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By Roy Brown
(First Printing 1971)
Many stories have been told and written about the old riverboats which once plied the Assiniboine and Red Rivers of Manitoba, but none are more interesting than the one about the ill fated S.S. ALPHA that went aground on April 27, 1885 in the Spruce Woods forest, and was abandoned.
The ALPHA was the smallest member of a fleet known to pioneers as the PRAIRIE NAVY. She was also known as the most unglamourous of the riverboats which plied the Assiniboine from 1879 - 1885. While the Marquette had the honour of making the first trip to Fort Ellice in May 1879, the ALPHA did the same thing a few days later. She also made trips up to Fort Pelly 150 miles upstream from Ellice. But being a small boat she suffered many breakdowns and had to be repaired. It was for that reason that the fate of the Alpha was never known until the author and his associates found her remains buried in the bank of the Assiniboine in 1969.
Her owners over burdened the small boat in order to make the trips pay, and that spelled doom for the last boat to travel the Assiniboine in 1885.
The ALPHA was originally 105 feet in, length, and 22 feet in the beam. Her gross tonnage was 180.55. She was built in Breckenridge, Minnesota in 1873. Made from Wisconsin oak, she was a carvel stern-wheeler propelled by one large steam boiler with two smoke stacks. The diameter of her engines was eight inches and the stroke of the piston rods was three feet six inches. Lench and Larisee made her horizontal high pressure 12 36/100 nominal HP engines at La Casse, Wisconsin in 1869. Her cabins could accommodate approximately 30 people, and she carried a crew of nine men. Her builders were Captain Harrison of Wayzata, Minnesota, and Captain J. W. McLane of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her serial number was 74029-105547 in the U.S.A. According to the Red River Star of Moorhead, Minnesota, she was launched on July 5, 1873.
After being launched on the Red River, the ALPHA was exported to Canada. She was fitted on the Canadian side of the border and was then taken down stream to Fort Garry in September of 1873. She was not allowed to operate in Canadian waters however, because her hull was not British. She was returned to the U.S.A. and used on the upper Red River until taken over by the bonded Red River Transportation Company. She was later sold to the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Company Ltd. And according to the shipping registry in the Manitoba Archives, the certificate was endorsed July 7, 1879, showing Julian Dougall as her master.
She then passed to the Northwest Navigation Company on March 4, 1883, and belonged to them when she was wrecked in the Spruce Woods on April 27, 1885. Her certificate was returned to Ottawa on the 6th of November 1885 and was cancelled.
The shareholders of the Winnipeg Transportation Company were President W. H. Lyons, Secretary H. Swinfold, and C. L. Newcome was the Superintendent. James Sheets was her Master.
There have been many conflicting stories about the fate of the old ALPHA. Many people, with whom I have talked, believed that she had ended her days in the upper Assiniboine. Others thought she had been caught in the ice in the fall of 1881 near Brandon, and had disintegrated there.
Professor John Macoun, in his history of the Great Northwest, recorded that the ALPHA had been caught in the ice at Brandon that year. However, when one considers that his history was published in 1882, it isn't likely that he could have anticipated that the old ship would be repaired and put back into service in the spring of the same year.
The late Mrs. Molly Basken (nee McFaden), who was recognized as Manitoba's best informed riverboat historian, had published a story in the BEAVER, in June 1953, in which she said the ALPHA continued her trips between Brandon and Fort Ellice, in 1882. But she was caught in the ice at Brandon that fall, and disintegrated there.
I had been in touch with Mrs. Basken periodically during the time that I was doing my research on the mystery ship in the Spruce Woods. Just prior to her sudden death in July 1970, she had written me to the effect that the ship could be no other than the old ALPHA, thereby admitting that her story in the BEAVER must have been incorrect.
What really did happen to the ill fated ALPHA? Exhaustive research in both the United States and Canada, has brought to light the following interesting story of the last stern-wheeler that plied the Assiniboine back in those pioneer days when the fastest means of travel was river cart and river boat.
