19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine.” ~EM Forster
We came up the Red River in the Minnesota, the vessel in which I had gone down two and a half years before; the same, too, used by Lord and Lady Dufferin, with their party. Some Americans who were with us good-temperedly vied with each other in their efforts to get the staterooms occupied by the vice-regal party, and the steward was asked many questions. The Americans took great interest in everything about them, carrying their admiration to the extent of making birchbark-covered needle-books of the coarse red flannel spread on the ground for Lord Dufferin to walk on—intending them as valuable souvenirs for their friends.
We left Winnipeg about noon, for three days’ monotonous trip on the river. Novel or work in hand, we went into the saloon to read or work, furtively study our fellow travelers, and by-and-by make acquaintance with them.
We were a motley group. Round one table gathered a knot of chatty Americans, evidently traveling together, and quite as much at home on board the boat as in their own drawing room. Besides this party of friends were plenty of solitary units, of more or less amusing characteristics: a pretty, merry woman of about thirty, mother of three children; a handsome old lady, hard at work on an embroidered tablecloth—a present, she told us, for a friend, to whose wedding she was going; a young clergyman, whose walk, expression, and general appearance betrayed his ritualistic tendencies, and who strolled up and down, now and then stopping to join in the ladies’ conversation.
A sad-looking woman lay on the sofa, trying to hide her tear-stained face behind a newspaper which was never turned, the columns to her containing only regrets for dear friends left behind. A fussy old lady in a fashionable cap and cannon curls, after informing us that she was Mrs B—, of —, drew her chair near every tête-a-tête couple, and, politely requesting to be allowed to take part in the conversation, gradually usurped it all, till, before she had apparently quite satisfied herself on everyone’s private affairs, she was left at liberty to join another group.
A tall, delicate, sad-looking man, the defeated candidate for —, was returning to Ontario, where he was soon after elected for another constituency. A sleepy-looking young Frenchman and his more lively friend, an energetic speculator, who had gone to Manitoba prospecting for land, was returning disgusted, having seen, “dem’ it, nothing but mud.”
A poor old lady was kept in subjection by a tall daughter, with a face so closely veiled, that our curiosity was aroused. Not until the third day did I come on her—suddenly—while her face was uncovered, and then no longer wondered that she tried to conceal the dreadful squint nature had given her.
There were, also, a would-be-fast-if-she-could young lady of eighteen, who had apparently read in novels of flirtations on board steamers, until she hoped to make the same experiences her own, and had not woman’s wit enough to hide her disappointment. And a nice-looking girl going home to get her wedding garments ready, who moaned over the long journey to be taken again in six weeks, hoping to be asked, “Why the necessity?” Finally, a professor and his pretty, ladylike wife, and one or two other nice people, made up our compagnons du voyage.
I have already mentioned Red River and its many windings, which it is needless to allude to here. We passed Grand Forks at midnight on Saturday, and, leaving an order for stages to be sent on in the morning to overtake us, got off the steamer at 10 o’clock on Sunday, saving more than a day on the river by driving to Fisher’s Landing.
The farm, where we went ashore, is owned by an Ontario emigrant. The house is situated in the midst of a beautiful grove of oak and birch, among which grassy avenues, with huge branches meeting overhead, formed roads to the neat farmyards and granaries. A big bell hung on cross poles at the entrance to one of the avenues leading to what was once the rolling prairie, now fields of grain—600 acres, without a fence, stump, or ditch to mar the effect. The clear line of the horizon was broken only by another farmhouse, owned by a brother-in-law, whose farm lay beyond.
The man told us he had emigrated six years before to Manitoba, and had gone as far as Emerson, where the mud frightened him. Turning back, he had taken up this land, paying $1.25 an acre for it, and had succeeded so well, that at the end of the second year it had paid all expenses. Since then he had built a good house and barns and bought extra stock, and he was putting money in the bank. The only trouble he had was the difficulty of getting men at harvest-time, the farms being too scattered to be able to follow the Ontario plan of “bees,” and he often had to work 18 or 20 hours running, daylight and moonlight.
“Bees” are gatherings from all the neighboring farmhouses to assist at any special work, such as a “threshing bee,” a “quilting bee,” a “raising” or “building bee.” When ready to build, the farmer apprises all his neighbors of the date fixed; and they, with all their teams and men, come to assist, expecting the same help from him when they require it. They have “bees” for everything, the men for outdoor work, and the women for indoor work, such as quilting or paring apples for drying. They often pare, cut, and string several barrels of apples in one afternoon. When the young men join them, they finish the evening with high tea, games, and a dance.
