The Iron Horse Arrives in Manitoba

by George Siamandas

On Oct 9 1877, the Countess of Dufferin arrived in Winnipeg to inaugurate the era of rail service. It was considered such a milestone in the development of Manitoba, that the day was declared a public holiday in Winnipeg, and the Free Press published a special edition. The locomotive had been built in Philadelphia in 1872 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works and made its own way from Minneapolis to North Dakota. From there it was loaded into a barge and towed by the riverboat the "Selkirk" to Winnipeg.

It was a momentous journey down the Red River. Engineer in charge Joseph Whitehead kept up a head of steam and pulled on its whistle as it made the Red River's many lazy bends. Along with the locomotive came four flat cars and a caboose.

As the Countess arrived in Winnipeg that special morning a crescendo of whistles and horns sounded from the mills as Miss Racine at the rope of the Countess's whistles joined in a chorus proclaiming that the iron horse had arrived at last. For two hours people got on the barge to inspect the locomotive, a sight which few had ever seen before. Later that day, she floated downstream a couple of miles to Point Douglas where some track had been laid on the St Boniface side to allow it to be rolled onto the land. The economic benefits that started to flow were incredible. In January 1879 one Winnipeg grocer sold $20,000 of food supplies to the railway.

Gov Gen Lord Dufferin and Lady Dufferin were touring Manitoba at the time and inspected the locomotive. The Countess consented to her name being applied to the locomotive. She had also driven the first spike for the construction of the rails which ran south to the US. For the next year the Countess was used to move men and supplies for the construction of the rail link south: the "Pembina Branch." It ran on the est side of the Red into the US and connected Winnipeg to St. Paul and then to the rest of North America.

It was not until December 7, 1878 that the Countess began to operate and it was the route south to the US. Speeds averaged 10-30 miles per hour. Occasionally the train would have to stop to allow a herd of buffalo to pass. On one occasion as the train stopped to get wood a bear got aboard the caboose unnoticed. By the time he was discovered, the bear had found the food and scattered it all over the car. The Countess burned wood initially and later coal. They would stop wherever they needed to cut down fuel, and they could stop by a ditch or the river to pick up needed water.

The locomotive had no 1 painted on it but it was not really the CPR's first. In fact the locomotive was already 5 years old and had been purchased from the Northern Pacific Railway for $6,000. It was known as engine 56 and had operated Between Brainerd, Minnesota and Jamestown North Dakota. The following year, Whitehead brought in another locomotive and 25 flatcars. The locomotive was named in honour of Whitehead. Other locomotives that arrived were named after James McKay, a Winnipeg pioneer, and Sitting Bull a locomotive with a real "hoodoo" engine as they put it. Seven were purchased that year.

It ran until 1897 when she was sold to a BC lumber company for $1,000 and renamed the Betsy. Mayor Waugh visiting BC in 1909 saw that the Countess was ready for the scrapheap, wanted to repurchase it for Winnipeg. It wasn't necessary, the CPR donated it to Winnipeg in 1910. Over time the Countess of Dufferin has been in numerous locations including the front of the old CPR station. In 1910 it was placed at the corner of Higgins and Austin and initially enclosed in glass shed, but later sat in front of the CPR station. In 1970 James Richardsons and sons paid to have it restored at a cost of $20,000.

The Countess of Dufferin is currently located in the CN station. One day, when the money is found, it will anchor a Railway Museum for Manitoba.


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