Not long after I had researched the old ASSINIBOINE QUEEN, discovered in the muddy bank of the Assiniboine just three miles east of Brandon, I received a phone call from my good friend Red Forbes of the Agriculture Centre in Brandon. He told me that he had taken a large square nail from an old boat in the Spruce Woods a few years ago. He said he didn't know what the name of the ship was, and that it was really a mystery ship believed to have gone down in the Assiniboine many years ago. A square nail to me meant only one thing; the ship, whatever her name might be, must have been built about 1875. I felt that her history should be researched because it tied in with our Centennial year in Manitoba.
But where does one start to dig up information about a mystery ship? It would have to be the site of the shipwreck. Reg Forbes told me that the wreck was somewhere north of Cypress River, and that if I were to contact Mr. Jim Pollock, the Agricultural representative in the town of Carberry, he might be able to assist me in finding the remains of the old ship.
The next day I called Jim Pollock on the phone and he suggested that I should call a Mr. Jim Goggin, who had moved from Carberry to Brandon. He had lived in the Spruce Woods area for a number of years. Goggin didn't know where the shipwreck was located, but felt that Tom Gibbs who farms in the Spruce Woods might know. So off we went to Carberry where we picked up Jim Pollock and went to call on Gibbs. However, he didn't know where the boat was either, despite the fact that he had lived for about forty years within three miles of where she had gone aground.
He suggested that we should call on the Kilfoyles, and it was there that we received the directions that took us to where the port side of the mystery ship was still visible in the south bank of the Assiniboine on 33-8-12 R.M. of Victoria.
The minutes I saw the hulk, I felt certain that I was looking at a member of the Prairie Navy. The river was frozen, and we were able to step off the length of the port side. A rough estimate put her length at 125 feet, without an allowance for the stern wheel. I had the specifications of all the members of the ancient fleet with me, and it appeared that she might be the MARQUETTE or possibly THE MANITOBA.
When I returned to Brandon, I immediately contacted Garth Stouffer who had written the story about my research of the old ASSINIBOINE QUEEN in the Brandon Sun. He felt that some newspaper and television exposure might bring some results, so off we went to Spruce Wood agaln to take pictures. Gerry Buchanan of CKX-TV staff also went along. At Carberry we picked up Jim Pollock, Orville Moore and Wallace Hood, and then called at Tom Gibb's farm to take him with us to act as a guide over the rough terraln. As soon as the pictures of the old ship were exposed to the public I began to receive phone calls from people who thought they knew something about the mystery ship. Garth Stouffer had tentatively called the ship THE MANITOBA, and this soon brought a critical note from Mrs. Basken. She advised that THE MANITOBA had met her fate in the Saskatchewan River, and that it couldn't be that ship. And, of course, she was correct. News of the discovery of the old riverboat was soon wide spread. I received word from Mrs. Dorothy Finkbeiner of the Isabella district to the effect that a book, published by the Women's Institute in that district, carried a story about the old ALPHA. I obtained a copy of the book, and sure enough, the reminiscence of a Mr. H. A. Wilson proved that Mrs. Basken's story of the ALPHA was incorrect. I was then convinced that the mystery ship in the Spruce Woods was the ALPHA, but I would have to prove it. The following excerpt is taken from the story by Mr. Wilson: May 1882
'"We were a day and a night traveling from Winnipeg to Brandon on the C.P.R. Express. There were all kinds of delays, such an being held up by construction trains, and sometimes the couplinq would break. I remember one time the engine broke loose and traveled some miles before the engineer discovered that the rest of the train was not attached. Then we would be on a siding for hours at a time to permit construction trains to go back and forth, etc. Finally we arrived in Brandon, which consisted of two or three frame houses, the remainder of the population llving in canvas tents. We stopped at what was known as the Palace Hotel, which was entirely of canvas and divided into dining room, kitchen, sleeping quarters and a common room. Bunks were tiered along the canvas walls for sleeping. These were, I think, three deep. We were about three days waiting for an Assiniboine River steamboat to take us up the river to Fort Ellice, in the vicinity of which, we decided to look for land in the Birtle district. The river