Winnipeg’s thriving riverfront market — flatboats “present an unbroken string of floating merchandise”

by Bruce Cherney

The paddle cut into the water and with a strong stroke, the man propelled the birch-bark canoe toward the riverbank. Along the shore of the Red River, people gathered eagerly waiting to see what treasures the travellers had brought to the summer encampment. Two more rapid strokes and the canoe settled into the landing near where the two mighty rivers of the north met, allowing the man and his family to disembark. Leather bundles were unloaded, but what contents were inside remained hidden from those crowding the shoreline.

After a greeting ceremony, the bundles were unwrapped and glistening flint cores gathered from the Knife River, located hundreds of kilometres to the southwest, were revealed — it was time for the trading to begin.

Hundreds of years later, goods were still being exchanged in the heart of Winnipeg along the Red River. The only real difference was that the goods arriving from the south were being purchased with money instead of furs or other trade items. In the 1860s and 1870s, shiny metal and tin goods shipped north by water were just as valuable to the residents of Winnipeg as the glistening flint from North Dakota was to aboriginal people trading at The Forks centuries earlier. And after a long, cold winter of diminishing merchandise in local stores, the freight brought to Winnipeg from the south in the 19th century were just as eagerly anticipated as the aboriginal trade goods brought prior to the establishment of a European community by Lord Selkirk.

“One evening this week we strolled along the bank of the Red River, and were astonished to find the levee transformed into one long business street,” wrote a Manitoba Free Press reporter on May 24, 1873. “The responsibility of this state of affairs rests upon the shoulders of the proprietors of the flatboats, which, from the old (Hudson’s Bay Company) steamboat landing 

(to the east of Upper Fort Garry) 

to near the immigrant sheds (at 

The Forks) present an unbroken string of floating merchandise, and in some instances two and three tiers deep.”

This was the era of the steamboat, which provided a regular summertime link for Winnipeg with the end of the rail at Moorhead, Minnesota. But it was also the time when flatboats, which simply drifted with the current down the Red, brought hundreds of tonnes of much-needed 

merchandise to Winnipeg.

Flatboats were strong, box-like boats with flat bottoms, perpendicular sides and upturned ends. The boats were steered by large oars or sweeps placed at the ends. 

Just prior to the start of the navigation season on the Red,  flatboats were built in the United States. Once the ice broke up, the flatboats with their precious cargo were rafted down the Red to 


Harris, Whitford and Bentley, 

announced in an 1862 Nor’Wester 

advertisement that they would transport foods to the Red River Settlement “at the low rate of 19 shillings per 

100 lbs.”

On the other hand, the Anson Northup, the first steamboat to reach the Red River Settlement in 1859, advertised rates of $6 per 100 pounds to Fort Garry from St, Paul.  

Throughout the steamboat era, the Hudson’s Bay Company either owned steamboats or acted in collusion with Norman Kittson, proprietor of the Red River Transportation Company, to keep their freight rates low while charging Winnipeg businessmen exorbitant rates. In fact, an early secret agreement with Kittson ensured the HBC was charged just 50 per cent of the going rate for transporting freight on the Red River. 

The monopoly exercised by Kittson and the HBC resulted in a growing reliance by Winnipeg merchants on cheaper freight transportation rates provided by flatboats. 

By 1870, McLane & Smith advertised a rate of 12 shillings per 100 pounds of freight brought by flatboat from St. Cloud  or Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, to Fort Garry.

At the time, the (£) pound was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 12 pence, making 240 pence to the pound. A pound was worth $5.

In their advertisements, Harris, Whitford and Bentley claimed their flatboat service was superior to steamers because they would not continually disappoint their customers by announcing a schedule that could not be kept. “We have been punctual to the time we stated, and when there is no sign of that ‘fast’ steamboat — is not the flatboat, the better boat of the two, this time?”

Steamboats of the era were plagued by low water levels and were prone to be snagged on sunken trees, beached on sandbars or 

impeded by low overhanging tree limbs. Flatboats had a significantly shallower draft and could harmlessly drift over such impediments to river travel.

