The History Of The Souris River Area

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The Souris River is one of the most important rivers in southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It provided an avenue for transportation for the Indigenous, explorers and fur traders, and many important communities have settled along it.

In this episode, I am looking at the Souris River region, focusing on the Manitoba side of the river that extends throughout southwestern Manitoba.

The river itself was created 10,000 years ago when there was a rapid draining of the Regina Glacial Lake that created a channel through which the Souris River now flows. This drainage basin would leave fertile silt and clay, aiding future settlers thousands of years later.

The Indigenous used and lived along the river for thousands of years. It provided them with ample food, fresh water and other materials they needed including fur from animals. It was where bison would stop to drink, allowing the Indigenous to harvest the creatures. It was also a highway for travel through the region and towards Hudson Bay.

Today, the Souris River goes through Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 land.

Located south of Melita, there are two very important sites in terms of Indigenous history. The first is the Brockinton National Historic Site of Canada. This site, on the east side of the Souris River, consists of a thin crescent-shaped strip of land that has shown three different periods of habitation by the Indigenous, dating from 800 AD to 1650 AD, just as the first Europeans began to arrive in the area. At this site, there is evidence of bison drives, Indigenous remains and traces of occupation. At the lowest level of the site, there is also evidence of a bison pound and processing camp. It is not known which Indigenous group used this processing camp, but it is believed to be the earliest occupiers of the site. In the oldest level, there is a huge array of tools and bones, as well as arrowheads. The top level and most recent period of habitation shows evidence of an unknown Plains Indigenous group who likely came up from the Dakotas. The fact that the site has three different periods of habitation, it allows modern historians to see the cultural changes that occurred over the course of almost 1,000 years. This site was made a National Historic Site in 1973.

Located nearby to the Brockinton site there is the Linear Mounds National Historic Site. This site consists of three burial mounds spread out over a large space of land. Dating from 900 AD to 1400 AD, the site contains complex constructions of soil, bone and other materials. The wealth of artifacts found in the area have helped researchers glimpse life on the Great Plains at this time, long before the arrival of Europeans.

In 2018, an archeological find revealed that the Indigenous of the area practiced farming prior to contact with Europeans. It was at this site that modified bison shoulder blades were found along a creek bank and it is believed those bones were used as hoes for gardening by the Indigenous that lived there. This makes Melita one of only two sites in Manitoba with evidence of pre-contact Indigenous farming.

Around 1497, an oak tree began to grow in the area and it would eventually become a historic tree to the area. Over the course of the next 600 years, the tree became known for offering an aura of spiritual peace to visitors and it became a celebrity of sorts in the area. While its age is hard to prove, it is believed to be the oldest known standing tree in the entire province. In 2015, it was one of the first three trees in Manitoba to earn a Heritage Tree designation.

When the first French explorers arrived in the area, they named the river Souris because they felt its track from a vantage point resembled that of a mouse.

The first European, who is given credit with seeing the Souris River, was Pierre La Verendrye. He was exploring for the French, attempting to find a water route to the western ocean. In his travels through the area, he would establish a fort where present-day Portage La Prairie is located. He would also visit with the Indigenous and as he crossed the plains, came across the Souris River.

In his journals and maps, he called the river The River of the West or La Riviere de l’Ouest.

More European fur traders would start to come into the area in the 1770s, and roughly 18 forts would be established along the river as it was such an important transportation route for the Indigenous. The fur trade would continue to thrive in the area up until the 1860s when Canada began to look towards settlement of the west and away from fur trading in the west.

Settlement would go slowly in the area, beginning in the 1880s and progressing well into the next century.

Prior to 1882, the community of Souris was known as Plum Creek. In the journal of Alexander Henry, written on July 14, 1806, he writes quote:

“Riviere la Souris at the junction of Plumb River, which comes in from west northwest. We crossed it and kept along the north side of Riviere la Souris until sunset.”