at this time was in flood, in fact the highest flood I have known it to reach. There were two boats, the one we were to take being the ALPHA. We started up the river on it and were about two miles I should judge, on our way, when it began to sink, as it was overloaded. We heard the captain shout: "blow the whistle like Hell for Heaven, we're going down". He ordered one of the boat hands to take soundings. This revealed the fact that the depth at the point where the boat was, was 40 feet. He then ordered the steersman to run her ashore. The steersman replied that it didn't answer to the helm. All this time the whistle was blowing continually. The other boat (presumably the MARQUETTE) that we had left in Brandon, came to our rescue. And as soon as she had pulled along side, the crew threw ropes out and lashed the two boats together. They cut the cattle loose on the ALPHA, and they jumped from her deck to the deck of the other vessel. There were sixty head of horses and cattle aboard. There was a wild scene for a time, throwing luggage of all kinds from one boat to the other. I remember one English fellow who jumped from the upper deck to the lower one, to which things were being thrown, and was repeatedly thrown to the floor by the luggage that was pitched that way. Excitement ran high until enough of the luggage and cargo was transferred to lighten the boat so that it could be towed back to Brandon where the remainder of the cargo was transferred to the larger boat. This took about a day. We started again. The waters were so high that the channel of the river could not always be followed and we ran aground several times, and had to tie up to a tree every night and day until daylight in the morning before resuming our course. We were four days on the trip to the Sioux Reserve, southwest of Buehlah. Instead of going to Fort Ellice, we got off the boat at the Reserve and walked across the prairie to Birtle a distance of perhaps fifteen miles. We had to go to Birtle because the Land Titles Office was there and it was necessary for us to obtain a list of the lands open for homesteading".
THE BRANDON SUN, JUNE 18, 1927
"WHEN THE RIVER ASSINIBOINE WAS FULLY A MILE WIDE - There never was such a flood as in 1882, when the whole valley was a lake - Most cities have their points in history from which to make their reckoning. Brandon's is the spring of 1882, the year of the flood. To have been here at flood time marks you as conspicuous, but to have been here before the flood - ah! That places one on a pinnacle by himself. Well, that was a flood! The whole valley was one great lake.
"At the time, there had not been any bridges erected, and where there are now high grades across the valley to the present structures, were just low swamps like all the rest. There was no obstruction to dam the water, and it just swept over everything. The only means of crossing the river at this time, was a ferry near the site of the Western Canada Flour Mills, and the ford at Grand Valley, but both ferry and ford were soon out of business.
All this made hardships, for many were waiting in Brandon for a chance to get their belongings over the river where they had taken land. Some had stock here and had to keep it at great expense, for feed was high. Some tempted fate in boating and rafting stuff across the swift stream with unmarked channel and unknown current. One determined person, early in May after waiting for weary days, swam his horses behind a canoe, a distance as he swam, of nearly a mile, starting as he did, about the foot of eleventh street, a little below the track, and landing well below first street on the far side. The whole flat was one placid lake, with here and there a tuft of green showing where underneath were the trees and willows that grow there in numbers today. From landing across its widest point, the river was almost a mile wide, and presented a most magnificent sight. What a pity, it was often remarked, that such a width of river was not a permanency!
RESEARCH NEAR THE WRECK
The next link in the turn of events came from Mr. Henry De Gueldre, a machinist in the town of Cypress River. He knew the Spruce Woods area like the back of his hand and had seen the old shipwreck many times. He told me that a Mr. A. Krushel of Morden, Manitoba had done extensive research on the old boat with the help of a man who was employed by the J. H. Ashdown Company in Winnipeg. Henry felt that a visit to Krushel might reveal some information and save me many hours of research.
Mr. Krushel was pleased to lend a hand. From the Minneapolis Archives, he had obtained a photostatic picture of the boat, which was supposed to be the one we were researching, and the specifications of the craft bearing the serial number 74029-105547. She was listed as the S S ALMIA.