“Another and perhaps the most important reason why the settlers should prefer our mode of transportation to steamboats is that the people of the flatboat have no occasion to fire up with wood belonging to Indians; and our boat does not disturb their game by puffing and snorting all the way; but she glides silently and swiftly along, unnoticed by the Indians.”

Actually, the advertisement was correct in pointing out the the animosity felt by aboriginal people along the Red River for the steamboats. First nations people believed the steamboats’ whistles drove away game and offended the spirits of their dead. An agreement was reached between the steamboat operators and aboriginal people along the river to limit the sounding of whistles to arriving at Georgetown, Pembina and Winnipeg.

The goods that arrived in Winnipeg by flatboat arrived from as far away as Eastern Canada, England and New England States.

The Manitoban described one such journey of goods in September-October, which made it one of the last deliveries of freight from Eastern Canada before the arrival of winter. In fact, once the flatboats pulled into Winnipeg, the first snow of the season began to fall.

The freight left Ottawa in September by rail, was transferred at Point Frederic to cars of the Michigan Central Railway, and at Chicago the cargo was turned over to the North Western Railway which delivered the freight to St. Paul. At St. Paul, the freight was transported by the Northern Pacific Railway to Benson and then conveyed by mule, horse and ox teams to Fort Abercrombie. From the fort, the freight was brought to Winnipeg via flatboats operated by Captain Perry.

“Captain Perry ... reports his own voyage as being accomplished in thirteen days ...” Ten days of the journey were spent waiting for the wind to shift from the northwest to allow 

the flatboats to proceed with a favourable breeze.

“The incidents of a voyage of this description are seldom of a very exciting character,” reported the November 5, 1870, Manitoban, “and this one was no exception to that general rule. Captain Perry regretted that he missed a favourable opportunity for making a sailing chart of the River for the use of those who navigate it, as no surveys at present made give any idea of its character — the distances being all reckoned by land, and those who profess to be pilots having faint ideas of where the 

obstructive shoals, or even their 

affluents, are to be met.”

Taking into consideration the many bends of the meandering Red River, the captain estimated the real length of the journey on the river from Fort Abercrombie to Winnipeg was 780 miles (1,255 kilometres). As the crow flies, the journey is approximately 400 kilometres. Fort Abercrombie, about halfway between Wahpeton and Fargo, North Dakota, on the west bank of the Red River, was established by Colonel John J. Abercrombie in 1858 and abandoned by the U.S. military in 1877. A town was founded about a kilometre west of the historic site which is now a state park. Nearby Breckenridge, Minnesota, (across the Red from modern-day Wahpeton) also did a brisk trade as an embarkation point for freight and passengers headed for Winnipeg.

When the Northern Pacific Railway completed its rail line to Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1871, Fort Abercrombie lost its significance as the marshalling centre for freight headed to Winnipeg. As a result, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a large warehouse at Moorhead to store approximately 350 tons of freight in anticipation of the spring break-up.

The amount of freight brought by flatboat was substantial as shown by a May 20, 1876, report in the Free Press of cargo observed passing Pembina en route to Winnipeg. On May 12 and 13, flatboats numbers 18 to 22 under J.Nelson carried 68 tons of cargo, O.Carson’s numbers 23 and 24 carried 17 tons, and  flatboats numbers 25 to 28 under J. Moiness carried 68 tons of cargo. “Three flatboats, that were omitted, passed a week previously, with 60 tons of flour, meats and potatoes.”

Four years earlier, the Manitoba reported on May 13 that three flatboats operated by Smith and McLean carried 100 tons of freight.

Still, individual steamers could carry a greater quantity of freight than a flatboat. For example, the 

International arrived at Winnipeg with 70 passengers and 164 tons of freight in the afternoon of May 19, 1872. But steamers also towed rafts of barges or flatboats to Winnipeg, adding to the total  amount of freight that could be transported. For example, the steamer Cheyenne arrived in Winnipeg in the fall of 1875 towing 12 flatboats.

On March 13, 1875, the Standard reported the imports in the summer of 1871 to Winnipeg represented 14,000 tons valued at $2.25 million. “When the first steamer 

(Anson Northrup) was placed on the Red River in 1859, this movement did not exceed 500 tons per annum. Now seven steamers, with their attendant barges and 300 voyages by flat-boats, are found necessary for the transportation of merchandize.”

