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Griggs and Grand Forks


Few people would guess that Grand Forks came into being because of a keg of beer, but supposedly it’s true.

Traders were the first Europeans to visit the Red River Valley when they came to trade manufactured goods with Native Americans in exchange for pelts and furs. Known as Les Grande Fourches, a fork created by the joining of the Red River and the Red Lake River became a rendezvous point as early as the 1740s.

In 1811, farmers established Selkirk Colony at present-day Winnipeg, but to survive the winters, they depended on imported food and equipment. Ships from England tried to supply them by coming south from Hudson Bay via the Hayes River, but the short summers didn’t cooperate. The next step was to try to get goods that came north on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Paul. To transport goods from St. Paul, mixed-blood Metis people created oxcart trains, but these were so slow, they could complete only two trips per summer.

In 1858 – with necessity being the mother of invention – St. Paul businessmen offered a thousand dollars to anyone who could successfully travel from St. Paul to Winnipeg by steamboat. In 1859, Anson Northrup beat out the competition by coming up the Minnesota River to Crow Wing, MN, where he dismantled his boat. He then hauled it overland to the banks of the Red River, where he put it back together again. He launched it and successfully navigated the Red River to arrive at Fort Garry a prize winner.

Meanwhile, traders were still conducting business at Les Grande Fourches, which was now on the mail route that ran between Fort Garry and Fort Abercrombie near Wahpeton. Being a halfway point, the government established a post office on the fork in 1870. The new steamboat business kicked into high gear, and passengers started traveling the river as well.

Seeing a lucrative venture, railroad tycoon James Hill partnered with a steamboat captain, Alexander Griggs, to form the Red River Transportation Line. Griggs had proved himself a capable man who, at 15, had honed his sailing skills on the Mississippi River to earn his pilot’s license when he was only 19.

Which brings us to our story: roughly 130 years ago, Alexander Griggs was participating in a flatboat race on the Red River to Fort Garry. When his crew spotted a keg of beer that had accidentally fallen off another boat, they snagged it and ended up getting so drunk that Griggs had to tie up at the forks to spend the night.

He intended to finish the journey to Winnipeg the following day, but morning brought them a rude surprise. During the night, the temperature had plummeted, and their boat was frozen in place. According to the story, the men had to build a shelter for the winter, and with time on his hands, Griggs surveyed the land and became convinced the site would be ideal for a new town.

So it was that on this date, in 1875, Alexander Griggs platted his town and has ever since been known as the “Father of Grand Forks.” Oh yeah, there’s a county named after him, too.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm