The Canadian Prairie Province – From The Old To The Stone Fort

THROUGH the kindness of Mr. John Rowan, engineer in charge of the C. P. R. construction here, I enjoyed, behind his fine bays, a visit on the 18th of August to several places of interest. Our way was along the west side of the Red River northerly. Leaving the new market bridge, we drove on Main street for half a mile between rows of neat frame houses, past the Wolseley House, late an hotel, now the College of the Presbyterian Church, in which Professors Bryce and Hart are doing a good work. Main street is here a fine level two chain, or 132 feet road, well graded and surface-drained. A few minutes more bring us to the Shultz-Pritchard estate, which runs from Main Street back about two miles. Next is the Magnus-Brown estate of the like extent, with its broad Burrows’-avenue and some houses and gardens. After this is a property of some chains in width which has not been put in the market, and then a plot of thirty acres of flat prairie which has been selected for a cemetery.

Between this part of Main Street and the river are the pretty residences of Dr. Shultz, Mr. A. W. Burrows, and others, and behind them are seen embowered in trees, the house of Bishop Machray and the English Cathedral, Church and College of St. John. These are beyond Point Douglas, and form a village of some extent and much natural beauty. We also see, on the same side, the substantial residence of Mr. Inkster. Near this was fought, in the days when the Nor’-west and the Hudson’s Bay Company strove for mastery, the battle in which twenty of the adherents of the latter Company fell. This, with Kildonan and its history, will be referred to again as we come to speak of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the fur trade. The region, over which we are now passing, is indeed the classic ground of the Province. Five miles more of driving on the level, varied only by an occasional coulee, or gully, formed by spring floods in the plain, bring us to the Scotch Settlement of Kildonan, with its stone church and school-house, where the Rev. Dr. Black, the venerable pioneer of the Presbyterian Church in Manitoba, officiates. The country adjacent is well fenced and farmed, and in the hands of the most independent class in the Province, many of them descendants of the emigrants who came out under Lord Selkirk.

Before us was here seen a narrow line of vapour hugging the ground, isolating the trees, and making them leap fantastically from the ground. This is the mirage of the prairie.

We were never on this drive without the sight of trees, mostly poplars, with tufts of willows, hazelwood and vines. They line the river’s edge, and that of every stream that runs into it; in the prairie, too, little green clumps appear every half mile, and in some places an undergrowth of young trees has sprung up thickly. This has been the result of but a few years. Old settlers say, that not long ago the prairie grass and flowers were the only green things visible. To the left, at a distance of eight miles, we see the white brick walls and towers of the new Provincial Penitentiary in course of erection. The rising ground on which it stands is Stony Mountain. (This and Pembina Mountains so called, are really not mountains or even hills, but parts of the plain elevated a few score feet above the main surface in broad terraces.) The object in placing this building so far away from Winnepeg is, probably, that the inmates may work quarries of stone. We now pass the residence of Mr. Stewart, a retired officer of the Company, who accompanied Dr. Rae in his Polar journey, and here we notice that the ground is marked over at regular intervals with small numbered stakes. We are, in fact, in an embryo city that perished unborn. A trial survey of the Canada Pacific was made here in 1871, when it was proposed to run the line south of Lake Manitoba, along the Assiniboine. Forthwith, the sanguine proprietor laid out his land in lots, called streets after his relatives and friends, and made ready for fortune. The great road, however, after due consideration, did not approve of the lay of the land, looked for higher ground, and its engineers withdrew to find the proper height of land at Selkirk or Mapleton a place twelve miles further down the river.

