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Did you know that Selkirk Park was once home to the world’s largest Red River cart?

In 1971, the Selkirk Enterprise described the ‘World’s Largest Red River Cart,’ designed by Gordon Woligrocky, from Red River Model Works. The 40-foot-tall model cart stood in Selkirk Park for more than thirty years. It cost $13,000 to build, and the wheels were made from timber and concrete. With the help of two Litz cranes and a custom harness designed by Selkirk Machine Works, the cart was assembled on Monday June 7, 1971.

Newspaper article titled Red River cart postcard subject
Red River Cart Postcard Subject 1973, Selkirk Enterprise

While the cart is no longer standing, you can find its wheels at Selkirk Park, laid flat near the Campground. In summer, they are used as flower beds.

Why is the Red River cart so important?

The Red River cart was important for Selkirk, as well as many other towns and trading posts during the 19th Century. Today we may not think much about the Red River cart, but it was once a very significant part of everyday life for Metis families living along the Red River and across the West in pioneer times. The Red River cart made a mark on the map of Selkirk, as two oxcart trails became Selkirk’s main roads: Eveline and Main.

The name ‘Red River cart’ comes from the 880km long Red River which flows through the majority of Southern Manitoba and the Dakotas. The cart most likely originated in the Red River Valley but was used across the Canadian and American prairies. The Red River cart was vital for the success of the fur trade in Western Canada. Hundreds of Red River carts accompanied the hunters as they conducted the annual Buffalo hunt. Carts carried goods such as meat, hunting and camping supplies, and in good years, thousands of bags of pemmican, the high energy food that Hudson’s Bay Company boatmen depended on.  

With carts, entire communities could travel together on the annual buffalo hunt or on trading missions. Families could accompany hunters in search of the migrating Buffalo herds. Women, children, and even priests could be on site and share in the work of making pemmican. This improved the social life on these 3–4-month long treks.

A Metis family at their camp with a Red River Cart in Manitoba, date unknown, Library and Archives Canada

Metis and Indigenous hunters exchanged the meat to the HBC for manufactured goods from Britain. Things such as guns, powder and shot, as well as pots, cloth, hatchets, needles, and knives were essential for Metis daily life.

Locally, the HBC at Lower Fort Garry employed carters to haul goods to and from Upper Fort Garry at the Forks. Furs that had been gathered at the Upper Fort were then transported by Red River cart back to the Lower Fort so that they could be sent to York Factory in York boats. Supplies from Britain that had arrived by the York boat, were put onto carts to avoid the dangerous St. Andrews rapids. Ox-drawn Red River carts were slow and squeaked endlessly because they used no axle grease and took a full day to travel between the two HBC forts. Today we know that route as Highway 9.

Farmers in Kildonan, St. Paul, St. Clements, St. Peter’s, and St. Andrews used the carts to haul their grain to the windmills situated along the river. Flour and other farm commodities could be sold at Lower Fort Garry and sent by the HBC to its inland trading posts. Carts loaded with goods went where there were few navigable rivers and boats couldn’t go. The major cart roads to and from Lower and Upper Fort Garry are still there – renamed Main, Portage, Pembina, and Henderson.

Far and Wide

In the 1850s there are records of some carts travelling a thousand kilometres in search of Buffalo. As settlers began to come to the west, trade with St. Paul, Minnesota became important. Trails were cut across the prairies and through the forts. The increased volume of trade meant a long journey from Upper Fort Garry all the way to St. Paul. By the 1860s, there were up to 600 carts making this trip twice a year. Each cart could be transporting around 270-360kg of goods.

Another of the longest trips was on the Carlton Trail. This trail started at Upper Fort Garry and went to Fort Ellice near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. From there the trail went to Fort Carlton, located along the North Saskatchewan border, and ended at Fort Edmonton. The trip was 1450km long.  

Carts that travelled long distances needed to be easy to repair, so a cart had to be made out of materials found in the local environment. No metal was used! If a wheel or a spoke broke, it was easy enough to find a fallen branch, cut it to size, and mend the wheel. Made entirely out of wood, the cart was a masterpiece of ingenuity, held together by leather, rope, or sinew. The Red River cart could be pulled by ponies, horses, or more commonly, oxen.

Drawing of the horse and carriage plan for the Red River cart
Drawing of the Red River Cart, date unknown, Manitoba Historical Society

The wheels began as solid wood, but over time spokes arranged in a slight dish shape for better traction. The wheels were large to allow the cart to travel through thick mud and deep marshes. The carts were easily transformed into winter sleds and could float in water while carrying up to 450kg.

The Red River cart offered traders and travelers an effective mode of transportation, which was easily repaired in challenging terrain. The carts could carry hundreds of kilograms of supplies over immense distances. The Red River cart allowed people to travel to locations without depending on waterways.

Advances in technology replaced the Red River cart with trains and automobiles, but it was the Red River cart that revolutionized transportation: the networks of cart trails became the essential trade routes on the Prairies. The trails the carts established in the middle of the 19th century are the basis of major highway systems in Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and even here in Selkirk!

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