1861 flood — first newspaper account of local flood reported by Ross and Coldwell in Nor’Wester

by Bruce Cherney

“As we write, the waters of the Red River have almost rolled in at doors,”  so began the first newspaper account of a flood in Manitoba. James Ross and William Coldwell, who wrote the account, were the co-owners and editors of the Nor’Wester, the first newspaper established in the Red River Settlement, and which began publication in 1959. 

The newspaper was originally owned by Coldwell and William Buckingham, who came from Eastern Canada where they were employed by the Toronto Globe. They were subsquently joined in their new enterprise by Ross. Buckingham left Red River in 1860, returning to Eastern Canada.

Ross and Coldwell were well-positioned to relate their first-hand observations of the rising river in the spring of 1861. Their place of business was Colony Gardens, Ross’s home between present-day Bannatyne Avenue and Alexander Avenue. A map compiled by William Ingersoll from historic information depicting Winnipeg as it existed in 1872 — printed in the 50th anniversary issue of the Manitoba Free Press (November 9, 1922) — shows the Ross home at Colony Gardens a short distance from the Red. 

At Colony Gardens, Ross and Coldwell also sold books, prints and stationery.

Historically, the 1861 flood ranks as the fourth worst in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, surpassed only by the floods of 1826, 1852 and 1997, respectively.

The flood of 1826  was 40 per cent greater than the “Flood  of the Century” and nearly two metres higher than the destructive flood of 1950. 

“In 1852, the Bishop of Rupert’s Land estimated the breadth of the inundated country to be about 12 miles (19.2 kilometres) a short distance below (Upper) Fort Garry (Winnipeg),” wrote Henry Youle Hind in his 1860 book, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857. “Although the flood of 1852 was not so high as that of 1826, yet its effects were very severely felt in St. John’s and St. Paul’s parish and about Fort Garry.” 

The magnitude of the 1861 flood was approximately 45 per cent less than the 1826 flood. Some initial reports have estimated that this year’s flood will equal in scope the 1861 flood.

At the time of the 1861 flood, the entire population of the Red River Settlement was approximately 6,000 people.

“Already the settlers have been flitting from the river-banks in all directions,” reported the May 1, 1861 Nor’Wester. “Fear is contagious; and in such a crisis as present, not a few invariably become seized by apprehensions enough to frighten a whole city-full; and they frankly impart their doleful fancies — making themselves and their neighbours as miserable as possible.”

According to the newspaper, the most fearful settlers packed up their household goods and sought higher ground with even the  “boldest” thinking it was time to imagine the worst. “And, judging from present appearances the prospect is we must confess rather startling.”

Ross and Coldwell reported a heavy snowfall had accumulated during the winter and then rapidly disappeared during a two-week period of melting in the spring.

“The creeks (at the time, Winnipeg had substantially more creeks than today — most are now covered over by concrete and asphalt) have been swollen to the size of rivers; and the main river has received from this source and from its numerous large tributaries such copious supplies that since ever the ice commenced to break up, the channel has been constantly widening and deepening until the waters have all but overtopped even the highest portions of the bank ... For some days previous to the grand disruption this year the waters were fast rising — struggling as it were to rid themselves of their icy burden. At last came the winter finale. With a loud crash the ice was rent; and, driving it before them in wild confusion, the liberated waters rushed down.”

The two men reported huge slabs of ice slammed into each other splitting into deadly fragments, which tumbled in the current, “as they were forced over preceding masses, like fabled monsters of the deep, disporting themselves.”

Fields of ice swept everything before them, uprooting trees and cutting away the riverbanks. The editors said this state of affairs lasted several days, creating little panic. Settlers gaffed the flotsam as it bobbed in the current, intending to use what they accumulated as firewood “to keep the pot boiling all winter.” Some of the more enterprising settlers managed to snag two or three cords of firewood from the river.

While the settlers were thus engaged, “pheasants, ducks, geese, cranes and our other feathered spring visitors flew in large flocks” overhead. Birds sang as they hopped from branch to branch in trees beginning to sprout leaves. Ross and Coldwell said Mother Nature was freshening the landscape “under the genial warmth of the sun.” They claimed that the spring revival, serving as a harbinger of “such a joyous season,” put the settlers at ease and made them impervious to any prospect of impending danger.

Reports arrived in the Red River Settlement of disastrous flooding to the south, creating grounds to expect the worst as the floodwaters headed northward en route to Lake Winnipeg. Georgetown, Minnesota, located near the confluence of the Red and Buffalo rivers, was completely inundated, destroying the workshops used for the Anson Northup, the first steamboat to ever dock at the Red River Settlement. The pioneer steamer established a new transportation link for the settlement with the outside world in 1859. During the flood, the steamer floated unmanned a long distance into neighbouring woods where it became entangled. Water under the Anson Northup was said to be six-metres deep.

On April 14, nearly a metre of water flooded the Hudson Bay Company’s warehouse at Georgetown, but quick action saved the stored goods from being damaged.

“According to accounts forwarded to (HBC) Governor Mactavish by Mr. A.H. Murray, no dry land was visible from that place (the warehouse), except a small ridge on which the Company’s cattle were feeding.