We cross Tait’s Creek, not a very great landmark, you may say, but a very important one nevertheless. And why ? Here the waters of the flood were stayed. It is also, as we know, solemnly agreed and provided that the great road shall pass through the Province. Why, then, lay it more than a score of miles away from its only city, its centre in every respect ? Patiently, read the answer, dear reader. As we now enter upon higher land, observe, and you will find that the river’s banks take a bolder aspect, with a stony bottom. Three times, in the memory of men still living, has the Red River covered all the plain over which we have trotted. In 1826, 1 852 and 1861 its waters crept up and up till boats were used in the Fort at Garry ; The foundation of one of the stone towers was so undermined that it still leans over from the perpendicular ; The dwellers in these level lands fled to higher plains, or took refuge in upper stories of strong houses, and saw their household goods and fences swimming round them in sad confusion. The high land, on which we now travel, continues to the Eagle’s Nest, ten miles below the Lower or Stone Fort. This the skilled eye selected as the appropriate bed of the great road, and through it our readers may, ere many months pass, hear its whistle. But is the ambitious little city to be in yearly danger of the rising angry waters ? Nay, say its inhabitants, the banks are wider, the river’s course is broader, the country has become dryer. This, too, said to me a good priest at St. Boniface, as he pointed to the banks and assured me there was now ample room, and that no cause existed to fear anything more than a slight wetting of the surface. The fall to Lake Winnipeg is about half a foot per mile in the course of the stream. When the wind blows on the lake, its effect is felt far up the river, damming it back and raising its waters ; and this is still more the case when in spring its surface is covered with a heavy coat of ice.

Thus far we have gone along the high-road the king’s road of old maps at a distance lately of a mile or more from the river. Now we run to its side. We have left a quiet prairie where houses and people are scarce ; now we pass house after house, all of a like simple style of hewn logs, one, or one and a half stories in height, with shingled or thatched roof, doors near the ground, round mud-built oven and root-house in the garden, and cattle shed in rear. Dark-looking and plainly dressed women and black-eyed children, all seeming to prefer squatting on the grass, floor, or even the bare black ground to using any chair or stool — scarce articles here — the dark hair falling in twists down the back, tied with bows of gay ribbons ; feet moccasined or bare. The whole river’s bank, for mile upon mile, seems a long street with houses on but one side. Thus, in old days, the half-breeds, descendants of hardy traders and settlers who married squaws, settled close together for mutual protection, near the water, where they caught their meat, and in which, in light canoes or dug-outs, they sped in quest of game or for sup-plies and to barter at the Fort.

Their holdings were narrow, and as families increased, a new house was often built beside the parents’ and the land divided longitudinally. The farm lot extended back two miles. For a like extent in rear each settler was accustomed every fall to go out with his scythe and ox-cart, and cull the best of the long grass. Thus arose the peculiar title called ” hay privilege.” The Dominion Government has, dealing justly and generously, confirmed these old settlers in their title to the whole tract of land held or used behind each residence, so that the lots fronting on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers are often of only a few chains in width, but four miles in depth. This will be found an inconvenience, as the country settles in rear, but will be cured in time by new arrangements of contiguous sub-divisions. Much more like their wilder than their Saxon parents are most of these simple people in their rustic homes. The men move with a swinging, slouching tread, their toes often turned in. They love fishing and hunting. Though possessed of the finest land on the continent, it lies idle, or if tilled, it is in the most meagre fashion. The peasant women pretty brunettes when young, too soon look old and haggard through exposure and dislike to wearing any sufficient covering from the sun. They are more skilful than squaws in the making and embroidering of moccasins and white moose-skin slippers and basket work. A retiring race, they feel the pressure of the white man’s course. Before long they will have melted away from the Red River and Assiniboine, and must be sought at the far interior forts, by the banks of the Saskatchewan and Peace rivers and their tributaries. Their pleasant riverside sites are, one by one, passing into the hands of new comers. Yet while we thus refer to the Metis as a class, let us not forget that there are, and will continue to be, a large number of able men and valued members of society, of this mixed race, in the Red River country. In the Houses of Legislature, as traders and business men, and as fair cultivated ladies in hospitable homes, we meet them. We may mention especially, of French half-breeds, the Hon. Charles Nolin, lately Provincial Minister of Agriculture and Emigration; Pascal Breland, Pierre DeLorme, and Mr Gingras, all prosperous merchants and traders ; and of the English and Scotch half-breeds, Hon. John Norquay, Hon. John Sutherland, Senator ; Hon. James McKay, and Mr. R. Tait, the miller. The newer element is represented in the Provincial Parliament by six out of twenty-four members, the others being of this old stock.

