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Crossing the Red River at Drayton By Ferryboat or By Bridge, 1910


There was a time when there were no bridges over the Red River of the North. In those days, wintertime crossings were made over the ice. Summertime travelers had to ford the Red by wading through a shallow stretch, or rowing a boat, or taking a ferry.

There were quite a number of ferries back then – hauling passengers and freight between North Dakota and Minnesota. The most notable were those crossing the Red between Fargo and Moorhead; and Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. But there were also ferryboats at Pembina, Caledonia, and Drayton.

Drayton, located about 35 miles south of Pembina, had been established in 1878. It became an important town at the northern end of the Valley because it was located on the “highest geographical point” between Grand Forks and Winnipeg.

With no railroad connections and no bridges, Drayton depended upon the ferry for commerce. It opened about 1880, and was typical of the ferries of that era, consisting of a flat-bottomed barge and a heavy rope or cable stretched across the river. The ferryman moved the barge by pulling on the rope. A typical ferryboat was capable of transporting a four-horse team and wagon holding 125 bushels of wheat, a load of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 pounds.

The Drayton Ferry, which was actually seven miles south of town, allowed farmers to get their crop to the elevator at Stephen, Minnesota, which had a railway connection. In the 1890s, the ferryman was George Courser, who farmed in Eagle Point township on the Minnesota side.

Drayton’s ferryboat was replaced by a pontoon bridge circa 1900, which conveyed goods more quickly and efficiently. A massive new bridge was on this date in 1910 when the federal government gave permission for a modern steel lift-bridge, giving the community “better communication and more business.”

The time for ferryboats and pontoon-bridges passed, just as the era of motorized cars and trucks began.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Drayton To Build Bridge Over Red,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 20, 1910, p. 1.

“Bogenrief Identifies Picture Of Ferry; Wife’s Grandfather Operated Boat,” Fargo Forum, July 23, 1939, p. 9.

“Drayton, N.D.; Points of Historical Interest,” Ox Cart Trails Historical Society, "" , accessed on November 11, 2016.

“Ferry,” Chambers’s Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1886), p. 300.

“Drayton,” Pembina Pioneer Express, June 29, 1883, p. 4.

“John George Courser,” 1895 Minnesota State Census, “ferryman.”

“John G. Courser,” Eagle Point, Marshall County, MN, U.S. Census, 1900, age 62.

“Drayton,” Pembina Pioneer Express, August 3, 1888, p. 3.

“Great Bridge Is Completed,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 9, 1911, p. 10.