19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” ~Auguste Rodin
After leaving Duluth [Minnesota] at 4 o’clock on Tuesday morning by rail, the country through which we passed was beautiful. Lake succeeded lake, then came wooded hills and tiny mountain streams, crossed by high bridges. These bridges were without parapets, and so narrow that, looking out of the window of the car, one saw a deep gorge 60 or 70 feet below. One railway bridge across the Mississippi—a narrow enough stream there, at least to eyes accustomed to the broad St Lawrence—was more than 70 feet high, and so unsafe that trains were allowed only to creep slowly across it.
The rapids on the St Louis River, along the banks of which the Northern Pacific Railway runs, are magnificent. For some miles the high banks occasionally almost shut out the view; then, as the train winds round a sharp curve, a mountain torrent of foaming water bursts on the gaze. Rocks tower above it, with great trees bending from their heights; in the stream are huge boulders round which the water whirls and hisses, sending its spray high over the rugged banks, in every nook and crevice of which grow long ferns and graceful wildflowers. Then follows a long smooth stretch of water with grassy wooded shores, and through the trees one catches distant glimpses of yet wider and more beautiful falls than those just passed.
We breakfasted at Braynor at 9 o’clock, and heard with pleasure that we had 45 minutes in which to satisfy exhausted nature. Everything was delicious, and we should have done the fare even greater justice if we had known that it was the last good meal we should obtain for 36 hours. When we returned to the car, we were greatly amused by an irrepressible fellow traveler, whose overpoliteness and loquacity savored of a morning dram or two.
He insisted on pointing out the exact spot—marked by a tall, rough-looking post with a crosstree [pair of horizontal struts for rigging] on it, that stood near the rails—where two Indians had been “lynched” for some crime, the execution being regarded with pardonable pride by the citizens and boasted of to travelers. Volumes might be written on Yankee oppression of the poor Redskins, and yet leave the disgraceful story but half-told.
Our train was crowded, and during the morning two rather well-dressed black-eyed men came on board. The conductor told us they were the pests of that part of the road—three card-monté men—and that in spite of being carefully warned, many travelers, especially among the well-to-do farmer class emigrating to Manitoba, were daily fleeced by them, there being no apparent redress, as they were sharp enough to evade any direct breach of the law. These men succeeded in drawing two boys of eighteen or twenty into their toils, and obtained possession of their watches, as well as all their cash. When the lads protested vehemently, the sharpers offered to return the former on receipt of $5, which they knew their victims did not possess. To our great relief, the men got off at the station where we stopped for dinner.
We changed trains at Glyndon for the branch line, then only recently laid to Fisher’s Landing, but since that time continued to the frontier station of Pembina. There was only one passenger car to hold all those who had comfortably filled three on the other line, and it would be difficult to convey any idea of the crowding and crushing that ensued to obtain seats, and pack away the numerous traveling bags and provision baskets brought by the immigrants from Ontario. Having gentlemen with us, we were soon provided for.
But just before the train started, a dirty, fashionably dressed young woman, carrying an equally dirty baby, came in. Looking about her, and not finding a vacant seat, she said in an insolent tone, giving her head a toss— “No seat? Wall, I guess I ain’t agoin’ to stand and hold this here heavy child!” and sat down in my lap.
I had, like most people, often been “sat upon,” figuratively, during my life, but never literally, and it was with some difficulty that I managed to extricate myself. The girl next proceeded, with the assistance of a dirty pocket handkerchief and the tin drinking mug belonging to the car, to perform her toilet [grooming] and that of her infant; her efforts resulting in a streakiness of dirt on both faces, where the color had been uniform before.
We were on the prairie—the great rolling prairie, at last; and I was disappointed—nothing but grass and sky, desolate and lonely. These, however, were my first impressions. How fond I grew of the prairie I know now that I am away from it, perhaps forever!
Toward night, black clouds gathered in the sky, and distant thunder heralded the coming of one of those great storms for which the prairie is so famous. The air was so charged with electricity that the train had to be stopped several times, and the wheels of the cars drenched with water to prevent their taking fire.
As night closed in, incessant flashes of white sheet lightning almost blinded us. Each white flash was riven by red forks of flame, until, with the horizon one constant blaze, the plain seemed a vast sea of fire.
Overhead, in great zigzag lines, shot the fire fluid, as the thunder rattled, roared, crashed, and broke around us; then, in a momentary lull, came torrents of rain, rushing madly across the sward, and drowning the noise of the fast-flying train, as if some fiend on a diabolical errand were borne through the warring elements. It seemed as though two or three storms had met, to contend for mastery; flashes of white, yellow, and red lightning outdid each other in brilliancy, and peals of thunder, near and distant, reverberated in quick succession. No one who has not encountered a rainstorm on the prairie can form an idea of its grandeur and force.