The Free Press on May 24, 1873, said the flatboat shops along the levee sold everything from groceries to hardware to crockery to lumber.

“Here, in one, you will find conglomerated barrels of green apples and bundling paper, sugar and cut nails, sacks of oats and packages of confectionery, dried fruit and tobacco; while in another you may supply yourself with the materials for building a house, from rough boards to dressed siding and flooring and window sashes. The contents of some comprise exclusively necessaries and delicacies for the table; others exhibit and evident intention of providing for the creature comforts of the stable, and again others seem to be quite able to defy any effort on your part to inquire for any article which cannot be furnished from the heterogenous mass which cumbers its hold.”

Some of the flatboat traders arranged their goods upon the levee and proceeded to break up their boats and piled the lumber on the shore. In a community in dire need for lumber, the boards from the flatboats were enthusiastically sought by anyone wanting to erect a home or add to a business.

“In view of the charming prospect that a remarkably fine crop of grasshoppers may be expected to be the sole product in sections of the Province, this influx of things edible can hardly be looked upon as a calamity, although it is hardly the correct way of doing business, or as a gentleman on the levee expressed it in our hearing, ‘It is a bad commercial principle, but it’s very handy when you want to buy anything.”

Although Manitoba began to export wheat in 1876 — just 857 bushels — flour was a commodity that was imported from the south in great quantities. Until 1876, Manitoba had been plagued with continual outbreaks of grasshopper infestations that prevented growing enough grain to meet local needs. The Moorhead Star reported H.A. Burns visited Winnipeg and organized “the sale of an immense quantity of flour” which was to be moved north by a fleet of flatboats. In another instance, the newspaper reported the Moorhead Manufacturing Company shipped 2,543 sacks of flour to Winnipeg in the fall of 1876.

In 1872, early Manitoba historians and journalists Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey, wrote in their book, Tens Years in Winnipeg  (1879), that the banks of the Red “usually presented a lively appearance during the summer months, on account of the numerous flat-boatmen who carried on a trade with housekeepers and others of the town. Indeed the river had a very celestial sort of appearance from the fact that the number of floating stores, which Chinese-like, did business at the levee ...”

The Free Press in 1872 reported that Winnipeg Custom House “officials, the clerks and the landing waiters ... 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.”

According to Nursey and Begg, the existence of the flatboat stores created anxiety among the landlocked merchants of Winnipeg, who complained they could not compete with the out-of-province sellers who brought their goods from Moorhead “without investing a dollar of their own money in the city, carry on a brisk trade with our towns-people — the flat-boats being simply floating stores, and broken up and sold for lumber as soon as their cargo was disposed of.”

Begg was among the merchants losing business to the free traders on the river. Along with A.G.B. Bannatyne, Begg operated a store on the east side of Main where the street meets with Lombard Avenue (then Post Office Street).

The Winnipeg merchants relied upon flatboats to bring their goods from the south at a reasonable rate, but they could not compete with the flatboat operators who were able to sell at reduced prices by not being encumbered by the costs associated with a permanent location. Costs were also kept low as flatboats didn’t need for fuel during the journey to Winnipeg. On the other hand, steamboats required large quantities of wood placed at strategic points along the river to complete the trip; and trees were a rare commodity along the Red. 

The flatboat operators earned further profits at the end of the season by tearing up their boats and selling the lumber.

“The very fact of our being unable to put a stop to these wandering traders, who peddled to the detriment of the established merchants, was a proof of the necessity of incorporation,” wrote Begg and Nursey.

Incorporation as a city came in the fall of 1873 and one of the early acts of the new city council was to impose a flatboat licence fee. The fees collected amounted to $591.46 in 1874 and $181.65 in 1875.

Despite the advent of licensing, the Free Press reported that from April 22 until May 24,1874, 77 flatboats arrived in Winnipeg, bringing 1,327 tons of freight, out of a total of 

3,282 tons to date that navigation season.