The first settlers in the area of are generally considered to be Gilbert Wood and his family. They left Kingston on June 15, 1880, and came to the end of steel on June 22, 1880. They then journeyed by boat and cart until reached the area of Plumb Creek. That same year, William Squire Sowden had also arrived and it would be he that would create the community known as Souris.

On Oct. 7, 1880, Sowden and Samuel Merner, the MP of New Hamburg, Ontario, wrote their intention to create the new settlement, stating quote:

“We propose to take next spring into these townships 500 settlers. They will be a very different class from that composed of ordinary emigrants from Europe. They will be people who will be possessed of such capital that, on the average, each one obtaining a homestead and pre-emption entry will purchase in addition 320 acres of railway lands, and will be in a position to successfully farm the whole area he acquires.”

In 1881, various parties from Ontario journeyed out to settle in the area and Souris began to slowly grow. By the end of the year, the community had a log blacksmith shop, a store and a boarding house.

In 1883, the mill was built in the community and it would prove to be a very important industry for the growth of Souris. It also has a bit of folklore around it, related in the Leader-Post in 1962, which states quote:

“An immensely powerful man from near Carnduff, who carried a sack of wheat on his back over 90 miles to the Souris mill, and then on the return journey, carried not only the flour, but the bran, a side of bacon, sugar and other supplies.”

I will talk more about Sowden later, who is generally considered to be the founder of Souris.

In 1890, the railroad arrived in the community and Souris was well on its way to becoming an important community within the region.

Around this same time, the community of Sipiweske was growing with a store, two banks and various houses. The railway also arrived in this community in 1890 and that same year it changed its name to Wawanesa. One year later, the first school was built in the community and by 1909, the community was large enough that it became a village.

On July 1, 1882, residents from across the area came out to a place just south of future Melita to celebrate Dominion Day with a large picnic. The spot was also a stopping along the Boundary Commission Trail as well. Over the years, the stopping point would be used and turned into a park after the land was donated by Norman Gould, who always allowed the annual Dominion Day celebration to be held there. The site also holds special significance as it was where the surveyors with the British North American Boundary Commission camped in 1873. One year later, the North West Mounted Police camped at the same spot on their journey out west. Today, the site is the Sourisford Park, a recreation and heritage area in a quiet grove right where the Antler River meets the Souris River. The eight-hectare site is also a Municipal Heritage Property. At the property, you can find a large memorial arch that was built in 1929, as well as an 1885 log house and 1.5 storey fieldstone house that was built in 1902 by Alfred Gould.

What about the name of Melita? When the first settlement began, which didn’t last long, it was called Manchester. In 1884, when the post office was opening, the local settlers were asked to suggest a name. They suggested Manchester, as that was already the name for the area, but they were told that this name had already been chosen. A list of names was sent for the settlers to look at. One Sunday afternoon, the lesson during Sunday School was St. Paul’s Shipwreck on the island of Malta, or Melita. Everyone felt this was a good name and it was also a name on the list, so it worked out for the community, and it was chosen.

In 1873, a young woman named Nellie McClung would be born in Chatsworth, Ontario. She would move with her family to the Souris Valley area to homestead and she would have a massive impact on Canadian history.

McClung would receive six years of education but would not learn to read until she was nine. As an adult, she would campaign for the Liberal Party in 1915 and 1916 for the right for women to vote. She would organize the Women’s Political Equality League, holding a mock parliament to criticize the fact women couldn’t vote in Manitoba.

Thanks in no small part to her efforts, on Jan. 28, 1916, Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote. By this point through, McClung had moved to Edmonton. In 1921, she was elected to the Alberta Legislative Assembly as a Liberal, serving until 1926.

In 1927, she became one of the Famous Five who put forward the Persons Case to have women classified as persons under the British North America Act of 1867. In 1929, their case was successful and it would clear the way for women to be considered persons in Canada and to sit in the Canadian Senate.

McClung would pass away in 1951, but she would be honoured heavily after her life in Canada. In 1954, she was named a Person of National Historic Significance. In 1973, she was honoured with a stamp and the Persons Case was recognized as a Historic Event in 1997. In 2009, she and the other of the Famous Five were made Canada’s first honorary Senators. Also in the 1990s, a Heritage Minute was created to honour her.

