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Red River Steamboats


In the last few decades, much attention has been centered on the Red River due to massive spring flooding and fluctuations in the level of the river. The seasonal rise and fall of the water is a concern for communities relying on the river for their water supply and recreation, but a hundred years ago, the spring rise was essential to maintain commercial traffic on this north running river. The first riverboat actually began operating in 1859, and steamboats and other commercial craft continued to plow the river for the next sixty years.

It was on this date in 1900 that the steamboat "Fram" began to carry grain and lumber up and down the river. The "Fram" was 29 feet wide and 69 feet long with engines having a capacity of 60 horsepower. Drawing only 18 inches of water, it was designed to operate in the often shallow Red River. The steamboat cost over $5,000 to construct, and the firm of Anderson and Lystad also constructed five barges to increase the tonnage of each trip at an additional cost of $7,000. Each barge was capable of hauling 5,000 to 6,000 bushels of wheat. Another steamboat owned by this company carried the somewhat regal name, "The City of Grand Forks," a side-wheeler, 24 x 50 feet, propelled by 30 horsepower gasoline engines and crewed by eight men. This boat was not to be confused with the steamer, the "Grand Forks," which was owned by James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railroad.

Originally, the Red River had numerous bends, stumps and snags, all hazards to steamboat travel, but improvements were continuously being made to aid river traffic. In 1900 a sum of $30,000 was appropriated to remove some of the worst features and to dredge the shallow water. The dredge, called the "Otter Tail," was operated by an eleven man crew. Another dredge worked the Red Lake River to remove obstacles hindering loggers who used the river to transport logs from the forests of Minnesota to the railroad terminals on the Red.

The Red River steamboats brought immigrants, supplies and building materials to the rich, fertile valley and hauled away the area's bounty of grain, lumber and livestock. Riverboat traffic helped to settle the Red River Valley, but it also required that communities be built near the river, often with dire consequences. For one hundred and fifty years, river men, farmers, businessmen and homeowners have been anxiously awaiting each spring's rise on the Red River.

By Jim Davis


Grand Forks Weekly Plaindealer May 31, 1900.

North Dakota Historical Quarterly Volume IX, no 2, January, 1942