“Ten years from now,” Begg and Nursey concluded in Ten years in Winnipeg, “she (Winnipeg) will be ten times the size she is today. Her levees will be lined with steamboats; her banks with elevators; industries and manufacturers will spring up in her midst, and the shrill whistle of the locomotive, piloting the rich burden of cereal products from the supporting west, will ring in the dawn of the creation of a wealthy and populous city that the boldest enthusiasts until now have hardly had the audacity to contemplate.”

While much of what they wrote in 1879 came to pass, Begg and Nursey were wrong about steamboat traffic in Winnipeg. The number of steamboats arriving from the U.S. had began to diminish as a result of the completion of the Pembina branch of the St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway to Winnipeg in November 1878 and the arrival of the Canadian 

Pacific Railway in 1881.

After the 1880s, steamboats were more noted for carrying passengers on one-day “excursions” or company picnics. 

The last international trip was on June 7, 1909, when the Grand Forks left Winnipeg never to return. The Grand Forks was the first steamer in 28 years to reach Winnipeg. The reason for the 28-year absence was that an 1880s law prevented American steamboats from crossing the border into Canada farther than the first point of entry. This law was the final blow for international trade on the Red River. 

The Winnipeg Daily Sun on June 8, 1882, reported American steamers with cargoes slated for Winnipeg could not pass beyond Pembina, 

although flatboats and barges (not 

under tow by American steamers) were allowed through, “because the Winnipeggers have very few of these river necessities.” 

Barges were only allowed to continue the northward journey beyond the U.S.-Manitoba border if towed by Manitoba-based steamboats. American-based Alsop Brothers bitterly complained about the law, saying they wanted “to have the river on both sides of the line free, so that boats could do business either in 

Manitoba or here (in the U.S.).”

Another Canadian law stated that steamboat captains or mates plying inland waters must be either British subjects or have domiciled in Canada for three years. 

Actually, American navigation laws were more restrictive than Canadian regulations. In the U.S., only American citizens could obtained captain or mate papers. Foreigners were denied steamboat papers in the U.S. regardless of how long they resided in the country.

“No Canadian or British vessel can navigate that stream (Red River) above Pembina, nor indeed can a British subject openly own a dollar’s worth of stock in any vessel sailing within their (American) territory,” said Ontario MP David Stirton, who had recently visited Manitoba, in a letterreprinted in the Free Press on 

August 21, 1875. “Such being the case one can easily understand the utterly helpless condition of the people of Manitoba with regard to their trade with the outer world and their dependent position on the American people.”

Meanwhile, the flatboat store era peaked in the mid-1870s and ended shortly thereafter.

Begg wrote that”compelled to take out licences and with the merchants generally taking a stand against them, they gradually gave way, and instead of selling from their boats on the river, they began to rent and buy stores in the city.”

One of the “flatboat stores” was operated by Richardson & Brandrup at the foot of Notre Dame Street 

(at the time Notre Dame crossed Portage Avenue and Main Street and stopped at the edge of the Red River), and offered oats, bran, flour, oatmeal, pork, hams, shoulders, bacon, butter, sugar coffee, syrup, dried and green apples, canned goods and oil for 


H. Hodges, “a flatboat and commission store opposite Macauley’s Mill,” dealt in general groceries, boots, shoes and gents’ furnishing goods, as well as tobacco and cigars.

One of the remaining flatboat operators was Billy Smith, whom the Free Press in April 1878 reported brought a cargo from Portage la Prairie of 1,200 sacks of flour and five tons of chopped feed and potatoes. The obvious difference from earlier years was that Smith was shipping cargo east on the Assiniboine River to Winnipeg and not north on the Red River from the U.S.

On May 15, 1906, James Hill of St. Paul, who controlled the Great Northern Railway Company and had been a partner with Kittson in the former Red River Transportation Company, related to the Winnipeg Board of Trade that the era of steamboats and river trade had ended years earlier and could never again be resurrected. He said when his company transported passengers on the Red River, it was invariably a money-

losing proposition. On the other hand, Hill failed to mention transporting freight, which was highly profitable to the company prior to the arrival of the rialway.

“If the Red River today was deepened and widened, and the bottom of it lathed and plastered, it would not be worth a cent as an avenue of trade. Bear in mind that the railroad yard and the railroad terminal are the great harvests of business on the North American continent,” according to Hill.