After reading Mr. Krushel's research report, I felt that the mystery had been solved, but when I returned to Cypress River, I found some conflicting information waiting for me. Another man, with whom I had discussed the old ship's history, had found a book published by the Cypress River United Church, which contained some information supplied bv the Rev. J. J. Jackson.
Rev. Jackson had said that in 1885, a large round barn had been built in the village of Littleton (Cypress River's antecedent) with lumber taken from the shipwrecked S S LADY ELGIN.
Not long after receiving the conflicting news from Cypress River, I was visited by a Mr. & Mrs. M. Young, who live in the Greenway district. (Mr. Young's father, Andrew, had been a pioneer in the Littleton district).
The Youngs were very interested in my research of the Spruce Woods mystery ship. And although they couldn't shed too much light on the subject, they did have with them a painting of the round barn referred to by the Reverend Jackson in the story about Cypress River Pioneers. (They had borrowed the painting from Mrs. Alvin Johnston of Cypress River).
Because of the confusing evidence contained in Rev. Jackson's story, and the research of Mr. Krushel, I was not too satisfied that either one was correct, so I decided to continue my research.
Before long I had a third name - RIVER QUEEN, supplied to me by Stocktons' Mr. Lew Dalman, who had gone to the wreck on a snowmobile, and had picked up a portion of the prow, which he delivered to my home. He said that he had done some enquiring among the people in the area, and his information suggested that RIVER QUEEN was the name of the old ship.
Garth Stouffer, while on his 1969 Christmas vacation to Moorehead-Fargo, had done some research at the Forum on the old riverboats for me. He brought back with him some information which was to eventually help me prove the identity of the Spruce Woods ship.
Stouffer's information included the specifications of a boat listed as the S S ALPHA, which were almost identical with those of the S S ALMA, in the hands of Mr. Krushel. Both records showed the ship as being 105 feet in length and approximately 22 feet in the beam. We had measured the wreck in the fall of 1969 and it appeared that she was at least 125 feet long without an allowance for the stern-wheel. However, the reference as to the fate of the S S ALPHA in the Forum's records, indicated that she had gone aground outside the river channel on April 27, 1885, while attempting to cross a peninsula in flood waters. While I could not reconcile the measurment of the S S ALPHA with the shipwreck, I felt more certain than ever that the last member of the Prairie Navy to ply the Assiniboine had been found.
A trip to the Manitoba Archives proved valuable in that the shipping registry indicated that the ALPHA had been abandoned in the Assiniboine River after going aground on April 27, 1885, and had become a total wreck. The records in the Forum, therefore, agreed with those in the Archives and had to be accepted as being true.
According to Henry De Gueldre, the wreck had been covered with silt for many years and large cottonwood trees covered her grave. In 1922 a very severe flood started eating away at the bank that hid the boat. By1929 the river had changed course and was flowing parallel to the ship which was headed almost straight west. The starboard side was exposed, and the river flowed right through the wreck. Henry recalled that the fire bricks which had been built around the large boiler were still there.
Having done considerable research into the history of the ASSINIBOINE QUEEN, and the old townsite of Grand Valley, I had found many references to Currie's Landing which was downstream a few miles. The thought | suddenly occurred to me that the late Mr. Currie might have left a scrap book in which I might find | some information about the old ALPHA.
I discovered that Miss Lottie Currie, a daughter of Mr. Wm. Currie, was living in a senior citizens' home in Brandon, and I paid her a visit.
The head nurse on duty at the Fairview Home advised me that Miss Currie had relatives living at Moline by the name of Hunter.
A phone call to Mr. J. Hunter proved fruitful. When he told me that he had some of Mr. Currie's records of the old riverboats, I could hardly wait to get my hands on the material. Garth Stouffer and I met Mr. Hunter in Rapid City the next morning, and as we consumed several cups of coffee in a local restaurant, we perused the newspaper articles which revealed the first real clue as to what had happened to the ALPHA.
One newpaper article indicated that the steamboat had not disintegrated in the Assiniboine after having been caught in the ice, in the fall of 1881. She had been taken into the Snye River where she had been repaired, lengthened, and put back into service. There was no doubt about the ALPHA having been given a new lease on life, in 1882.