In 1890, the railroad was coming through southwestern Manitoba and a townsite was surveyed, sparking the beginning of the current community of Melita. The community soon began to grow from this point. By the autumn of 1890, there were already two stores, a post office, a blacksmith shop, a harness shop, an implement agency, a livery stable, a doctor and a school, along with four houses. The Ogilvies Milling Company, Lake of the Woods and Northern Elevator Companies all opened elevators in the community at this time as well. The Ogilvies Elevator would outlast the other two, until it was finally replaced in 1956.

In 1899, a woman named Edna May Bower was born in Wawanesa. She would eventually become a teacher and worked at the Mayfair Elementary School in Saskatoon. In 1929, she married a young man by the name of John Diefenbaker. A popular teacher thanks to her outgoing nature, she would devote a lot of her energy towards the political career of her husband. She would travel with him to visit communities in the area, edited his speeches and even drove him to meetings. She also worked with him to overcome his shyness and help him become more of a man of the people.

After Diefenbaker was elected to the House of Commons in 1940, she worked in an unpaid capacity for him and was always in the Visitor’s Gallery in the House of Commons.

The Vancouver News Herald wrote quote:

“She loved Parliament. She liked its people. She had friends on both sides of the Commons. She admired Prime Minister St. Laurent. She never tired of hearing her husband speak.”

Sadly, in 1951, she would pass away from leukemia. Many of the Members of Parliament gave eulogies for her, unprecedented for a non-MP.

Six years later, thanks to her hard work, Diefenbaker became the Prime Minister of Canada.

In 1903, a man by the name of Captain Hunt Johnston Rolston Large would arrive in the Souris area. Well liked in the area and known for his kind heart, he even saved the life of a man who had become tangled in the wheel of a threshing machine by calmly taking a heavy hammer and breaking the large wheel to free the man. Of course, what Captain Large is known for is his boat. In 1908, he took a CPR box car, he tore it apart and used the lumber to build the boat, along with lumber from an old house and a donation of lumber. Propelled with a large one-cylinder gasoline threshing engine attached to two side-wheel paddles nine-feet in diameter and made of steel, the boat showed off the master craftsmanship of Captain Large. He would call his boat the Empress of Ireland and it launched on the Souris River in 1910. One person allegedly said, “Do you expect that to float?” Captain Large responded by painting a line on the hull and when the boat went into the water, the water level went right to that line. A Mr. Mallo was hired to steer the boat along the river, while Captain Large would sing songs and play on his banjo to the delight of passengers. In 1912, he decided to use the ship to haul coal, but he changed the name to the Assiniboine Queen to do so. Sadly, one year later, the ship went to the bottom of the river during a terrible flood and torrential rains. Captain Large, a legend of the area during his time, would go back to eastern Canada in 1914. A portion of the paddlewheel from this vessel can be found at the Sourisford Park I mentioned earlier.

In 1904, the first Souris Swinging Bridge was constructed by Squire Sowden who was hoping to improve access to town from his land on the east-side of the river. This was not the first bridge built across the river by Sowden. He had built a bridge in 1882 that lasted for a few years. He would charge 15 cents per animal to use the bridge.

Overall, the bridge has been reenforced several times, in 1907, 1961 and 1974. The first bit of work in 1907 was done through the help of private donations from local residents. By this point, the bridge was famous enough that it was printed as a postcard in Toronto.

The bridge would have many difficult years. In 1912, flood waters took out the decking of the bridge. In 1961, a cable break destroyed it and it was soon rebuilt. In 1976, it was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt again. In 2011, another flood damaged it and the decision was made to rebuild the bridge once again.

In 2013, the current bridge was constructed costing $3.9 million. The bridge was moved to a higher level over the river to prevent it from being destroyed by floods ever again. This new bridge is capable of lasting for the next century.

The bridge stretches for 184 metres across the river and is the longest swinging bridge in Canada. Today, the bridge can hold 1,000 people.

