The Rural Municipality of St. Clements and St. Andrews created and operated four ferry systems at Little Britain, Mapleton, Selkirk, and at St. Peters. The ferries were a way to get people, wagons, and livestock across the Red River. Ferries linked communities on the east side with those on the west, and gave them access to the post office, schools, and churches.
The creation of this ferry network did not happen overnight, it happened in four different phases.
In the first phase, early ferries were inspired by “bull boats” of the Plains Indigenous peoples. Bull boats looked like a miniature canoe with a rounded wooden frame and a buffalo skin on the bottom. The skin was waterproof which kept the occupants and the cargo dry.
The Metis people sometimes used Red River Carts to cross the river. Using shallow places near rapids, a horse or ox could pull the cart across. In deeper sports, they removed the wooden wheels, placed them under the body of the cart, then floated the whole cart, load, and all, across the river.
The second phase involved trade. As population increased and trade expanded, people needed an easier way to transport goods from one side of the Red to the other. At route crossings between 1840-1870, large settlements created ferry systems.
The third phase involved the creation of Manitoba. When Manitoba joined Canada, the provincial government gave municipalities $200 each to build their own systems. However, the ferry systems would not last long as the building of major roads made transporting goods easier over land than over water.
The fourth phase occurred with the construction of Little Britain, Mapleton, Selkirk, and the St. Peter’s ferry systems. These systems were municipally owned and operated. They were run by local handymen and sometimes volunteers. A small fee was charged for passage to defray costs. It was common for the ferrymen to have a dog with them for company and to alert them if someone on the opposite shore wanted to cross.
The standard platform for these ferries was made out of 4’ x 8’ wooden planks on a rectangular frame. Guardrails were needed to keep people, goods, and even wagons from falling overboard. A cable on a winch sometimes powered by an ox or a horse pulled the barge across the river. The cable had to be lowered when large ships, like the S.S. Keenora passed.
Due to the dangerous ice flow in the fall and spring it was not uncommon for the ferries to tip over, and for cars, horses, and people to fall into the river. On a lighter note, the ferry docks were sometimes turned into dance floors or used for local festivities.
If someone wanted to get from Selkirk to East Selkirk they took the ferry moored at the end of McLean Avenue. The man who operated this ferry was “Commodore” Holgate. In 1889, he could make the trip in as little as two minutes using a winch, a rope, and an ox.
The “Commodore” was well known for his “blue” vocabulary. Apparently, he could unleash a continuous string of expletives at the drop of a hat. It is said that ladies being transported on Sunday mornings to church had to cover their children’s ears lest their innocent minds be corrupted by Mr. Holgate’s verbal eruptions.
In 1917 the municipality built a new cable ferry but there were lots of other ferries to use in the area. One was based at Fuller Road, another at Netley Creek, and one that went near the mouth of the Red River. Due to the high number of parishioners attending St. Clements Church that lived on either side of the river, a ferry at Mapleton was established and jointly run by the Municipalities of St. Clements and St. Andrews.
Ferries became obsolete after the construction of new transportation systems culminating in the opening of the Lockport bridge in 1910 and the Selkirk Bridge in 1937. People now used trucks and cars: they resented the time spent waiting for ferries. Bridges were faster and reliable – with little chance of drowning! Railroads began to see major improvements in the ways in which they were built and maintained. They became the desired way to transport merchandise from the east coast to the west coast or vice versa.
Though ferries still operate in some northern communities, the ferry service in Selkirk ended in 1937 and is remembered as a fascinating part of Selkirk’s development which helped create the place that we call home.