DE GUELDRE FINDS ANOTHER CLUE
Another trip to see my friend De Gueldre in Cypress River paid dividends. He had become quite interested in my research of the boat and had several things to relate since last seeing him. He recalled that Mrs. Alex Campbell, one of the oldest pioneers in the Littleton area, had told him. many years ago, that the engines had been taken out of the wreck about the same time that the round barn had been built. When the owner of the boat had returned to the area and discovered that the engines had been removed (as well as most of the cargo), he had notified the police. The culprit, fearing that he would be caught, dressed in some of his mother's clothes and walked arm in arm with her right past the police. He is alleged to have hidden the engines in a well. It appears that he was finally apprehended and the engines were returned to the owner. They were then drawn overland by a yoke of oxen to the C.P.R. at Treherne, which was quite some distance from Littleton. The trail that was cut through the forest may still be found.
Further discussion with Henry De Guilder about possible ways and means to get more information about the old boat, brought this suggestion from him, "Roy, it is just possible that Bill Campbell, a son of pioneer Alex Campbell, might be able to give you some important leads. Why not pay him a visit. He lives in Winnipeg."
A visit to Mr. Campbell produced the one important clue I had been looking for when he said, "I can't tell you very much about that old boat because I was only a young man when I left that area, but I can tell you she didn't sink in the Assiniboine like a lot of people believe. She went aground outside the main river channel during high water in the spring." Here at last I had confirmation of the reports which Garth Stouffer had found in the Forum in Fargo, and the information I had obtained in the Manitoba Archives.
When Mr. Campbell added, "my father, who was a blacksmith, helped repair that old boat with the help of men from the Littleton area about the spring of 1884, after she had developed trouble below Millford", it agreed with the Currie's scrap book which indicated that the ALPHA had met her fate near Millford. But she had been given another lease on life, something Mr. Currie didn't know.
MORE EVIDENCE ARRIVES FROM ARCHIVES
When I arrived home from Winnipeg after visiting Mr. Campbell, I found a letter from Mr. Barry Hyman, Assistant Archivist in Winnipeg, waiting for me. It informed me that they had a new file on the S S ALPHA, which had been turned over to his department by a Mr. Parker, now living in Vancouver, who had done extensive research on the old Manitoba riverboats, along with a Mr. Hull of Winnipeg, many years ago.
A return trip to Winnipeg to peruse the Hull-Parker data on the ALPHA, proved to be quite exciting. A letter written by a Mr. Spencer of Carnduff, Saskatchewan, to Mr. Parker, in January 1944, told the story of how he had worked on the old boat in 1883 during the period when she was taking cargo between Brandon, Fort Ellice and Pelly, Saskatchewan.
Excerpt from the Spencer letter dated January 27, 1944:
"In the spring of 1883, after putting in a crop for Mr. Sowden of Souris, I went to Brandon and was hired to work on the steamboat ALPHA.
The days were long and we worked from daybreak ' til dark for $1.00 a day. We sailed as long as we could see, then in the morning we cut wood enough to run all that day, and that is the way we got along. On or about June 1, 1883, we were bound for Fort Ellice, but did not quite reach there. We were in sight of the Fort when the boiler sprung a leak, so we unloaded most of the cargo and floated down stream. We fixed a sweep at each end of the boat to steer with. The Captain got his rifle and stood on deck and told some of the men to work on the rear sweep, and he covered the men on the front sweep with his rifle.
The engineer ordered us to go in the bush and cut wood. We told him we would work on the boat but not in the bush. So, eight of us left the boat and walked to Elkhorn and then to Brandon. The boiler was repaired in due time, and the boat came back ta Brandon.
We gave our accounts to a lawyer in Brandon, and finally got our $1.00 a day.
The boat loaded up again and started another trip, but only got as far as 18th Street when she foundered. She was later fixed up and taken back to Winnipeg".
(Signed) Nelson Spencer.
