Collision on the Red — ramming of the Manitoba by rival

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Captain Jerry Webber of the Manitoba was on watch when he first saw the lights of the approaching International at a distance he estimated to be 1,000 feet. He had the whistle sounded to keep his position on the east bank as the International neared along the west bank.

According to Webber, the International did not respond to the first blast of the Manitoba’s whistle, so he sounded it again. The vessel on the west bank did not respond until both steamboats were within a few lengths apart, Webber added. 

The signal given by the International captain was to take the east bank, which the Manitoba already occupied, placing the latter steamboat in an impossible position. In a futile attempt to avoid a collision, the Manitoba moved as closely as possible to the bank.

“The Manitoba was consequently hugged to the bank so closely that a man jumped ashore with a line, when she was stopped ... Meanwhile the International had headed directly for the Manitoba, and before there was time for a second thought, ten or fifteen feet of the stern of the International was buried in the Manitoba,” according to a report of the incident in the Daily Free Press.

“In backing out, the International drew the Manitoba  from the bank, and the wreck now lies, in about fifteen feet of water, her bow about twenty-five, and her stern about thirty-five feet, from the bank.”

Also aboard the Manitoba was Free Press co-publisher John A. Kenny. Though not asleep, he was in his berth at the time of the collision. With water lapping at his feet, Kenny quickly put on his pants to investigate the jarring noise. He saw several passengers had been thrown out of their berths and the floor of the cabin deck was “leaning like a third pitch roof.”

One of the passengers thrown from his berth was Rev. George Clark. He emerged from the accident “somewhat bruised.”

On deck, Kenny saw three or four men jump overboard and swim for shore. Sighting the fleeing men, Captain Webber shouted out that everyone should remain aboard since the vessel had settled and would not go completely under.

“Passengers then returned and gathered up their clothing and went ashore upon a gangway ... Holes were cut through the cabin deck through which some of the deckhands and passengers were rescued,” reported the Free Press. “A few of these appeared to be considerably injured.”

The vessel which had sunk the steamboat, arrived at the bank to board the 20 stranded passengers and dropped off provisions for the captain and crew whom had elected to remain behind.

In Winnipeg, the Manitoba was called “a martyr to the enterprise of the Merchants’ Line” in a June 7 Free Press editorial, since most agreed that the new steamboat had been intentionally sunk by the rival Red River Transportation Company (RRTC).

The newspaper, as well as the vast majority of Winnipeggers, refused to believe Captain John Scribner Seger’s account of the accident, accepting the version presented by Captain Webber.

As a result of the sinking, the Merchant’s International Steamboat Line (MISL) filed a $50,000 damages suit against the RRTC operated by St. Paul businessman Norman Kittson.

Kittson, originally from southern Ontario, was a St. Paul, Minnesota, businessman and agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who in collusion with fellow ex-Canadian and St. Paul businessman James Hill and Donald Smith, the chief commissioner of the HBC in Winnipeg, created a steamboat monopoly on the Red River. Both Hill and Smith — the HBC shares were in his name — remained behind the scenes, leaving the impression that the company was solely owned by Kittson. 

In a secret agreement, freight rates for the HBC were slashed by a third, giving the company a significant advantage over its commercial competitors.

Ironically, Hill had started out as a steamboat line rival of the HBC, but he soon realized that it was better to join forces than continue to be engaged in a money-losing battle for the control of shipping on the Red.

By 1874, the RRTC had five steamboats and 20 barges operating on the Red. Having gained a monopoly, Kittson soon raised freight rates to the consternation of Winnipeg’s commercial elite who relied upon imported goods, and St. Paul merchants who shipped goods on the Red.

Winnipeg and Manitoba merchants and consumers relied heavily upon the steamer traffic on the Red, which was the only viable method of transporting large quantities of freight to the city in the absence of a rail link. While massive brigades of slow-moving Red River carts had been used in the past to freight goods to the community from the U.S., this mode of freight transportation was inadequate for a growing population.

In 1871, Winnipeg’s population was just 241, but by 1875 it had reached over 5,000 people. The provincial population was just 25,228 in 1871, but nearly doubled by 1875. 

It should also be noted that Manitoba’s dimensions in 1875 were far smaller than today’s. In fact, Manitoba earned the nickname the “postage stamp province” when it entered Confederation on May 12, 1870. Manitoba’s present borders were not attained until 1905.

