Traffic on the Rainy River is recorded as early as 1688 or 1699 by Jacques de Noyon, a native of Trois Rivieres. He made the journey with a party of Indians who promised he would find a river emptying into the Western Sea (Lake Winnipeg). Later, voyager traffic along the river, heading West, became heavy. In 1800, Alexander Henry remarked on the abundance of Sturgeon. Alexander MacKenzie in 1801, made the same observation and said, “This is one of the finest rivers in the North-West.”
During the 1800’s, homesteads were built along the whole length of the river where it was open for settlement. There were seven Indian reservations in the area and a large a large area set aside for conservation purposes and which were called Wild Lands Reserve.
The present townsite was avoided for settlement. Being on low swampy land it was even undesirable to the Indians whose nearest camp was seven miles down the river. Ojibwa and Chippewa, who roamed at will, by-passed the townsite and often camped at “The Pines” , two miles below. For many years Indian graves with their characteristic wooden shelters could be seen there.
In 1895 a party of Bemidji lumberman moved a small sawmill overland to the headwaters of Rapid River, downstream from Rainy River, then down the Rainy River by raft until to a point where the Manitoba and Southeastern Railway had plans to build a railway bridge. The mill started its operation with one circular saw and later grew to be one of the largest mills in the world.
In 1898, The Beaver Mills Lumber Company, owned by J.H. Hughes and Long, bought the mill. The mill hands and their families built shacks around the mill and the shack town became known as Beaver Mills
By 1900, McKenzie, Mann & Co. had construction work on the steel railway bridge well underway. Much of the material for the bridge was brought during the winter and piled on the ice, after the spring breakup, barges were used, one of the barges, carrying railway ties, sunk at the intersection of the river and Miller’s Creek, it still lies at the bottom of the river.
The bridge was completed in 1901 and in the same year the Rat Portage Lumber Company bought the Beaver Mills Lumber Company mill and timber interests. The new owner installed bigger and better machinery including a single cutting band saw, one gang saw, a pair of twin circulars and a planer.
The mill’s capacity soon grew to 200,000 feet a day, with 200 men being employed in the saw mill during the summer and another thirty or so in the the planing mill year round.
The “Shack Town” of Beaver Mills had become a busy place. It boasted two hotels, the Tynen House, north of the tracks, and the Grand Union, south of the tracks overlooking the river. The Rat Portage Lumber Company operated a department store west of the mill and D. A. McQuarrie and K.C. Grimshaw owned a general store and a bakery owned by Bill and Les Murphy, was also located in the hamlet. the Beaver Mills Port Office was located just east of the mill.
As early as 1899, McKenzie Mann & Co., builders of the Canadian Northern Railway, began surveying some of their Atwood township holdings into town lots. In 1901 work began on a station and ten stall roundhouse about a mile from the shack town. This became the area of The Town of Rainy River and, by no coincidence, was the area previously surveyed by McKenzie, Mann & Co.
Rainy River had been quite an obstruction to the progress of the railroad. All steel and equipment required for the bridge and been way-billed to Rainy River, not Beaver Mills, and for obvious reasons, that point on the railroad was designated Rainy River.
The fact that the station was located where it was, was probably the deciding factor in fixing the location of the town. By 1901 there were some buildings on Fourth Street and by the completion of the roundhouse in 1902, it became evident that this point was to be the divisional center. The shift from Beaver Mills as a business district was imminent.
The new town began to grow, by today’s standards, at hurricane pace. The Rat Portage Store and the McQuarrie and Grimshaw moved to Forth Street. In 1904, McQuarrie and Grimshaw built a large department store (former Rainy River Supermarket). Above the store was a recreation hall and auditorium.
Many buildings, both business and residential arose on other streets. With so much building activity it was necessary to organize the Township of Atwood, which was done in 1902. The township began building plank sidewalks on most of the streets. The streets had to be filled with bark, sawdust, slabs and shavings before they were gravelled as the town lay on muskeg. Land was purchased for the cemetery and the town also bought property on Sixth Street for recreational purposes. The Athletic Association cleared it in quick order and built a curling rink, skating rink, spectators’ Gallery and a ball park.
In 1903, the Shevlin, Clarke Company bought land from Miller’s Creek, west along the river toward the town. The Rainy River Lumber Company was incorporated in January 1904. The new mill provided employment for over four hundred and fifty mill workers during the summer months and about eighty of them remained year-round in the planing department.
The Canadian National Railway was now being completed between Port Arthur and Winnipeg with Rainy River as a divisional point. Many railway employees and their families moved in.
Rainy River began to boom. The town was incorporated December 9, 1903 and at that time consisted of 750 acres taken from the Municipality Township of Atwood. Ironic now, the town motto chosen was “Industry”.