Again we seek the higher road, sacring the blackbirds and hearing the whistle of the prairie hen as we pass. Along the well-beaten track are poplar poles on which are carried the single wire that can in a moment tell our case ten thousand miles away : thus does the telegraph precede the train. On some of the green posts we see bunches of leaves, the dying sap making a last effort at animation. Ox carts go creaking past, poor Lo sulks silently along, the ground squirrel drops into his hole, and the hawks soar higher as they hear our wheels. Here and there is a white patch on the black ground, where the alkaline solutions held in this wonderful deep soil, have come to the surface and dried. It is noon as we approach a stone enclosure evidently planned for the like design as the old Fort, at Garry ; this is the Lower or Stone Fort. Its walls are not so high as those of the other, and are evidently incomplete, as they are not coped, but crumble at top. They are of limestone, which is abundant in the bed of the river close by. Small towers grace and guard the corners. It faces the river, and contains half-a-dozen store-houses and a general shop. The area within is probably of three acres. At the north side is an oblong building, of no great size, of hewn logs, and doubly surrounded with walls. This is the miniature temporary Penitentiary of the young Province. Within are accommodations for the twenty-three prisoners and the guards. We never entered any place where more neatness, cleanliness and order prevailed. Most of the prisoners were out in the yard and garden, clad in white, with ” P. P.” stamped on them, working under orders of armed guards. All were male. Among them were three Sioux Indians, from the Portage hand, all restless fellows when brought in. They each attempted to escape, but now are among the best workers. We were shown a pair of stout boots made by one of them. The Warden, Mr. Bedson, conducts the establishment with little expense to Government, and with honour to himself. At his pretty residence, “Daisy Lodge,” across the road, we saw the giant head and antlers of a moose, and a great variety of skins of wild beasts and birds, and experienced true Nor’-west hospitality, Mr. Bedson will, no doubt, make his mark in the Prairie Province. An Englishman without fortune, he was sergeant in the army when eighteen, and came to Winnipeg as quartermaster-sergeant in the Second Battalion, under Colonel Wolseley. This officer, having made his way from Thunder Bay, arrived at the Stone Fort on the 22d of August, 1870 ; only the Regulars were with him, the Militia Companies being still struggling through the Winnipeg. The advance was however made up the Red River. Riel’s headquarters in Fort Garry were reached on the 24th, but the bird had flown ; the Union Jack was hoisted, and Manitoba became in fact, what it had been in name only before, a Canadian Province. The large garden of the prison had little living in it, save a tame bear fretting at its chain. The grasshoppers had here nibbled many a sweet morsel, and left all bare behind them. A second growth was, however, making fair progress. In sight of the Stone Fort, with a commanding view of it and the river, is the summer residence of Mr. Thomas Howard, M.P.P., a very pretty place. The banks are here high and clean ; passing up we see the neat English Church (St. Clements) between our path and the river. We notice a bit of canvas fluttering in the wind, and, approaching, find it is the covering of an Indian child’s grave. Traces of other graves are visible. The body having been interred, the grave was covered and guarded with a fence of small logs placed over and around it ; such articles as the deceased was supposed most to need in the next world were then placed on top, and all was covered with the cloth raised in the usual shape of graves with us. Alas ! poor ghosts ; soon destined to be scared from your resting place by the shrill whistle of boat and steam-car, and all traces of your tombs obliterated by the advancing tide of the white man !