During a short lull in the storm, we stopped at a place called Crookstown [Crookston] for tea, following a touter [hawker] for the “Ho-tel” there—or rather a railway lantern, as the darkness completely hid the man—through mud and water up to our ankles, over stumps and sticks, through a dilapidated gateway, stoup, and washhouse, to a long, low room, where the table was laid for tea. Seated round it on benches, chairs, three-legged stools—in fact, on anything they could get hold of—were the engineer, conductor, expressman, and other officials. The meal consisted of bread and butter, potatoes boiled in their jackets, fried bacon swimming in fat, and scalding tea in handleless cups. Asking for eggs, we were told there was not one to be had in the “town.” Query, what is a town? Crookstown could not boast of half a dozen houses besides the station.
Another hour’s journey brought us to Fisher’s Landing, on Red Lake River, where we were to remain until next morning. Though the boat was at the landing, we were not allowed to board until all the freight was shipped. This intelligence was given us by a rakish-looking Yankee, who added that his “Ho-tel” was the best in the place, and if we would come “right along,” he would give us rooms for the night. Gathering up our traps [baggage], and thinking we could not do much worse than remain in the crowded car all night, we followed, paddling through the mud to the much-boasted “Ho-tel.”
This was a house built of boards, the entrance room or office having a high desk or counter across one corner. A recess under the stairs contained a bench, on which were ranged two or three pails and a basin. On the wall hung the general towel, looking rather the worse for wear. A room opening from the recess had a table set like the one at Crookstown, apparently for breakfast; the floors were literally covered with mud. What, we surmised, can the bedrooms be like in such a place?
Our question was only too soon answered. Presently a shaggy-headed, untidy woman made her appearance, hastily fastening her clothes. She was cross, and grumbled that there were only two rooms, but that she would take one of us in with her (an offer which was politely declined), and snappishly ordered a man to show the way upstairs. Clambering up a steep flight of steps after our conductor and his lantern, we were ushered into a room containing a bed—which had all the appearance of having been slept in for a week—a rocking chair, and a bureau; a smaller room opening out of it also contained a much-slept-in bed.
Throwing open the door of the latter room with a flourish that would have been creditable in a professional showman, the conductor introduced us. “This, ladies, you can have. Two can sleep here nicely. True, the bed has not been made, but I can soon settle that!” and putting his lantern on the floor, he gave the bed a poke or two, and tried to smooth the frowsy-looking coverlet.
“Oh, that’s the expressman’s bed!” he said, in answer to our inquiry as to who was to occupy the outer room. “Must have it, you know; always stops here. The best room in the town!”
Seeing that we did not appear satisfied, he added, “You can lock your door” (there was a whole board a foot wide out of the partition). “After all, it’s only the expressman. You needn’t mind him. Then in the morning you can sit here, for he is off early, and we make it the ladies’ sitting room.” And drawing the rocking chair to the window, he set it going.
But as we still did object to the expressman’s proximity, he led the way to another room, about the same size, but with a door that we could latch, a bunk bed, a wooden box, and, for toilet apparatus [washing], a yellow pudding bowl and white jug full of water. With some difficulty we succeeded in getting a lamp, and spreading our rugs over the bed, we lay down. When the tramping about downstairs ceased, sometime after midnight, we dozed until morning.
I was up first, and, going downstairs in search of water, could not help laughing at the absurd sight of a row of legs and dangling braces under the stairway, the heads belonging to them, being bent over the pails I had noticed there the night before. Seven men had slept on the floor of the expressman’s room that night, for which accommodation they paid $3. During the day some twenty women immigrants, who were obliged to leave the car, taking refuge there from the mud and rain, were charged 25 cents a head; and, as a concession, children were taken at half-price.
Breakfast was a repetition of the supper at Crookstown, and though blessed with excellent appetites generally, we lost them completely at Fisher’s Landing. About noon, we smuggled ourselves on board the Minnesota, and a few judicious tips enabled us to take up our quarters there at once. How we did enjoy our dinner! Never did fish, flesh, or fowl taste so good, and we felt compelled to apologize to the steward for the emptiness of the dishes he carried away. However, he did not appear astonished, as the bill of fare at the “Ho-tel” was well known.
It was Thursday morning before all the freight was stowed away and we could leave the landing—or “Fisher’s,” as habitués [frequenters] of the road call it. The Minnesota is a comfortable boat, and with the exception of one or two farmers and their families, and an old Frenchwoman, we had her to ourselves. The captain was a genial, large-hearted Yankee; the steward and pretty little maid were attentive; and, by contrast with the “Ho-tel,” we thought ourselves in pleasant quarters.
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: St Louis River
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 3. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.