Growth continued at a steady rate. Mr. Tynen built the Commercial Hotel, commonly called the “Mad House” at the corner of Fourth and Atwood (It was destroyed by fire in 9001). At about the same time the Canadian Northern Hotel was built on Third and Atwood facing the station. The Riverview Hotel, a more luxurious building, was built the next year, in 1904, at the end of Fourth Street, facing the river. The King Edward Hotel rose in 1906 and soon after, Harry’s Hotel, where the Legion building is now located came into being. Each hotel had a bar.
By 1906, the town contained five general stores, two gents furnishings, two tailors, two druggists, two bookstores one furniture store, one livery stable, two butcher shops, three barbers, one bakery and confectionery, two hardware stores, three laundries, two millinery shops, one hospital, one wholesale liquor store, one real estate agency, two firms of lawyers, one chartered bank, five draymen, one cold storage plant, three doctors and one dentist.
The Town/Fire hall building was erected at this time and proudly displayed on top was the fire bell. The bell was given to the Pinewood Church in 1946.
Rainy River ‘s population at this time was around 2,000 and rose to about 2,600 though at one time turned in a figure of 4,500 as served by the towns business enterprises.
The telephone system was first owned by P.T. Roberts, who installed it when he built the three story Roberts Block in 1904. It was taken over by the town in 1919.
In 1908, W. H. Green installed an electric lighting plant to service the town. The first street lighting was done with carbon arcs which were lit by an official lamplighter on his rounds each night. The mills had their own electrical units which serviced all their building, including offices and home of the officials.
A fire engine, named the “William J. Bolton” after the first fire chief, was purchased in 908. It was sold to the city of Winnipeg in 1949 to be used a as a public exhibit. In 1908-09 the sewer system was installed and in 1909-10 the water works. A septic tank was built at the cost of $11,000.
On the evening of Friday, October 7, 1910, a roaring cyclone of flame tore into the frontier lumbering towns of Baudette and Spooner and exploded into a holocaust that consumed everything in its path.
By 7 p.m. people were beginning to gather at the train depot and a message was wired to Rainy River to have relief trains ready if necessary. Half and hour later, watchers perched on top of a building opposite the depot cried, “It’s coming. Quick, give the fire alarm.”
The whistle sounded and the people came. The sick in night clothing, children carried dolls or pets and adults, a cherished possession or two. There was some panic when only one coach arrived. Oil tanks lay not far from the depot. Then again, the track was on fire and burning embers had reached the Canadian side.
Soon another train of boxcars arrived from Rainy River and took many to safety. Others elected to stay in Baudette and sought shelter in boats on the storm lashed waves of the river.
At the last possible minute the town of Rainy River was saved by a change in the wind. The Rat Portage Lumber Company was destroyed and all that remains of the pine reserves in the area is the local park called “The Pines”.
Looters came in the wake of the fire even before the embers stopped smoking. Finding little left to loot on the Minnesota border, they crossed the river into Rainy River. The men of the town quickly became organized to patrol the town. One patrolman was found shot in the back behind the jewelry store. His murderer was never found.
Another victim of the fire on the Canadian side was a baby, thought to have suffocated in the smoke.
Many Baudette people found shelter in Rainy River homes in days following the fire and that probably accounts for the closeness of the two towns.
The future of the town looked grim. In 1911, the Western Canada Four Milling Company (Purity Flour) built a stave mill as the west end of the Rat Portage Lumber Company property to build flour barrels. As the mill employed only about forty men, it fell far short of requirements for keeping up with the town population which was shrinking fast. The stave mill operated until 1929.
After the fire, the mainstay of the town became the railway. For a time there was brisk passenger traffic through the town with trains running between Chicago and Winnipeg and Port Arthur to Winnipeg. the Tourist trade was partly responsible for the Chicago service.
Many tourists were attracted to the town by the local druggist, E. D. Calvert. He had become acquainted with the fishing ground on Lake of the Woods while camping with friends from Rainy River and Baudette. His first tourist party consisted of two doctors from Philadelphia in 1910. As his hobby/business grew he added an outboard and then and inboard to his small sailboat. Sleeping accommodations were tents to begin with and a permanent camp was built in 1920. Cedar Island Camp was built in 1925 and the “Clipper,” a steam boat was bought and put into service meeting the trains and making the five to six hour trip to the camp. In 1928, the “Clipper” carried over seven hundred tourists to Calvert’s Camps.
In March 1949, Ernie Calvert “Dean of Lake of the Woods” was voted into America’s fishing and Hunting Hall of Fame. he received a gold medal.
The town began to profit from the tourist industry but soon received another jolt. During the depression years, the Heenan Highway was built from Fort Frances to Kenora. As this was an easier route, Rainy River suffered a considerable loss of business.