In the early 1870s, the only direct connection to Eastern Canada was the Dawson Route, a system of corduroy log roads and water transportation that was so gut-wrenchingly rough that Ottawa received innumerable complaints from  settlers, some of whom nearly starved to death along the route. The Countess of Dufferin, wife of the Canadian governor general, who made the journey on the Dawson Route to Winnipeg in 1877, was knocked about so much that she got out of her carriage and walked.

Ontario settler Mary Fitzgibbon, who wrote in disgust about her journey to Winnipeg from the East on the Dawson Route, said it “was bump, bump, bang and squash and squash, bang and bump; now up now down, now all on one side, now on the other.”

It was more a convenient as well as a smoother journey from Eastern Canadian for settlers to take a Great Lakes steamer to the American side of the border, catch a train to St. Paul, proceed north to the railhead at Moorhead and then board a steamer bound for Winnipeg.

Steamer traffic on the Red had become so important to Winnipeg that it could actually be classified as a port city. The levee at the foot of Post Office Street (now Lombard) was called the busiest place in Winnipeg during the summer of 1873 by the Free Press.

“One evening this week we strolled along the bank of the noble Red River and were astonished to find the levee transformed into one long business street. The responsibility for this scale of affairs rests with the proprietors of the flatboats which, from the steamboat landing up to near the immigrant sheds (at The Forks) present an unbroken string of floating merchandise, in some instances two or three tiers deep. These swimming shops are replete with all sorts of articles — groceries, hardware, crockery, provisions, lumber and building materials.”

Everything from apples to paper to sugar to nails to window sashes could be bought at the floating market.

By the end of 1874, imports into Winnipeg recorded at Custom House, 198 Main St., had reached $1.7 million compared to just $918,000 a year earlier.

The Free Press reported in 1872 that Custom House “officials, the clerks and the landing waiters attached to the custom house staff ... spend day after day and night after night .. . calling off, entering and checking and putting through their particular red-tapish and circumlatory process ... the interminable conglomeration on the levee, which never seems to diminish.”

Another aspect of Red River steamboat traffic was the lucrative transportation of immigrants — with his monopoly and the dangers of the Dawson Route, Kittson was able to charge settlers virtually whatever he wanted. 

The Canadian government had begun to settle hundreds of settlers on large tracts of Manitoba land, starting with the Mennonites in 1874. In 1875, the Icelanders began arriving. At the same time, numerous settlers from Eastern Canada were arriving daily in Winnipeg on board steamers from the U.S.

In the winter of 1874-75, Winnipeg and St. Paul businessmen met and hatched a plan to break the Kittson monopoly.

The Moorhead Star on January 30, 1875, reported rumours of the new joint stock company. Although the newspaper said the company would be in the hands of Winnipeg and Montreal merchants, the real principals were from Winnipeg, St. Paul and Moorhead.

The new steamboat line was incorporated in February with principal stock fixed at $50,000 and the power to increase to $100,000 at the option of stockholders. The officials of the Merchants’ International were president Abner Lewis, secretary John Douglas, and treasury and general manager James Douglas. General manager Douglas  oversaw the construction of the company’s first two (as it turned out only) steamboats — Manitoba and Minnesota — both of which were to be built in Moorhead in new shops measuring 152-by-62 feet with a nearby 20-by-25-foot blacksmith shop used to provide metal fittings.

The hulls of both vessels were laid in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then shipped by rail to Moorhead, while the machinery was made at the North Star Works in Minneapolis.

During the winter, the company’s saw mill at Moorhead was kept busy cutting oak planking for the two steamboats. “A large force of carpenters and workmen of every class are being employed upon this work ...,” reported the Moorhead Star.

Winnipeggers, especially merchants, kept on eager eye on the progress of the two ships. Throughout the winter and early spring, there were continual reports in newspapers on the steamboats’ construction in Moorhead.

For example, on March 20, the Free Press carried a story from the Moorhead Star which said there was no doubt that the Manitoba would be ready for service on the river by April 25, and that work on the Minnesota would begin soon. “The first boat is planked, deck timbers in and nearly caulked. They will cut the ice and launch her early next week.”

“The removal of the Kittson monopoly by the successful operation of a river line of competing steamers will be an immense advantage to the city by the great increase of river trade and the keen competition it will cause, resulting in a reduction to the consumer in the price of all classes of goods,” reported a March 27, 1875, Free Press article on the future prospects for the province of Manitoba.