When I received the shipping record of the ALPHA from the Archives in Winnipeg, I immediately noticed that the serial number seemed familiar. It suddenly dawned on me that the specifications given to me by Mr. Krushel at Morden had the same serial number. But why would two boats have the same number? Inspection of the original specification sheet from Minneapolis revealed that it had been typed on a very old machine in capital letters. When the Krushel copy was made, the PH was mistaken for MI. There never had been an S S ALMIA.
THE ALPHA HAD PROBLEMS
The ALPHA was forever getting into trouble because she was comparitively small, underpowered and overburdened on most of her trips. Her owners, aware that eventually the railway would spell doom for steamboats on Manitoba rivers, piled on the extra cargo to make business profitable. When the ill fated ship went aground on her last trip, her cargo apparently consisted of bagged seed oats, lumber, window frames and some hardware. (Mr. Roman Schamp of Glenboro, recovered a considerable quantity of steel washers from the wreck, a number of years ago).
Back in the pioneer days, when Brandon was still partially housed in shacks and tents, one of the main landings was Currie's, below the Brandon rapids. According to some of the items in the late Mr. Currie's scrapbook, the rapids were very difficult to ascend. Often the passengers would go ashore at his landing and walk to Grand Valley or Brandon, where they would wait for their belongings to arrive.
There were many occasions when the Curries had to supply meals to the passengers, and Miss Currie recalled, when I visited her at Fairview Home, that the crew and the passengers of the old ALPHA once stayed an entire week at her home, during which time they played baseball and other games while waiting for a sister ship to bring repairs from Winnipeg.
On another occasion, while the old ship was tied up at Currie's Landing during a spring flood, two children fell overboard and were drowned. Their bodies were never recovered.
When Grand Valley became a village on August 19, 1879, with the appointment of Mrs. Dougald McVicar as postmistress, the new terminus for the big steamboats was the McVicar warehouse, which was built on the north shore near the ford. Cargoes were stored there and redistributed by oxcart to areas throughout the North West Territories where the steamboats could not travel.
Currie's scrapbook records that the ALPHA was the last steamer to leave that landing in 1883.
Remnants of the Currie warehouse are still there. The old school, which was converted to a barn many years ago, is still standing beside the old store where pioneers once purchased their goods.
UPPER ASSINIBOINE YIELDS EVIDENCE
Doyle's Landing, north west of Miniota, was also an important place for discharging cargo and passengers during the years the old ALPHA continued making her trips up to Fort Ellice - even after the C.P.R. came through Brandon in 1881. It was at this landing, it is believed, that two children of Dr. Rolston and Mrs. Rolston contracted smallpox from passengers on the boat and died. A wooden cross, nailed to a sturdy oak tree, marks their grave on the hill below where once stood Alstine Castle, where they lived.
All that remains of the castle, built by Dr. Rolston, are several large corner stones marking the basement, where the remnants of a grand piano are supposed to be buried. The castle burned sometime in the middle eighties - about the time that Dr. Rolston was involved in the Riel rebellion as an army Doctor.
Facing Doyle's Landing on the hillside below the site where the castle once stood is a large square piece of iron, which was probably used to hold some sort of plaque or name plate. The large hand made bolts that held the name plate are still there. Unconfirmed reports indicate that a local antique lover may have the brass name plate.
On the same hill above Doyle's Landing stands a tall marble tombstone surrounded by an old hardwood fence. The stone marks the grave of eighteen year old Charles H. W. Hillyar, son of the Admiral and Mrs. Hillyar, who, it is believed, drowned in the Assiniboine when he fell off the ALPHA in June 1883. How the stone was taken to the grave remains another mystery waiting to be solved.
WEIGHING THE EVIDENCE
I thoroughly enjoyed researching the history of the ALPHA. I met many fine people, one in particular being 97 year old Harry Vane of Treesbank, who came to that district when he was only ten years old. He remembered quite vividly the whistle of the old steamboat coming up the Assiniboine.