The town had financial problems. The loss of the large industries had occurred immediately after the town had embarked upon a heavy improvement scheme. It was further aggravated by the railroads changing policy, as more of its traffic was being routed over the northern line, and fewer employees were at this point due to the heavier equipment introduced. And then, as a tourist centre, it began to lose its importance. the depression, with their relief requirements did their share as well. In 1941, the town of Rainy River was taken under the supervision of the
Department of Municipal Affairs in Toronto. In short: Rainy River was broke. But … nothing stands still.
In 1941 another attempt was made to find oil in Rainy River. The first try occurred in 1927, on a location opposite the Henry Jarvis farm on Highway 600. Many people invested in the company (The Pine River Development Company) but no one made any money because there was no oil. The second venture also ran into problems. The drill but broke regularly and progress was slow.
On April 9, 1942 it was learned that Charles and John Perdue, who were bringing in the oil drilling equipment, had been charged with fraud by the Ontario Securities Commission. According to a witness at the hearing, he and Charles Perdue had carried pails of oil from a nearby storage well and spread it around the ground of a well in the East that was supposed to be pumping. The purpose of this exercise was to impress investigators from Montreal who were coming to see it.
This episode demonstrates the caliber of people who interested many small towns oil, collected money from investors, and then moved on.
On the local scene, problems were plentiful, again no oil, and the project was finally abandoned.
On a bitterly cold day in January 1951, the official opening was held for the new Rainy River Red Cross Hospital. A 13 bed, brick building, completed with separate nurses residence. It replaced a large, old house bought by the Women’s Institute in 1926. the building was completed through tremendous effort by the townspeople to raise funds and provincial and Federal assistance to the Red Cross. It cost $147,000. A slow rebirth was happening.
In the late summer of 1952, excavation began on another essential town structure. The determined efforts of W.G. Bill Mitchell, the founder of the Rainy River Community Centre, was rewarded on the stormy night of November 20, 1953 when the official opening was celebrated and the community had a much needed recreation centre.
Later, this venture expanded to include the three sheet curling rink and in 1962, the hockey arena. January 31 and February 1, 1964 marked 2 days of celebrating the official opening of the skating arena, a building which took years of dreaming, six month of concentrated work by volunteers and required the fund raising of approximately $25,000 as well as the borrowing of $9,500 by a local group of interested citizens. Bill Mitchell didn’t live to see the culmination of his dream. he died on July 5, 1963.
The first meeting to discuss building a toll bridge from the United States to Canada at Baudette/Rainy River was held in 1930.
Years later, in May 1941 the U.S. senate and Legislature passed a bill permitting the municipalities to sell bonds for the construction of the bridge.
Finally, on July 30, 1960 the International Bridge was officially opened to traffic. The 1282 foot bridge was financed by the sale of bonds in Minnesota, eastern North Dakota, Ontario and a federal agency. The toll was set at $1.25 per car and driver plus 10 cents per passenger; no inflation here, it’s still the same today. The cost of the bridge was $14,000,000. It would have been interesting to find out how many cars have passed over the bridge, unfortunately, the only figures available were from the Canadian Customs. From April 1975 to February 1979, 430,019 cars arrived from the use side.
While drilling for oil had proved fruitless, digging was successful for Dr. Kenyon, assistant curator of Ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum. In 1961, a dig took place at Oak Grove Camp. The camp, owned and operated by Leland and Mary Budreau is situated not far from the mouth of Rainy River.
The burial mounds being investigated at the camp were seven and a half feet in diameter and nine feet deep with walls made of clay.
During the digging, Dr. Kenyon struck the bottom of the pit where he found several bodies of Indians, adults and children who were probably Assiniboin and were migrating to the plains of Western Canada.
There were also two major clusters of skulls. The skulls were built up with clay, painted with red ochre and in some cases fresh water clam shell beads were placed in the eye sockets and nose openings. Round holes at the back of the skull indicated that the brain had been removed; usually a sign of cannibalism.
Dr. Kenyon described these mounds as “the most spectacular in Canada.” The finds have been dated back to 1200 A.D.
In 1968, Arctic Enterprises of Thief River Falls opened a garment plant in Rainy River. this was the first truly viable industry for the town since the departure of the lumber companies. Arctic built a 15,000 square foot factory and employed more than 60 people. Although much smaller than the lumber industry, Arctic was a very progressive company and had put many millions of dollars into the community.
In recent years, development has continued. Two senior citizens residences have been built, two new schools, new businesses have come and the future of the town looks bright.
A new grocery store is set to be built this summer.
Rainy River appears to be a quiet town, but it’s not. It is a successful town and a happy one.
For more history from 1979 to the present please turn to section C of the this special edition.