The construction of the two new steamers were already having an effect on the Kittson line. Newspapers reported that Kittson company was in the process of dramatically lowering its freight and passenger rates to combat the new competition for Red River steamboat traffic.

Kittson had another card to play. He had friends in the Pembina U.S. customs office, who arranged that the Manitoba and then the Minnesota be held up at the border under a revised U.S. steamboat inspection law. After the Manitoba was launched on the Red, Pembina customs collector Jacob Frankfield delayed its journey northward.

Meanwhile, Ottawa issued instructions that U.S.-based company vessels could not transport passengers from point A to point B on Canada’s side of the Red River, which was referred to as “coasting.” In fact, the International received a $400 fine for coasting. Steamboats carrying passengers from the U.S. side of the border were only permitted to make a single landing in Canada.

The fine the International incurred may have led to the rumour that Winnipeg businessmen A.G.B. Bannatyne and Andrew McDermot were considering establishing a “coasting steamboat company” to “ply the Red River in British waters,” as reported by the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor'Wester.

Although the two men may have investigated creating a coasting company, they did not proceed past the planning stage.

Later that summer, the Manitoba was raised and refloated at an exorbitant cost which financially crippled the Merchants’ International line, resulting in a decline in the company’s stock value. 

When the ship was raised, the Nor'Wester reported that the “port side near the bows (were) found to be pretty well crushed, the stem of the International having penetrated to within close proximity to the boilers.”

The cost of rising and refitting the Manitoba, the delays at the border experienced by the two Merchants’ International steamers and the plummeting value of its stock, clearly showed that the company was teetering on the brink of economic ruin.

On September 4, the Free Press reported a rumour that “the Kittson line had managed, through the treachery of some of those connected (with the Merchant’s International) ... to absorb it, and that therefore the people of this country were to be again subjected to a Red River freight monopoly.”

The newspaper was assured by a local Merchants’ International agent that the rumours were false.

Another blow came when the Manitoba was seized as a result of a suit brought by Winnipeg hardware store owners McMicken & Taylor for $81,700. The Winnipeggers were acting on behalf of the American business interests of Anthony Kelley based in Minneapolis, W.L. Anderson of St. Paul and Tousley, Cornell & Co. of New York Mills.

James Ashdown and Andrew Strang, stockholders in the Merchants’ line, went to St. Paul in early September to ratify a new agreement with the American directors of the MISL to settle their differences and honour the company’s financial obligations.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota had also been seized and laid idle for weeks at Moorhead, pending a resolution of the MISL’s financial difficulties.

Reports were emerging that the Merchants’ directors were in negotiations for the sale of their assets to Kittson, which turned out to be the only “true” rumour then circulating.

On September 17, 1875, Kittson took possession of the Minnesota and was in the process of freeing the Manitoba from its court-imposed seizure by soliciting the help of the U.S. government.

“The effects of the new line now belong to the old company,” reported the Moorhead Star, “and the steamers Minnesota and Manitoba will hereafter be run by their purchasers. The stockholders of the MISL, being unwilling to advance the required amount to liquidate their outstanding debts, the directors felt compelled to look to another source of relief, and have, therefore, turned the property over to Mr. Kittson who pays the liabilities.”

Kittson settled the Manitoba seizure by paying a mere $2,000 (remember that the suit was for over $81,000) to the litigants. The meagre settlement has been cited as an example of the behind-the-scenes manipulations by Kittson to eliminate his competition.

Under the terms of the sale, the steamer Minnesota was purchased for $25,000 and debts incurred by the Merchants’ line to upwards of $34,000 were to be paid by Kittson.

“A number of the smaller shareholders in this city lost all, or nearly all they paid in, while some of the larger stockholders afterwards became shareholders in the Kittson’s Line,” wrote Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey in their book, Tens in Winnipeg (1879),” thus virtually taking a hand in the monopoly which they had previously been crying down for such a length of time.”

With his monopoly restored, the worst fear of the Winnipeg merchants was realized — Kittson raised his freight and passenger rates. As a result, Kittson and his colleagues shared a stock dividend of 80 per cent.

Did Kittson order the Manitoba to be sunk?

Speculation still abounds among historians, although given the evidence and Kittson’s known business practices, it won’t be too farfetched a scheme for him to employ. What is true is that he took full advantage of the Manitoba’s sinking to compound the difficulties facing the fledgling company. Like a vulture detecting the stench of rotting flesh, Kittson swooped down to feast on the carcass of the Merchants International Steamboat Line.