In 1868, the British government and the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] reached an agreement that allowed transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-West, territories that covered about half of the North American landmass, to the newly confederated Dominion of Canada. Before the terms of agreement were met, and the transfer formally decreed, Canada prepared to take possession and to build a road to Red River. This involved crossing non-Canadian, principally First Nations, territory.
The route had been investigated in 1858 by Simon James Dawson, who had completed a Report that proposed building a wagon trail between Lake Superior and Red River. Canada, however, decided to leave most of its length as it had been during the hey-day of the fur-trade — waterways would connect Montreal and Toronto to Lake Superior and from there to Lake of the Woods.[ii] William McDougall, the Canadian minister of public works, assigned John Allan Snow to oversee the construction of a road, approximately 145 kilometers long, from the Lake of the Woods to Upper Fort Garry.[iii]
Snow arrived at Red River in 1868.[iv] The project ran into problems almost immediately. The Hudson’s Bay Company protested, from London, England, against the work “being undertaken by the Canadian government as a matter of right, as though the territory through which it is to pass were Canadian.”[v] Snow persevered, beginning the project on 9 November 1868. Forty-five kilometers of road was cleared by 1 April 1869 when work ceased and Snow returned to Ottawa to ask for more funds. The money was granted, but when he arrived back at Red River in July, Snow had difficulty hiring workers. He had to rely largely on newly arrived Canadians, because men native to the settlement were already employed at farming and working for the HBC.[vi]
Snow’s Canadian labourers, along with survey crews brought in by John Stoughton Dennis, were annoying to the permanent residents of Red River: “rumours of misconduct by Snow’s party were widely circulated and pretty generally believed,” especially after some — including Thomas Scott — were arrested and tried for assault.[vii] Then there were stories that the Canadians were actually soldiers and that William McDougall was bringing in rifles and ammunition to arm them — stories that the behaviour of the Canadian workers did little to contradict. By October the residents of Red River had had enough. Canadian projects were brought to a halt.[viii] Settlers embarked on the Resistance. By November it was becoming clear that they were not interested in a road to Canada. What they wanted were railways.[ix]
Throughout the Resistance, travel to Canada was easiest to achieve by way of the United States.[x] Americans promoted the idea that this state of affairs would continue: the American press published articles indicating there would be a new road connecting St. Paul, Minnesota, with Fort Garry completed in one year, and a railway “within three years.”[xi]
At the Convention of Forty, railways figured as a condition for confederating with Canada. Canada’s idea that a combination of waterways and roads would be sufficient for communication was not regarded as adequate. The members of the convention pushed for assurances that rail communication would be established by “connection with the American railway as soon as it reaches the International line.”[xii]
Telegraph service was also regarded as desirable. The three delegates sent to Ottawa to negotiate terms of confederation made use of telegraph networks to relay messages home to Assiniboia. The closest any telegrams could be wired was to St. Paul, however. An eight day delay between sending and receiving such messages was the best that could be hoped for, in good weather conditions, using riders on fast horses to bridge the geographical gap.
Interest in enhancing communication between Red River and the outside world is apparent in the pages of the locally published New Nation newspaper. Settlers were able to follow reports of progress of telegraph systems and of rail lines, along with news on all manner of scientific observations and technological marvels.
A note on telegraph progress, New Nation (28 January 1870), reads: “A new ocean telegraph company under the management of American citizens, has just obtained authority to lay its cable via the Azores.”
“Preparation of the Peabody Funeral Train,” New Nation (28 January 1870), a report from the Boston Journal, about the Eastern Railroad of Salem preparing a funeral train to convey the body of George Peabody from Portland to Peabody Massechusetts. He had died 4 November 1869. His body was buried temporarily at Westminster Abbey, then shipped to the U.S. aboard the Monarch, the newest and largest vessel of the British navy.
“Felt Clad Ships,” New Nation (18 February 1870), reports that, according to the Australian periodical the Navy Archive, felt has been proposed to Emperor Napoleon as a means of diminishing the effect of projectiles on ships’ hulls.