Since no one appears to be alive who actually knows what happened to the ALPHA on April 27, 1885, one can only hazard a guess, based on the information on file. It is my opinion that the old ship was churning up the Assiniboine on the fateful day when her skipper attempted to cut a corner at the bend of the river, in the heart of the Spruce Woods, and she went aground on a sand bar outside the main river channel.
When the 1885 flood waters had passed, she was firmly aground about 100 yards from the water in the main channel. Succeeding years of flooding, dumped silt over her resting place, and the seeds from the near by cottonwoods, in a very short time, sprouted into sturdy trees to hide her grave.
The vagaries of a river are strange. Periodically, during the past 85 years, the hull of the ALPHA has been buried and then revealed. Each time she was released from her cargo of silt, and sand and the red willows along her starboard side, a few venturesome hunters or fishermen managed to take from her hull, large square hand forged nails and spikes.
Throughout the Cypress River, Carberry, Holland, Rathwell and Glenboro area, there are homes which have lamps, odd pieces of furniture and trinkets, made from the remains of the ALPHA.
Much of the souvenir hunting apparently took place since 1929, after the Assiniboine had made a permanent channel parallel to the wreck. People were able to wade in the stream and help themselves to pieces of timber in which were embedded the hand made square spikes and nails.
One can only guess what happened to the cargo of the ALPHA while she was left unguarded after going aground on April 27, 1885. I have heard many stories from people in the Spruce Woods area. It seems, however, that the Captain of the ship took all of his crew, except one man, back to Winnipeg. He was supposed to return within a few days to remove the cargo. The man who was left to guard the grounded ship apparently became very lonely. He decided to leave his post and walk to Carberry. Rumor has it that he imbibed at a local bar and went back to Winnipeg.
When the pioneers in the area discovered that the ALPHA had been abandoned, they removed the seed oats, the window frames and most of the lumber. The engines were also removed by one of the pioneers, as mentioned earlier.
One can well imagine how the Captain must have felt when he returned to his ship and found her plundered. With her maximum potential at an end, there was little he could do but salvage the remainder of the cargo, take the machinery back to Winnipeg by rail, and thus end the steamboat era on the Assiniboine River.
Those who know the Assiniboine River today will find it hard to believe that steamers like the ALPHA ever plied its waters. Yet she did, but only when flood waters made navigation possible.
For a relatively few years, the ALPHA, along with other ships, brought farm equipment, livestock, lumber and people from civilization to the great new west.
It was the only economical method for moving cargo to the outposts of commerce - the only way other than by using oxcart or Shagganappe ponies and carts.
The ALPHA must be credited with being one of the most important members of the old Prairie Navy. She was active from May 1879 till 1885. The arrival of the railway in 1881 to Brandon, did to some extent, dull some of the glitter of the waterways, but for at least another four years she continued to churn her way up the Assiniboine, through the Spruce Woods to the confluence of the Souris and Assiniboine Rivers near the village of Millford, where her cargo was transferred to smaller crafts for delivery to pioneers in the south west part of Manitoba.
As a matter of interest to the people who still live in the Cypress River area, I would like to include in this story the names of the people who were living in the village of Littleton when the ALPHA went aground on April 27, 1885.
(This list of pioneers does not include the surrounding farming community).
Robert Little Saw & Shingle Mill
Daniel C. Fraser Hotel Keeper & Carpenter
David Garvie Sawyer
William Garvie Engineer
Hugh Johnston Plasterer
Allan Orr Carriage Builder & Blacksmith
Miss Lizzie Riley School Teacher
Frank Stacpoole Postmaster & General Store
LITTLETON was listed in Henderson's 1884 edition of the North West Directory as being a post settlement in Tp. Rg. 12 West of first meridian. Mail weekly. Nearest railway, telegraph and express office, Carberry. Distance thirty miles. Has saw mill, shingle mill and crusher; Presbyterian and Methodist churches and public school.
According to a book loaned to me by Mr. Charles Cameron of Neepawa, a grandson of Nathan Little, his uncle, Robert Little, had made many trips down the Assiniboine to Portage La Prairie, and a few trips to Winnipeg from Littleton, on a long raft equipped with a sweep to steer it with.
