1859 – 1909 The Heyday of Red River Steamboats

“Steamboat ‘round the bend!” was a cry heard not only on the Mississippi and the Missouri during the heyday of the riverboat steamers. At one time, the shrill of the steam whistle also echoed up and down the muddy waters of the Red River from Fargo-Moorhead to Winnipeg and beyond into Lake Winnipeg. For over half a century steamboats plied the Red River and played a major role in the life and development of the communities they served, prior to the arrival of the railway. The two-decade long period of international, cross-border, traffic on the Red was especially active and colorful, and offered just as much fodder for riveting story-telling as steamboat life on the lower Mississippi did for Mark Twain and his contemporaries during the 1840s and 1850s.

The era of the Red River steamboat industry began in 1849, just as the thrilling days of the great Mississippi steamboats were rapidly waning. In 1852 the Chicago & Galena Railroad reached the Mississippi and in 1854 the Chicago & Rock Island railway became the first to the upper regions of the river. With its all-weather, station-to-station freight and passenger service, the locomotive simply out-preformed the steamboat as a public carrier. As the railway branch-line network developed along the Mississippi valley, and bridges and trestles increasingly blocked the river course, steamboat owners and crews took their vessels and their services to the pioneer frontier, to regions and rivers where, for the time being, no railway existed, including the Red River of the North.

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