Dakota Datebook

The Manitoba Sinks

Thursday, April 1, 2010


One late summer night in 1877, Lady Dufferin was traveling the Red River to Winnipeg aboard the steamer Minnesota. Ahead, another steamboat approached from the opposite direction. “It looked beautiful in the dark,” she wrote in her diary, “with two great bull’s-eyes, green and red lamps and other lights on deck, creeping toward us; we stopped, and backed into the shore, that it might pass us. It came close and fired off a cannon, and we saw on the deck a large transparency with the words, ‘Welcome, Lord Dufferin’ on it, and two girls dressed in white with flags in their hands; then a voice sang, ‘Canada, Sweet Canada,’ and many more voices joined the chorus.”
The steamboat she saw was the Manitoba, which was christened “with colorful ceremonies” at 2 p.m. on this date in 1875. It was the sister of the Minnesota, on which she and Lord Dufferin were traveling; both were built in Moorhead by James Douglas for Merchants International, a steamboat line created in protest against the high fees and transportation rates being charged by Red River Transportation, also known as the Kittson line, backed by “empire builder” James Hill.
When it was launched, the Manitoba made a big splash, so to speak, and quickly became known as the Queen of the River. W.B. Nickles, editor of Moorhead’s Red River Star, was aboard for her maiden voyage and wrote, “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, and this event is of note in the history of Moorhead.”
Pictures of the Manitoba reveal an elegant vessel – long and low with decorative scrolled woodwork around the upper rail of the boiler deck, gilded nobs and “the newest type machinery, engines and appointments.”
Competition from Merchants International forced the Kittson line to make improvements and also sharply reduce passenger fares. The competition came to include speed, and on June 4th, the Manitoba broke the record by making the trip from Moorhead to Winnipeg in 45 hours.
After the passengers disembarked and the ship was reloaded, the steamer headed back south.
At around 11 p.m., Kittson’s largest steamer, the International, approached from the opposite direction. “The latter was coming down the river and blew her whistle for the port side,” Nickles reported. “The Manitoba answered for the starboard. 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 that it was impossible for him to keep to the starboard. 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.”
Nobody was killed, but there was a flurry of finger pointing. The Manitoba had been afloat just two months and was now half submerged in 15 feet of muddy water. The steamer’s new sister, the Minnesota, was quickly dispatched “with tackles and appliances for raising” the Manitoba and towing her back to Moorhead for repairs.
Nickles traveled to the scene of the wreckage and sent back a dispatch that read, “Tent colony started on shore. Sign on shingle adorning a tree at colony reads ‘Collisionville.'”
Merchants International sued the Kittson line for $45,000; the suit was later settled when the Kittson line bought out the Moorhead company, including the restored Manitoba and her elegant sister, the Minnesota.
Sources: Molly McFadden, Steamboating on the Red, Manitoba Historical Society (Transactions Series 3, 1950-51); Record-Setting Steamer Manitoba Sunk in Red by Collision, The Fargo Forum, June 4, 1950

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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