Currie's Landing and the Brandon Rapids

A Pioneer Story

About ten kilometres east Brandon on the Trans-Canada Highway, an alert traveler might see a sign noting “Currie’s Landing Rd.” marking a gravel road heading south.  That trail has a bit of a story to tell.

  In 1880 William Currie, who had come to Rapid City from St. Mary’s Ontario, in the previous year, bought a quarter section straddling the river east of Brandon, just below a well-known set of rapids. The Brandon Rapids as they were later known, were first identified as the Grand Rapids by HBC surveyor and manager Peter Fidler on his 1819 map of the region. It had been used as a crossing for some time and Mr. Currie, initially for his own convenience, decided to establish a ferry.




Peter Fidler was a long-term HBC employee in the region. His 1819 map identified the “Grand Rapids” which we now call the “Brandon Rapids” and Moose Hill” which we call the “Brandon Hills”.


He purchased the adjoining 1/4 section on the opposite side of the river, sank two poles in each bank, joined them by wires for a pulley and a scow.

The area was soon to see a rush of settlers and his ferry was soon a vital spot on the trail west.  His location at the foot of the most lengthy and challenging rapids on the Assiniboine also presented another opportunity. Here, the Assiniboine which gently twisted and turns for most of its 1070 kilometres makes a steep decline of over three metres in about a kilometre. For the first steamboats to ascend the Assiniboine it was the end of the line. And although enterprising captains did find ways to force their craft through those rapids, in lower water it remained the head of navigation.

That meant that it became the entranceway to the new lands.



Mr. Currie lived on the site and operated the Curries Landing ferry until 1893 when he sold farm and ferry and moved his family to Brandon. There he became a bailiff and later an insurance agent until he passed away in 1941, at ninety-three years of age. At that time he was the eldest insurance agent in Canada.

   


Winnipeg Times Aug 18, 1880

The Landing

By the end of 1880 Currie’s Landing (also called “Rapid City Landing”) had already become an important staging area for trips overland to new settlements like Souris, Millford, Souris City, and of course Rapid City.  Goods were portaged over the rapids to other boats or taken by horse drawn vehicle, or at times man on foot for many miles. A store was established for local needs.


 

Probable site of Mr. Currie’s ferry, viewed from the landing side. The steamboat dock was nearby.

Besides the incoming commodities, grain and other produce for a short time were shipped east by river boat. The first homesteaders arrived in western Manitoba by ox cart and covered wagon, but the riverboat proved cheaper even though the journey by water was much longer because of bends in the river. The cart trail from Winnipeg to Brandon was a hundred and fifty miles but it was nearly five hundred miles by the Assiniboine River.



Wyatt, George H.  A reliable guide for settlers, travellers & investors in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the new North-West  (Toronto: s.n., 1881.)

 


Winnipeg Times Sep. 6, 1880

The trip from Winnipeg to Fort Ellice took a week. From Winnipeg to Brandon took three days.  Passengers would often get out and walk the “short-cut” as the boat navigated the wide meanders.

Decades later William’s daughters, Lottie and Nettie recalled one of the early  steamboats arriving from Winnipeg after a journey that was longer and more arduous than anticipated. The crew arrived at Curries Landing minus provisions. The Curries' farm home had little to offer a crew of starving men, but the pioneers' hospitality and ingenuity came to the fore. Flour and the remainder of gallon tin of baking powder, sent from Ontario, was made into hundreds of biscuits baked in relays while a whole cured ham was boiled an a feast ensued.

Miss Lottie also recalled that the Alpha often spent time at her dad’s landing.  Once, while waiting for a week while waiting for parts from Winnipeg the crew spent time playing baseball and otherwise entertaining themselves. 

The Rapids


Back in 1878, the first steamboat to ascend the Assiniboine past Portage la Prairie had stopped at the bottom of the rapids, judging them too difficult for navigation. Those were years of high water and they must have looked formidable. They were over a kilometre in length and the strong current would be too much for the heavily laden and cumbersome steamship.

