fired by the local militia from a small artillery piece that had been brought aboard.

A short jaunt down the river followed and the hundreds on board marvelled at the Manitoba’s speed and its ease of handling.

The launching of the Manitoba was enthusiastically celebrated as a history-making event in Moorhead. “Huzzahs and wild exclamations of delight were heard on the levee ... This was the first steamer launched on the Red River from the Moorhead yard,”  wrote Nickles.

Nickles was on board the Manitoba for its maiden voyage down the Red to Winnipeg and also made the return trip to Moorhead.

But for all the “huzzahs” in Moorhead with the steamboat finally underway, the mood turned to  anxiety when the Manitoba was delayed at the border crossing at Pembina, North Dakota, presumably as a result of interference from the rival Kittson line. The 30 passengers aboard the Manitoba were read a statement on May 4, signed by George B. Elliott of the Canadian Press (as well as author of Winnipeg as It Is in 1874: and as It was in 1860), Winnipeg lumberman W.W. Banning and Winnipeg furniture-maker C.H. Wilson, which was designed to soothe their troubled souls.

“The first trip of the Manitoba,” according to the statement, “though interfered with by arrangements over which you have no control, is one which we shall ever remember with pleasure owing to the many pleasant little incidents which it would be impossible to forget; and while expressing our gratification at the handsome behavior of the Manitoba and her officers, we share with you in the pain and regret consequent upon the incessant acts of persecution, which ungenerous enemies have thrown in the way of an enterprise long needed where monopoly has so long exercised tyranny over the travelling commercial public of the North-West.”

The newspapermen said they were aware of the circumstances of the delay in Pembina and decried “those who regard monopoly as their right.”

The enforcement of the delay almost created an international incident with a top Washington official having to intervene. 

In a May 4 letter to the Free Press, Colonel Charles Stephenson (strange in that it was written in the third person), the supervising custom inspector at Pembina, said he wanted to “state briefly the facts of the case.”

Stephenson wrote that when James Douglas, the agent of the Merchant’s International Steamboat Line aboard the Manitoba, attempted to get him to conduct the inspection, he  was engaged elsewhere “and unable to attend the Manitoba on time.”

The inspector was under the impression that the Manitoba would proceed and be inspected on the steamboat’s return trip. “As this had been permitted during previous seasons to the boats of the Kittson line.”

According to Stephenson, a newly-hired custom official at Pembina was unaware of the practice and was overly zealous in conforming to the letter of the law at the urging of the former customs inspector who still resided in Pembina.

“As soon as Mr. (Jacob) Frankfield, the present customs officer at Pembina refused to pass the boat, Mr. Douglas telegraphed the fact to the Secretary of the Treasury at Washington, who replied referring the case  to Colonel Stephenson at Galena ... A telegraph was sent to Stephenson at Galena, giving all the particulars.”

Stephenson sent Douglas the following telegram, “Ask collector at Pembina to permit steamer Manitoba to make trip and return to Moorhead. I will meet her there on the 8th inst. for inspection.”

In another letter dated May 7 to the Free Press, Elliott concluded by saying “the general impression created by the punctilious conduct of Mr. Frankfield” was indeed influenced by Kittson’s vow “that he would spend all his last year’s earnings to break the new line.”

The instructions from the U.S. Treasury Department to Stevenson was that the Manitoba could not continue to steam for Winnipeg, and had to return to Moorhead to await an inspection by Stephenson. While the fate of the MISL steamboat was being decided, the passengers bound for Winnipeg were forced to wait two days in Pembina for the return of the Manitoba, which was allowed to disembark only the passengers and freight assigned to Emerson, Manitoba. 

