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MARILYN HAGERTY: By ferry and pontoon across the Red River

Probably the earliest means of crossing the Red River here was the establishment of a ferry. John Fadden was granted a charter in 1871 to operate a ferry for five years.

Marilyn Hagerty
Longtime Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty and her review of Olive Garden going viral is the Herald's 2012 story of the year. Grand Forks Herald photo by John Stennes.

Probably the earliest means of crossing the Red River here was the establishment of a ferry. John Fadden was granted a charter in 1871 to operate a ferry for five years.

The story of early river crossings at Grand Forks and East Grand Forks is told in a tattered and faded historical booklet issued when the present Sorlie Bridge was dedicated in 1929. This is the last of four columns on early crossings here of the Red River of the North.

The ferry consisted of a flat bottomed boat attached to a heavy manila rope stretched between the two banks. One end of the ferry landed on the Grand Forks side of the river where the Minnesota Point bridge eventually was built. The opposite end landed in East Grand Forks on the north bank of the Red Lake River.

Passengers as well as horses and wagons were accommodated on the ferry. And the ferry was propelled by hand by simply pulling on the rope.

Passengers, as well as ferry operators, were expected to help supply the necessary power to make the passage.


It was not unusual in those days for unsophisticated horses to dive off the ferry into the river. And from experiences of this kind, the practice finally was adopted for securely lashing both wagon and horse to the deck before the trip was started.

So far as it can be determined, there was no toll charged on the ferry. It was run by the city of Grand Forks for the benefit of the public.

About 1878, the ferry was supplanted by a pontoon bridge. It consisted of several flat-bottomed boats laid parallel with the river; across them, the necessary roadwork was supplied to accommodate foot and horse traffic. This bridge crossed near the present site of the Minnesota Point bridge.

Frequently during high water, it was necessary to discontinue the pontoon bridge. During these times, the old ferry was brought back into action until the water receded.

But history tells us the pontoon bridge that handled the heaviest and most important traffic between the two cities was situated on Demers Avenue on the exact site of the present Sorlie Memorial Bridge.

The pontoon bridge was opened for traffic in 1879-1880. It was owned by Capt. Alex Griggs, who was the moving factor in early river steamboating.

Griggs used one of his large flat-bottomed boats, or scows, measuring about 100 feet long and 30 feet in width, for the pontoon bridge.

This pontoon was laid across the current and was connected to either bank by means of a timber and pile approach. As steamboats appeared and desired to pass, one end of the pontoon was released and swung down current against the river bank. Thus it left an opening through which the steamer could proceed.


The pontoon then was winched back into place.

Thomas Murray and Al McMaster were in charge of this pontoon bridge during the early 1880s. They recalled the toll charges to be five cents for each pedestrian, 15 cents for a horse and buggy and 25 cents for a team and wagon.

As winter approached, the pontoon barge was disconnected and tied up to the bank. The timber approaches with exception of the piling were removed.

And until the ice froze solidly, a ferry was used for the Demers Avenue crossing. This ferry was reported to be an ingenious device that used the current of the river to run it back and forth between the two cities by means of adjustable cables.

As soon as the river had frozen solidly, all crossings were made on the ice until the following spring. Then the ferry again came into use until the ice had all gone out.

The completion and dedication of the new Sorlie Memorial Bridge in 1929 brought to an end the chapter of early crossings of the Red River of the North. The Sorlie Bridge replaced the iron bridge that was built in 1889, at the same time as a similar bridge at Minnesota Avenue.

The dream back then was for the Sorlie Bridge to last 50 years. It has, with help of the Kennedy Bridge, served beyond expectations.

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