In 1879, the Marquette under Captain Webber, also stopped and turned back at the rapids, but his examination of them must have convinced him that ascent was possible.   The profits to be made from trade further up river made it worth the effort. On his next trip up river later that spring, after a great deal of effort, he was able to negotiate the rapids and become the first steamer to reach Fort Ellice.

By that time riverboat travel had a long history in the west.  Experience on the variable western rivers, especially on the Missouri and its tributaries, had prompted some solutions to shallow water navigation and to dealing with rapids.

These were large boats. Many would carry 50 passengers and 170 tons.  They were about 200 feet long and designed for shallow water – as low as a 2 or 3 feet, They burned logs for fuel.  They sometimes had to be poled over sand bars - or helped with he use of a donkey engine. Each boat had such an engine, which wound a rope around a drum.  When the rope was attached to some tree on the bank ahead the boat could be hauled forward. Passengers would have to pitch in with poles. Some would disembark, or even unload some cargo to raise the boat.

Rapids could be conquered by using the same concept. The “deadman” was buried upstream. Any combination of a donkey engine, man-power, and pushing from the rear, might be used to get the boat through. Records show that this might take some time (14 hours is mentioned) and many passengers would get off and walk to Grand Valley or Brandon, and wait for their luggage there. As the rope became old it was prone to break causing more delays.  The Alpha once took four days on the rapids.

The Winnipeg Daily Times feature story on the Marquette's ground-breaking trip to Fort Ellice in the spring of 1879 offers a gripping account of the time-consuming attack on the rapids near Brandon, indicating that they "extend for two miles and very swift".  During the difficult ascent Mr. William Griggs, while returning to the vessel in a small craft after fixing a line to the "dead man" for the purpose of winching the vessel along, fell overboard and was saved only by the quick thinking action of a co-worker who grasped his hair as he floated past in the strong current. [35]  Just another work day on the river!

   

Winnipeg Times, May 27, 1879

 

Winnipeg Times, May 30, 1880





The rapids may not look formidable today – but imaging an overloaded steamboat fighting a springtime. Anyone who witnessed the Assiniboine Flood of 2011 knows how much current the river can generate in high water.

 

Steamboat Days

That voyage opened up the river upstream for commercial travel and signaled the beginning of a short but interesting era in the history of Westman.  Steamboat travel flourished for only a few years before the railway took over, but between 1879 and 1885 traffic was constant during the spring and early summer. One can only speculate at the amount of profit these journeys generated.  The cost of a ticket from Winnipeg to Brandon at $10 seems reasonable enough by today’s standards, but it was quite high in relation to the dollar’s purchasing power at the time. Surely the owners and operators could see that the coming of the railway would effectively kill their business. Were the profits large enough to justify the expense of purchasing these boats and moving them into the interior of a continent? There must have seemed to be some future to these early entrepreneurs.  Even the CPR must planned for the continued existence of steamboat travel when it constructed its first bridge at Brandon. It was built so that it could swing aside to let them pass.

The landmarks became familiar. The Manitoba Gazette reporter who made the first trip (1879) on the Marquette recorded that they landed at “Cyprus” River to unload freight. He noted the sand hills and detailed progress between there and Currie’s Landing. Mention was made of  “Sand Hill Bend”, Blake’s Bluff,  Webber’s Grove and Crawford’s Landing.    He commented on the scenery of Little Saskatchewan mouth and contrasted it with the lack of trees in the Brandon Rapids area.

 

 


Kavanaugh’s Map

 

Looking upstream from the site of Currie’s Ferry, (Point E on the map above), towards the rapids.

 

The channels around the island are still quite recognizable as those marked on Kavanaugh’s map, although the riverbed is much altered  by recent floods.

Mr. Currie and his brother R.W. Currie built a landing dock that became a thriving centre of activity. Quantities of merchandise and supplies of all kinds were

 

Winnipeg Times, April 30, 1880



Winnipeg Times, Sept. 6, 1880

The last voyage of Marquette to the Brandon area in 1882 was noteworthy.  The entire valley area known as the flats was flooded.  Near Grand Valley high winds caused such high waves that passengers were frightened.  “ It was feared that some large body of water from the Northwest Territories had found it’s way into the Assiniboine” (Brown). The river was a mile wide.