The bridge has now become the most famous landmark in the entire area.

In 1911, work began on the Souris Dominion Post Office in the downtown core of the community. It was one of six post offices built by the federal government in various Manitoba communities before the start of the First World War. The post office was designed to be a tangible national symbol of progress and stability of the young country of Canada, and to house communication services that were vital for a rural population. Due to the importance of the building, which continues to stand to this day, it was made a Municipal Heritage Site in 1991.

The same year that the post office was built, another historic building was constructed. The F. Sowden House, constructed with views of the swinging bridge, was constructed in the fortress style and quickly became a landmark building in the community. The home was built for Fred and Maud Sowden, the son and daughter-in-law of the aforementioned Squire Sowden. The home was built to resemble the castles of the youth of Maud from her days in England and India. The home, which continues to stand, would become a Municipal Heritage Site in 1990.

The 1920s was the time of another interesting moment in the history of Melita. During this era, criminals from North Dakota would come up into Manitoba in order to ply their criminal trade, likely because enforcement was less than in the United States. Melita found that out firsthand on Sept. 23, 1922, when six bandits stormed into the Union Bank of Canada in the community and robbed it. They had gagged and bound the engineer of the electric light plant next door, and then forced themselves into the bank and placed the two sleeping clerks under guard. Using four charges of explosives to force the vault door open, they were surprised in their work by Reverend Thomas Beveridge who came over the bank, which was closed at the time, after hearing the commotion. Told to stay away, he refused and was shot at four time. The fourth shot hit him in the foot, wounding him. The men then ran from the bank with $7,000, or $108,000 today. Many citizens in town would say that the robbery was the crudest they had seen, and the robbers made no effort to hide their faces or remain quiet. The only thing they had done was cut all the telegraph and telephone wires to the community. One month later, Edward Sherer, a noted Winnipeg criminal, was arrested in the United States but the American government would refuse to send him back to Canada, stating that the evidence was insufficient for extradition.

The community would have a very important visitor arrive on Sept. 19, 1936. It was on that day that John Buchan, the First Baron Tweedsmuir, and the Governor General of Canada, came to the community on his way to Brandon. The visit was quite brief, and very informal. The Governor General was especially interested in the formation of Buchan Folks Circle in the community. The day was also made a holiday for the children of the area, something they were all very thankful for. The society had been formed in 1934 in order to bring people to the Buchan District, and it would last well into the 1970s.

Around the same time, or at least a couple of years after, that the Governor General visited, a young girl would move from a small hamlet at the US-Canada border to Melita with her family. While her name is quite known around Canada, her son would become arguably one of, if not the most famous, Canadian in history. Her name was Betty Fox and during her childhood through the late-1930s and into the 1940s she would live in Melita. Of course, her son is Terry Fox, the Canadian icon. Betty would have quite the life herself though and is well known for her support in developing the Terry Fox Run and the creation of the Terry Fox Foundation. She would take the lead in many parts of the organization. Over the course of her life, she would speak to more than 400,000 school children, touring the country for 25 years to talk to them about the Marathon of Hope. Every speech she gave would end with the phrase, “Never, ever give up on your dreams.” In 2010, she was selected as one of the Olympic flag-bearers for the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. She would also carry the Olympic Torch with her husband Rolly during the 2010 Paralympic Games. On June 17, 2011, she would pass away from diabetes. Her funeral was so large that the civic recreation centre had to be used, and it was broadcast live. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark would attend.

If you would like to learn more about the history of the Souris area, then the Plum Museum and Visitor Centre is the perfect place to visit. This museum is located in a church built in 1883 that is the oldest remaining public building in the area and it has been restored to its original plum and chocolate colors. It is also one of the oldest church buildings in Western Manitoba and is a Municipal Heritage Site. Within the museum, you will find exhibits that highlight the history of the entire area, including the Swinging Bridge. There is also a beautiful outdoor area you can enjoy that features a moose statue and landscaped grounds. It is well worth any visit to the Souris area.

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