The Yankee immigration agents have a powerful assistant in the Pembina mud, in persuading Canadian emigrants to remain in Dakota or Minnesota. But if these emigrants were less impatient, or less easily persuaded, they would find quite as good, if not better land, in Manitoba than on the American side of the line, besides being under our own Queen and laws.
The stage was so long in coming, that some of our party took advantage of the farmer’s offer to drive them to Fisher’s Landing at 75 cents each. We were not long in following them, and after jolting for an hour and a half over a rough road, most of it through farms, we reached Fisher’s.
How changed the place was since we stopped there on our way up! We found a uniform row of painted wooden houses, shops, offices, warehouses, and boarding houses, besides several saloons and billiard rooms. Up the slight hill to the south, where had been rude board shanties, mud, and chaos, one or two pretty cottages had been built, having green blinds, and neatly arranged gardens and lawns. A medium-sized wharf and graveled banks had arisen where was only a dismal swamp. Over the prairie lay the iron rails of the St Vincent and St Paul extension line, soon to be running in connection with the Pembina branch of the Canada Pacific Railway, so that the tedious trip on Red River can be avoided. The side tracks were full of loaded freight. Cars were waiting to tranship at the wharf. The steamer that had left Winnipeg two days before we did had just arrived.
In spite of the external improvement in the Landing, it had not improved in morals, and is quoted in all the country round as the refuge of all the thieves, gamblers, drunkards, and cutthroats from both Canada and the United States. Certainly the men we saw lounging about looked anything but prepossessing.
Hearing some shots fired during the afternoon, I was told with a shrug, “There’s someone got a bullet in him! There’s always something of that sort happening on Sunday. They can’t work, so need some excitement. It does not matter much, as there is no law in the place, and they manage to bring their scores out pretty even in the end, without any fuss.”
Probably, however, the town is not quite so black as it is painted; and though not a desirable place of residence, it might be worse.
All the afternoon we heard at intervals the whistle of the boat we had left—so near that we began to regret the $2 additional expense of the stage. But we were told that, though scarcely a mile off as the crow flies, it was—such are the windings of the river—at least 12 or 14 hours’ journey from the Landing.
We left at a little after 4 o’clock, and until dark, when rain fell, we raced with numbers of prairie fires; some great walls of smoke and flame, others mere narrow strips of fire, all traveling in straight lines, and not interfering with one another. A tiny spark from the engine would ignite a fresh spot, and before our car had passed, it had begun its race with the others. The driver, who was a new hand, and ignorant of the road, dashed over it at breakneck pace, the cars swaying from side to side like a ship in a storm.
At Glyndon we took on a Pullman sleeping car, when there was a scramble for berths; a section containing two, an upper and lower [bunk beds], cost $4 for one night. Mrs F— and the baby taking the lower one, I prepared to climb into the upper. Divesting myself of my hat, dress, and boots in the dressing room at the end of the car, I put on an ulster [overcoat], and mounting the steps, held by the attendant, went aloft. The space between the bed and the roof was so small that it was impossible to sit upright, but the difficulties of getting comfortable were compensated for by the amusement afforded me by my neighbors, separated only by a thin slide, or the heavy curtains hung on poles in front.
From one side came the expostulations of an elderly man with a young Frenchman demanding a berth. It being more proper that ladies should be provided for first, the Frenchman was being denied accommodation. All the elderly man’s eloquence was answered only by a fretful, “But I wants my sleep, I have vera much fatigue!”
On the other side a choleric [irritable] old man growled anathemas at his boots and the absence of a boot jack, which gradually changed into fierce snorts and rumblings as of approaching earthquakes, terminating in startling explosions.
Opposite me, someone, after turning and twisting about for a while, at last thrust a disheveled head between the curtains, and in shrill accents requested the porter to open the ventilator—she was “just melting!”
Scarcely was her request complied with, than a night-capped, grizzled head appeared from the other side, and in stentorian [loud and strong] tones demanded, “Where the deuce is the wind coming from? Shut that confounded thing, or I’ll break your bones!” To which, however, the porter paid no heed, and the grizzled head grumbled itself to sleep again, muttering threats of reporting him in the morning.
It was so hot I found it impossible to sleep. The strangeness of my surroundings, and the occasional thinking aloud of my neighbors, kept me awake. We stopped at 7 o’clock, at Lichfield, for breakfast, where, for the moderate charge of 75 cents each, we were served a cup of bad coffee, a roll, and some fat bacon.
“It’s my experience that most folk who ride trains could care less where they’re going. For them it’s the journey itself and the people they meet along the way.” ~David Baldacci
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 19. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.