“From Breckenridge (Minnesota) to Georgetown, the whole country was reported to be submerged; and between the latter place and this settlement (Red River), the land was fast disappearing.”

By April 23, the water was just over a half a metre deep in the HBC’s Pembina  store in Dakotah Territory (North Dakota did not become a U.S. state until 1889).

“Ten miles (16 kilometres) this side (of) Pembina. Mr. Hugh Cameron — well known here — had been driven from home by the waters; and, at last accounts, the house itself floated off.”

Ross and Coldwell wrote that on the Manitoba side of the U.S.-Canada border, water was overflowing banks of the Red. “Stealthily and steadily, day after day, the water rose. No one dreamt of being driven from their home by the treacherous element, but its progress was watched with wonder and alarm.”

The water rose up to a third of a metre from sunset to sunrise over the course of a 14-day period, according to the two men, which “brought matters to a crisis with very many before long. The river was at their doors — in their dwellings.”

They said the bridges spanning creeks were swept away, “so that travelling on horse-back, or on foot, became difficult and dangerous.”

Similar to the 1826 flood, cattle were taken to high ground at Stony Mountain and “other places” — in 1826 the other places were high land at Birds Hill, Sturgeon  Creek and Silver Heights. “By and bye (sic) numbers of good people themselves were in full march for the same destination. Some whose houses were in dangerous proximity to the river, carried with them all household stuff. Others had safely stowed away their furniture, &c, in the upper storey before they deserted their homes, and merely brought with them provisions, cooking utensils, and a tent.”

Coldwell and Ross said natural features familiar to the settlers “wholly disappeared, and the river widened to become as wide and deep as the Mississippi at Galena,” Illinois, a community which by the 1850s was the busiest Mississippi steamboat port between St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri. 

At the Point (opposite Fort Garry across the Assiniboine River in present-day Fort Rouge, which was intially called West St. Boniface — aptly named because it juts out at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine like a pointing finger), the newspapermen reported the flood had invaded the homes and stores of August Schubert and A.R. Gerrard. The flood reached the eaves of Louis Thibeault’s home at the Point and “left nothing of his barn discernible save the ridge pole. Gerrard’s stable dissolved all connection with terra firma on Wednesday morning last and went sailing down the shining river as majestically as the crazy old structure could.”

All the buildings in St. Boniface were surrounded by water, and most occupants took flight, although a few remained in the upper storeys of their homes away from the water flooding their dwellings.

The homes of Métis along the German (now Seine) River suffered a similar fate. The river was reported to have formed a junction with the Red nearly a kilometre wide.

“Mr. (Andrew) McDermot’s new mill, at Emerald Grove, is floating, with the water half way up the engine cylinder.”

Emerald Grove was the name of McDermot’s home located a little over a kilometre north of Fort Garry to the east side of Main Street. Present-day McDermot Avenue, which is named after him, marks the northern edge of his downtown property. The mill was a few metres back from the Red River close to Emerald Grove and had been in operation since November 1860. It was rebuilt after the flood, but fire claimed the mill in December 1872.

The only good news for McDermot was that a boom he placed to span the river had prevented “ a large and valuable pile of saw-logs lately cut” from being swept downriver to Lake Winnipeg. 

As well, a dam he erected at Sturgeon Creek for a water mill — the same mill Cuthbert Grant unsuccessfully operated years earlier — had been swept away. McDermot, then the settlement’s most successful merchant and largest landowner after the HBC, owned 33 acres of land along Sturgeon Creek.

Another dam for a water mill owed by Angus Matheson in Kildonan Parish was breached. The mill was built on the west bank of the Red River at McLeod’s Creek.

McDermot was reported to be in good spirits despite the loss of his mill and costly equipment, including a steam engine acquired from the U.S. 

“The Pritchand family, at the Elms, have had to abandon their fine residence for less aqueous quarters,” said Ross and Coldwell.

“In general, the Scotch settlers (in Kildonan district of the Red River Settlement) stand their ground, hoping with all the energy of despair.”

The two newspapermen reported fields normally covered with grain in the summer instead were inundated with up to two metres of water ... tops of fencing barely seen ...

“Canoeing, as a means of locomotion, has become indespensible. Boats, skiffs, or canoes cannot be had at any price; and as for borrowing anything of the kind!”

Customarily, the Nor’Wester was published two or three times a month in 1861, but only one issue was printed in May and the next issue didn’t appear until June 1 — presumably due to the high water — when Ross and Coldwell reported the flood had come and gone. They said the upper portion of the settlement along the Red from Fort Garry to Pointe Coupée (near present-day Ste. Agathe) suffered the most, since the land was generally lower than other areas with the exception of Point Douglas. They reported property losses were high, and land remained uncultivated “not only because the season will be advanced too far before they are in a state to farm, but also because all the fencing has been carried off and cannot be replaced before next winter.”

Settlers unable to break land for crops were said to be forced  to rely upon the annual buffalo hunts and fishing to feed their families.