The Marquette

But most trips were uneventful, even pleasurable, and every effort was made to make passenger service convenient - for those who could afford it.   Ships were elegantly outfitted.  There were concerts on the deck in the moonlight, fine dining and good-natured company.  The goal was to emulate the sophisticated style of the Mississippi Riverboats. The Northwest was the largest steamer to be used on the Assiniboine.  It was 200 ft. x 34 ft. with berths for 80 passengers. A grand piano graced the parlour.

The Community

Aside from being an important part of the region’s transportation infr    astructure, Curries Landing became a community. In the early 1880’s the Brandon Sun would regularly report on happenings. On the 11th of September it was noted that, “Miss Maggie Currie, who was a candidate at the recent examinations for a third class certificate has been very successful, having,..”, 1884

And before long, more news about Maggie:

 

Brandon Sun, Aug. 7, 1886

Currie’s Landing School District #183 served the neighbourhood, beginning in 1884.

Mr. Currie became a recognized leader in the community, serving as an auditor for the municipality and providing a boat for holiday excursions on nearby Lake Clementi. He was also named a Pathmaster for the Municipality in 1884. Pathmasters saw that the roads were built and maintained through a community service model – where each citizen had to donate a few days time.

As the Currie home was the only one in the district to be graced with a piano the church services were held there on Sunday mornings, with people from every denomination in the whole area attending. Often guests stayed on for dinner and supper to participate in the never-ending Currie hospitality.

A Brandon Sun article of Jan. 14,1963 records an interview with two members of the Currie family, Miss Nettie, who had recently celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday and Miss Lottie, who was in her eighty-sixth year.

They recalled Lottie's thrill as a young girl at being allowed by her father to operate their ferry across the Assiniboine on Saturdays, there by augmenting her allowance. Lottie told of her delight at receiving a "fortune" of thirty-five cents for transportation of an unknown passenger. Ministers and Indian people were always allowed free ferrying and, when it was later ascertained that the traveller in question was the new Methodist minister for Chater, her father required that she abide by the policy and return her earnings.

By 1882 regular rail service was established to Brandon, and although train trips were not as romantic and adventurous as a riverboat rides, the schedule proved to be much more reliable and convenient. The Marquette was taken off the river in 1883. Although there was still some river traffic until the Alpha made its last trip in the spring of 1885, and the ferry continued to be useful to local traveller, Currie’s Landing was quickly losing its importance.

The End of An Era

The steamboat era was over.  1885 saw the rail line extended as far west as Glenboro, so even on the lower Assiniboine the boats were becoming obsolete.




June 14, 1882, Winnipeg Times

 

June 4, 1885


Riverside locations lost their appeal, and to this day one can canoe down the Assiniboine from Brandon to Spruce Woods without seeing more than a few homes. The  ever-changing river quickly washed away any signs of the landing.

In 1923 the old two-story storehouse was in need of repair, so the owners,( the Sibleys) removed the top floor and did some rebuilding. Mr. Wyton who took over the ferry operation from the Currie’s soon found it was no longer in demand. He tore it apart and used the material as flooring for his barn.

Buildings deteriorated and some were eventually burned.  A modern home with outbuildings marks the Currie’s Landing site today, with little evidence to remind us of the place it once held in settlement times.



Bibliography

Kavanaugh, Martin, The Assiniboine Basin, The Gresham Press, Old Woking, Surrey, England 109

Wyatt, George H.  A reliable guide for settlers, travellers & investors in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba and the new North-West  (Toronto: s.n., 1881.)

Municipal Memories, Cornwallis Centennial Committee, 1884

The Story of Brandon Hills, Brandon Hills History Committee, 1979

The Winnipeg Times – as cited
The Brandon Sun – as cited