The river now curves to the east, but soon returns in banks 700 feet apart, forming a semi-circle. This is Sugar Point. Here, in spring, the ice floe coming down is broken, and the force of the stream is lessened. The chapel we see, marks the place of the crossing of the great Canada Pacific Railroad. A rope is stretched from bank to bank to aid the passage of the scow that serves for ferry. The work of Sifton & Farewell (the contractors on this end of the line), is seen in the long clearing through the trees and the telegraph line extending westerly. Mr. Sifton’s substantial wooden house and some workshops are here, and the company’s shed is seen on the opposite bank. The banks are adorned with beautiful groves of soft maple, elm, oak and poplar. The stream must be here bridged, and that will be a large item of cost, owing to the length and the fact that a draw must be provided to permit of the passage of the lake and river craft. Twenty miles above is Lake Winnipeg, a great inland sea, with an area of 9,000 square miles, into which flow mighty rivers ; on the North-west, the Saskatchewan ; on the East, the Winnipeg and Beren’s River ; and on the South, the Red River, on whose broad banks we stand. Hardy Icelanders are settling on its westerly shores, attracted by its unsurpassed fisheries and rich soil. But let us look further about ” the crossing.”

Already is heard the noise of the hammer and blacksmith. Several residences and stores are up or in course of construction. The Pembina branch passing up from Winnipeg will, as just decided by the Government, soon, on the opposite or easterly end of the bridge, crossing here, join the main line from Thunder Bay. The surroundings seem to mark the site of what may in future become an important city of the Province. The ground, which, rising fully twenty feet above the river bed, forms a dry, well-wooded plateau, has for many acres around, been se-cured and laid out in lots by some Winnipeg capitalists A prettier or more promising location can scarcely be conceived than this, called Mapleton on the Government map, but by its founders Selkirk, in honour of the old nobleman, who induced so many of his hardy countrymen to seek fortune in this then unknown region. North of Selkirk, between the river and its left bank, is a lagoon of a mile in length, now the resort of wild fowl, but destined to be a harbour and dockyard for the lake shipping. A beautiful wooded island is at its northerly end. We come in sight of St. Peter’s Church, in the parish now called Dynevor. Eight miles above, on the east highland, before the river forms three branches and is lost in the lake, is the site of the prospected town of Peguis, which may wait further notice from the historian of the future. Yet this region above Selkirk is already no terra incognita. A. steamboat was launched on the lake near by, and made her trial trip during my stay in the Province. Arrangements are also being made by the Government and the Company to place vessels of light draught on Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis. In July, 1875, the Company’s steamer ” Northcote ” successfully made her first trip to Edmonton, on the Saskatchewan. But little blasting and dredging is needed to make the river easily navigable for larger crafts from Winnipeg to the lake of that name.

Over the prairie and through woods and willow bushes of some growth, to the west of the river, we push our way some seven miles, seeking the Clandeboye settlement and Muckle’s Creek. A wild, rolling land, in which many fat cattle and a flock of a hundred sheep are grazing ; prairie chickens start up under the horses’ feet, and hawks circle above them. Passing the track of the great road as surveyed, on the now proposed route through the Narrows of Lake Manitoba, and under the telegraph wire, we come in two miles more to the houses and barns of Messrs. Alexander Muckle, J.P., and Robert Muckle, a beautiful and romantic place, uniting the desiderata of good land, prairie, wood and water privileges. The creek that passes through the estate is twenty feet in depth and navigable by Red River steamers. On its bank, within gunshot of the house, were wild duck and plover. A hawk flew down almost at our feet and tried to carry off one of Miss Minnie’s chickens. He last rested on a tree near by, whence he fell screaming, pierced with deadly lead from Mr. A. Muckle’s gun. His wings are now spread in our sanctum far away from the fatal tree.

We refer thus to the beautiful home of these kind friends and their amiable mother, as there are many readers in Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere who will be interested in learning of their happiness and prosperity. This, too, furnishes a ready example of one of the thous-ands of choice sites for rural homes, with rich grain, meadow and pasture land, that lie ready for the industrious