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The SS Alpha : A Souvenir
On October 2nd, 1988, when we pald our first visit to the SW 1/4 33-8-12 (a location on the south bank of the Assiniboine River north and east of Cypress River, Manitoba) to view the skeleton of the SS AIpha, Don brought home a piece of timber from the wreck. (SS stands for Steam Ship).
"Some day", he said as he pulled his souvenir from its watery grave, "I'm going to do something with this."
In 2003, fifteen years later, the 'something', came to mind. Why not have Fred Brock of Glenboro carve out of the Wisconsin oak (after all, the timber had LOTS of time to dry), a base and the letters SS ALPHA?
So impressed was Don with the finished product that he ordered a second and then, when he learned there was still enough oak left, a third. The second one Don gave to Jack Henry of Treherne, the current owner of the land bordering the AIpha's final resting place. The first and third we have in our possession. The plaque on each reads: BUILT 1873 BRECKENRIDGE MN - RAN AGROUND APRIL 27, 1885 - SW K 33-8-12.
Don's grandfather John E. Sanderson ( 1862 - 1940), remembered how, when a passenger on the Alpha, the moonlight could be shining in one porthole one minute and the next, Illuminating the opposite porthole as the sternwheeler negotiated one of the Assiniboine's many snake-like curves. His destination was Smart's Landing, north of the present site of Holland, one of the many landings along the river's course.
Short-lived as It was, ( 1879 - 1885), the era of steamships on the Assiniboine, was a fascinating one.
The ships that comprised what the pioneers called the PRAIRIE NAVY, were the Alpha, Cheyenne, Dakota, Manitoba, Minnesota, Selkirk, Prince Rupert, Marquette and Assiniboine.
The smallest of the PRAIRIE NAVY, the SS Alpha, which had been launched July 5, 1873, began its service on the Assinibolne In May of 1879. She was the second steamship to ply her way to Fort Ellice (across the river from St. Lazare) and on to Fort Pelly, another 150 miles. (The Marquette had been the first)
Back then, navigation on the Assinibolne was possible for approximately 120 days each spring or, if the area experienced a heavy rainfall.
Not only was the shipping season short, but the railroad, which was pushing westward, was threatening its future. To make money while there was still some to be made, the policy of the North West Navigation Company, owner of the Alpha, was to load extra cargo. In a brief two years (1881), the AIpha was the only stern-wheeler remaining on the river. That year, when the railroad reached Brandon, some of the riverboats were taken north to ply the Saskatchewan River system. That same year, the Minnesota was wrecked on Lake Winnipeg, the Dakota burned and the Prince Rupert was dismantled in Winnipeg.
The SS Alpha continued In service until the sprlng of 1885. In April, she left Winnipeg on what was to have been, for financial reasons, her final voyage.
And, her final voyage it proved to be, but for other reasons. In the Spruce Woods forest, the Alpha ran aground outside the main channel of the river. The date was April 27th.
The captain and most of his men disembarked and departed for Winnipeg, leaving one crew member to guard the grounded vessel. When loneliness overcame him he, too, disembarked and walked to Carberry.
In their absence, the abandoned ship was looted of most of its cargo - bagged seed oats, window frames, lumber and hardware. AIso removed was some of its equipment.
When the captain returned to find the AIpha plundered, he had no option but to salvage what he could and leave the rest to the elements. (Mr. Sanderson recalled the morale of crew members was reportedly low due to no pay cheques.)
And so steamship traffic on the Assinboine came to an abrupt and sad ending. It had proven an efficient and economical way to transport cargo and people to the West, the new frontier.
Deserted, the AIpha after years of spring flooding became embedded in silt. Her resting place eventually became obscured as trees and shrubs, which rooted In the silt, flourished.
It wasn't until the 1920's when a flood and changing river currents unearthed her, that the Alpha became vulnerable to souvenir seekers. A special attraction was the square nails used in her construction.
In 1969, the late Roy Brown, a Brandon historian, paid his first visit to the wreck - a trip which evolved the next year into his Manitoba centennial project. After many interviews, several with folk in this general area, and much sleuthing he, eventually, was satisfied the vessel WAS the Alpha. (Her identity had been questioned.)
None of the ships of the Prairie Navy survived. In 1884, the Cheyenne was grounded and wrecked at Ste. Agathe. That same year, the Selkirk was wrecked at Grand Forks. The Manitoba became entrapped in Shell River ice in 1885, in the Northwest Territories. In 1888, the Marquette met the same fate on the Red River. The Assiniboine was dismantled In Winnipeg in 1900.
The railroad displaced the river boats just as the river boats had displaced the oxcart trains. But, for the AIpha, a fascination remains. Its prow Is displayed at Glenboro (beside Sara the Camel) and its rudder at Selkirk, donated to the Marine Museum there by the residents of Cypress River - memorabilia of an exciting era when spring flooding and heavy rains allowed the Assinibolne to be used for commerce.