The following is an excerpt from the book REMINISCENCES. by Robert Little, which was published in 1931 about his experiences in the Littleton area in the winter of 1878 -1879:
"When the stage of the water permitted steamboat navigation, I travelled that way. When the water became too shallow for that, I would make a raft of logs and poles, and float downstream. I secured a box on it for a seat, some hay to lie on, some reading material, and a supply of food.
I had a rudder to control the raft in order to prevent it being swept close to shore where the current was eating away the river bank at bends. This action would cause trees to become undermined, and fall into the river.
At night I would become caught on snags and-sand bars, and I would have to get into the water and push off. I found this means of reaching Portage much faster and easier than walking".
It is interesting to note that a group of public spirited men from Cypress River, under the guidance of my friend Henry De Gueldre, made a raft of logs and floated downstream to Winnipeg the summer of 1970, to celebrate our 100th Anniversary. They retraced the water route made by pioneer Robert Little, and they took with them a piece of the hull of the old ALPHA, which is now on display in a Winnipeg museum.
On November 11, 1970, Henry De Guilder and the writer visited the remains of the ALPHA. A close examination of the port side revealed that when she was repaired and lengthened in 1882 in Brandon, fir beams were used. Oak material was not likely available for the renovation.
Since discovering the ALPHA in the Spruce Woods, the Assiniboine Historical Society has been formed in Brandon, by a number of interested people, and that body applied to the Department of Transport in Ottawa to reclaim the remains.
G. W. R. Graves, Chief of the Nautical and Pilotage Division of the Department, sent along the permission.
"Thank you , for your letters of September 12th and 26th 1970". said Mr. Greaves' letter to Historical Society Secretary, Connie Davidson, "in which you report, as required by Section 510 of the Canada Shipping Act, the salvaging of the remains of the steamer S S ALPHA from the Assiniboine River of Manitoba."
"This dispensation does not convey ownership to you", the letter advises, "and should the question of ownership at a later date be brought up, it would be dealt with as provided for in Part VIII of the Canada Shipping Act, a copy of which is enclosed for your information
Ten years have passed since I wrote the story of the S S Alpha, and although some plans were made at the government level to move the remains of the wreck to the Spruce Woods campsite, it was apparently decided that disintegration would ruin what is left of the old wreck once it is taken from her sandy, wet grave. The wreck, however, has now been designated as an historic site. A part of the hull is mounted on a metal stand on the roadside in the village of Glenboro where many tourists stop to read the brief story on a sign board. The huge rudder was removed from the wreck and may be seen at the Cypress River museum. The author has in his possesslon one of the fir hull supports which was installed in 1882 when the hull was extended to 125 feet in Brandon.
Hundreds of people have visited the old wreck over the past ten years and the story has become well known in Western Canada.
In March 1971, I was awarded the Margaret McWilliams bronze medal by the Manitoba Historical Society for having identified the old wreck, which had remained a mystery for 85 years.
Quite often another piece of evidence pops up confirming my research. Indeed, in my home town, Killarney I could have found tangible clues in the museum there. A person who had once lived near the wreck, before the turn of the century, had taken some artifacts from the old wreck and had donated them to the Victor David Museum. They are catalogued as being parts of the S S Alpha.
I got my answer the hard way.
In 1976 author Theodore Barris of Toronto came west looking for material for a book he was writing about Prairie Steamboat days. I gave him permission to use my research material on the old ALPHA. His book, FIRE CANOE, is now on the market, and on page 255 accolades are handed to me for researching the MYSTERY SHIP OF THE SPRUCE WOODS FOREST.
In May 1971, I paid a visit to the City of Breckenridge, Minnesota where the ALPHA had been built in 1873. I took with me a piece of lumber from the ancient boat and presented it to the Chamber of Commerce. The story was published in the Breckenridge Alert and the piece of wood was placed in their local museum along with copies of my published story. Many people have come from Minnesota to visit the remains of the old ALPHA. So the story is being perpetuated.