The Kittson steamboat Dakota was also detained at Pembina and ordered back to Moorhead for an inspection, giving the impression of impartial treatment by the customs officials, although the International and Alpha, which were also part of the Kittson line, were allowed to proceed to Winnipeg. The Kittson-controlled Red River Transportation Company could bare the inconvenience of a brief delay for one member of its multiple-vessel fleet, while the fledgling company with its one operational steamboat was placed in a more precarious position, especially since the Manitoba was assigned the historic position as the so-called beginning of steamboat competition on the Red River.

With the delay, the new era in competition was more in name rather than fact as the old company’s steamboats, the International and Alpha, carried the majority of the Manitoba’s passengers and freight forward to Winnipeg after the MISL vessel was ordered back to Moorhead.

Writing a three-week series on the trip from Moorhead for the Free Press, an author merely referred to as “Bembo,” related the various rumours alleged begun by the rival line about the steamboat, including it was unsafe and could not withstand the tempests that periodically develop in the Red River Valley nor survive the strong currents of the river. Bembo claimed all the allegations were unfounded, as well as “childish and amusing.”

At Pembina, Bembo said the passengers enjoyed the sights of the community, which included a drunken man brandishing a “repeater and firing shots at some unseen foe.” The drunk, who Bembo claimed appeared to be somehow above the law — possibly a “deputy sheriff” — enthusiastically shook the hands of any Manitoba passenger he encountered. 

One passenger was heard by the writer to have expressed the opinion that if the man had behaved in such a manner in Canada, “the bobbies  would nab him quicker than a wick.”

Bembo didn’t return to Moorhead aboard the Manitoba, but proceeded overland to Winnipeg.

What happened at Pembina was just the beginning of the misadventures to confront the newest steamboat to ply the Red River.

Once back in Winnipeg, the Manitoba was reloaded for the return voyage to Moorhead. In their exuberant mood, those aboard would never have imagined that the fastest steamboat on the Red was headed for disaster.

Around 11:30 p.m. on June 4, the steamer International from the rival RRTC was approaching the Manitoba in the opposite direction.

“The latter was coming down the river and blew her whistle for the port (right) side ...,” Nickles later wrote in his newspaper. “The steamers were then within 150 feet of each other. The captain of the International then reversed his engines and blew for the port side, deciding it was impossible for him to keep to the starboard (left). The International then struck the Manitoba just abreast of the low stairs, cutting into her 10 feet. The deck of the Manitoba was under water in a minute.”

The steamer had only made it from Winnipeg to Lemay’s Mill in St. Norbert when it sunk — fortunately with no loss of life. The newest vessel on the Red was in service for mere days before it came to rest at the bottom of the river. 

Following the sinking, numerous accusations made the rounds, not the least of which was that rival steamboat company owner Norman Kittson had ordered Captain John Scribner Seger (incorrectly spelled Seeger in newspaper accounts of the collision) of the International to intentionally ram the vessel. 

Seger’s career as an “old Red River navigator” was as colourful as Webber’s. He also took part in the Nile Expedition, and was the captain of the steamer Northcote (commanded by Webber in the early 1880s until Seger took over), which was ordered converted by General Sir Frederick Middleton into a gunboat. The steamboat participated in the May 9-12, 1885, Battle of Batoche during the Northwest Rebellion, but was crippled by the Métis who used ferry cables to take it out of action.

“All sorts of rumors and versions of the story of the collision were, of course, immediately circulated,” wrote the Winnipeg-based Daily Free Press, which sent a reporter to St. Norbert to investigate and interview eyewitnesses to get “a true statement of affairs.”

The report in the Free Press said the two vessels had collided where there was a sharp turn in the river. According to Captain Seger, he at first sighted what he thought to be a small tug and had not expected to see the Manitoba rounding the bend.

Seger said he had sounded his whistle to take the port side “as it was impossible for him owing to the positions of the boats, and the surroundings — the land, current, wind, etc. — to go to the starboard. The Manitoba was then right across ... the International, the latter still backing her engines.”

While the International captain was able to back out and free his vessel after the collision and avoid disaster, the Manitoba was fatally crippled.

(Next week: part 2)