“Many settlers have been already very ‘hard up,’ and if it were not that the Company generously advanced them some pemmican (dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder, mixed with grease and stored in 90-pound bags), it is very doubtful whether some would not have literally starved ...

“We were several times in Fort Garry during the eau haut (translation: French to English — high water) and saw the Company’s servants dealing out provisions to some who would no more think of paying debts than of flying to the moon. This was well known, still the hand of liberality was not closed.”

Ross and Coldwell said those worst off were settlers who fished in spring for food to last them through the winter. They said it was impossible to catch fish that spring due to the flood.

Schubert’s and Jerrold’s stores were gone, as was a great deal of movable goods belonging to Mulligan, Harkness and McDougal. 

Louis Thibeault’s barn, containing 20 tons of hay, was moved into the woods east of the Grey Nuns’ convent (now the St. Boniface Museum). The convent and college in St. Boniface were inundated with water up to a third of a metre deep.

“The immense piles of boards, plank, &c., intended for the new Catholic (St. Boniface) Cathedral, were deposited for safety within the walls of the old.”

Ross and Coldwell said Point Douglas was “rendered worthless.” Bouvette lost two buildings with another two or three upset. Two additions to Gaudrie’s home were torn off and the main dwelling was “much shattered.” Joseph Leclerc’s home and byres (cow barns) were gone as were Joseph Hupé’s.

“When we add that all the fencing is away; and that the best of the soil has been washed off by a terrible cross-current it will be admitted that Point Douglas is hopelessly thrown back. The current which sweeps across the point at its base is so irresistible that we verily believe of a drain had been dug from Neil MacDonald’s to Klyne’s, just before the flood, the historic Point Douglas (the point of land was historic as it had been the site of Fort Douglas and was where the first colony established by Lord Selkirk was located) would be an island.”

Ross and Coldwell reported the water rose steadily until May 8 when the first pause was observed.

‘The question was busily asked by all — ‘Is it really at a stand-still’ ‘Is it about to recede?’”

A slight ebb the next day confirmed the water was receding. A week later, the Red had settled into its customary channel. At this point, the last of the settlers were observed returning to their flood-damaged homes.

The Nor’Wester editors said the strangest sights during the flood were people travelling by canoe right up to windows to visit those who remained in their homes, as well as the Lord Bishop of Rupert’s Land tending his flock from a canoe, “paddled by two children of the soil.”

Archdeacon Hunter and Rev. Cowley also travelled by canoe to administer to the needs of parishioners.“We are reminded that at an early stage of the flood, the Rev. J. Chapman upset while crossing Vincent’s creek ... got a thorough drenching ... Mr. Chapman will we presume remember the flood of 1861. On sabbaths he preached to his people in the open air out on the ridges on the eastern side of the Red River and at the (Stony) mountain.”

Ross and Coldwell said little grain was later planted in the flooded regions, although a larger quantity of seeds were sown in areas not subjected to the flood in order to feed the less fortunate.

In one of their less astute conclusions, Ross and Coldwell said: “We do not think that the country below Fort Garry will ever be flooded again. For experience shows clearly that each successive flood has indicated far less depth on the plains than its predecessors — a fact fully accounted for by the rapid widening of the river channel. There may be the same volume of water in each flood, or very nearly so, and the ever-increasing width of the river will explain the disparity of depth on the main land.”

A March 22, 1873, Manitoba Free Press editorial arrived at the same conclusion, saying the increased width of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and the wearing away of sharp banks that previously trapped ice flows made it unlikely there will ever be a repetition of the floods of 1826, 1852 and 1861. The editorial writer scoffed at those forecasting floods based upon what had occurred in the past.

“Floods in Manitoba, like the one just alluded to, are played out. The rivers have of their own accord, and without the sanction of the local legislature, widened themselves to such an extent that they are prepared, on the shortest notice, to do the carrying off of any quantity of melted snow Minnesota may choose to manufacture.”

Many would have agreed with the conclusions reached by Ross, Coldwell and the Free Press editorial writer in the intervening years between 1861 and 1949, but then came the 1950 flood. It was not as great in magnitude as the flood reported by Ross and Coldwell in the pages of the Nor’Wester, but it was more destructive due to the city’s greatly increased population and the number of homes and buildings involved. 

It was the extent of the 1950 flood which led the Premier Duff Roblin government to push for the building of the Red River Floodway, which was completed in 1968 and expanded by the Premier Gary Doer government over the last two years in time to be used for this year’s flood.

This year, the residents of Breezy Point are well aware that the sharp bends of the river have not been worn away to the point that ice is freely transported to Lake Winnipeg by the Red.

As was the situation in 1861, the Red River Valley remains one vast flood plain. Normally, the 500-kilometre long Red River leisurely meanders from Wahpeton, North Dakota — where the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers meet to form the source of the Red — to Lake Winnipeg, but at times of heavy spring runoff and massive ice jams, the river invariably spills its banks. The widest point of the Red River Valley is 95 kilometres across and throughout the river’s course there are 44,000 square kilometres of incredibly flat land with clay soils of a low absorption capacity that intensifies flooding.