My town, Winnipeg, grew up in the clay-filled Red River Valley. And before there were trains, like the Countess of Dufferin, there were carts. The carts weren’t available at the local cart dealership - they had to be built from the materials at hand. And so the Red River Cart, pulled by horse or by ox, and built of local hardwoods, was created to suit the local environment. It became a common transportation vehicle for fur traders, and later, settlers, on the prairies.
The cart had two large wheels (three to six feet in diameter), and was entirely made of wood. No nails. (No nail factory around, yet.) It was held together by leather, easy to repair, and so versatile, it could be made into a raft by taking off the wheels. (Why don’t we have cars like that today?!) The carts were said to be very squeaky, especially when traveling in caravans of up totwo hundred. The wheels couldn't be greased because of all the dust. This squeal became known as ‘the Northwest fiddle’ and could be heard for miles around. Ironically, just a few feet away from the cart sculpture, I found a sign banning 'the production of loud noise'. Standing there, I imagined hearing a ghostly squeak from the past.
By 1869, trains and steam boats, gradually began to offer settlers and business people alternative transportation. Peace and quiet returned to the back roads. But in some fields, the deep ruts from the Red River carts continue to resist the farmer's plough.
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The Countess of Dufferin's claim to fame, is that she's the very first steam locomotive on the Canadian prairies.
She's named after the wife of one of Canada’s early Governor Generals. Her full name is Hariot Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. (And I thought women's lib had invented hyphenated names!) Hariot and her husband, Count Dufferin, happened to be touring Manitoba when the steam engine arrived back in the fall of 1877 and the Countess got to put the first spike into the south leading tracks.
(photo is in public domain)
This mother of nine children is said to have been a gracious hostess and perfectly suited to the diplomatic life she led. Besides Canada, she worked/lived in embassies in Russia, Turkey and India. She was also a writer and published Our Viceregal Life (1889) My Canadian Journal (1891) and My Russian Turkish Journals in 1916. In India, she was actively involved with fundraising to give women better health clinics. Many hospitals there still bear her name. We, in Winnipeg, honor her memory with a locomotive. And it’s aptly named, because this woman was a powerhouse of energy and she certainly did travel.
Now back to the steam engine. Built in 1872 for the Northern Pacific Railway, the locomotive was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1877. She arrived on October 9th via barge, up the Red River, from Minnesota to her new home in Winnipeg. From Winnipeg, she was sent out in all directions, expanding the new railway system. The steam engine lived on wood/coal and water. There were always plenty of trees around to chop down when she got hungry. It’s said that once a bear clambered aboard during refueling.
Later, the engine was nicknamed “The Betsy” by new owners who used her as a power source for their lumber mill. In 1909, after a life of hard work, she avoided the scrap yard and was donated to the City of Winnipeg to be put on public display.
In 1977 she was refurbished and no doubt looks as good as the day she arrived – a day that was so momentous, it was declared a public holiday. Trains really did change the world back a hundred years ago – kind of like cell phones and the internet have changed our present world. Techology kind of boggles the mind - well my mind, at least - where thoughts just slowly chug along.
What I really found interesting in learning about this locomotive, was the woman behind the name. You can read more about her time in Canada with this link.
The same train technology that opened up North America for development, opened up the vast country of Russia, too. Without trains, all those exiles and prisoners would never have made it to those far flung gulags and special settlements. Shows how it's the tool user and not the tool that makes the difference.
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The word ‘Winnipeg’ means ‘muddy ‘ or ‘dirty’ river in Cree. We have two muddy rivers (muddy, on account of all the clay in our valley) and where they meet, that’s Winnipeg – or at least that’s our starting point, our centre. These two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine (there’s that word again!) define not only our city, but also our traffic flows. (It’s always a good idea not to have to cross too many bridges for your daily commute – especially in the summer, aka, ‘construction’ season.) The Red River pushes upward from North Dakota, through the low-lying Red River Valley (you know the song) northwards – emptying into Lake Winnipeg (which links up to Hudson’s Bay and finally, the Arctic Ocean).
The Red can be ferocious in the springtime and has caused much flooding. (Read about 1997’s Flood of the Century.) The Assiniboine River, on the other hand, flows west to east, beginning in eastern Saskatchewan near Preeceville. It’s a slower, more shallow, lazy kind of river – creating oxbows as it meanders.
Nowadays, this river junction is marked by a dynamic downtown site called ‘The Forks.’ It’s a place I take most visitors because it offers a bit of everything. Restaurants, markets, a hotel, a children’s theatre and museum, etc. Being on the river, the site also has water taxis and boat tours. In the winter, it rivals Ottawa for the longest ice rink. You can also watch dogsled racing and there's even a toboggan run. There's fireworks on special holidays, outdoor concerts (I got to see a Randy Bachmann and Burton Cummings reunion), and we're all anticipating the new Human Rights Museum which is now under construction.
My one pet peeve of the place (not that anyone’s listening) – is that the place didn’t become a car-free zone. Considering it’s historical significance, a more timeless place could have been created if traffic had been banned. But don’t let my criticism stop you from visiting. Please come meet a Winnipegger at The Forks, down where the rivers converge – like it’s been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
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(This is a copy of an article I prepared for SGGEE (Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe) It can be found in its most recent jou...