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Happy 100th Birthday

Traffic on the Rainy River is recorded as early as 1688 or 1689 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, voyageur 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 being taken up along the whole length of the river where it was open for settlement. There were seven Indian reservations in the area and a large area set aside for conservation purposes and which were called the Wild Lands Reserve.
The present town site 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 town site and often encamped 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 lumbermen moved a small sawmill overland to the headwaters of Rapid River, downstream to the Rainy River, then down the Rainy River by raft 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 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 under way. Much of the material for the bridge was brought during the winter and piled on the ice. After the spring break-up, 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 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 located near the bridge. Basset, another general store and a bakery owned by Bill and Les Murphy, was also located in the hamlet. The Beaver Mills Post Office was located just east of the mill.
As early as 1899, MacKenzie, 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 MacKenzie, Mann & Co.
Rainy River had been quite an obstruction to the progress of the railroad. All steel and equipment required for the bridge had 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 of Rainy River began to grow, by today’s standards, at hurricane pace. The Rat Portage Store and the McQuarrie and Grimshaw moved to Fourth 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 the land from Miller’s Creek, west along the river toward the town. The Rainy River Lumber Company was incorporated in January of 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 Northern 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 of the 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 1909.) 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 book stores, one furniture store, one livery stable, two butcher shops, three barbers, one bakery and confectionary, two hardware stores, three laundries, two millinery shops, one hospital, one wholesale liquor store, two jewellery stores, one newspaper, one real estate agency, two firms of lawyers, one chartered bank, five draymen, one cold storage plant, three doctors and one dentist.
The Town Hall/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 a census taken at one time turned in a figure of 4,500 as served by the town’s business enterprises.
The telephone system was first owned by P.T. Roberts, who installed it when he built the three storey 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 of their buildings, including offices and home of the officials.
A fire engine, named the “William J. Bolton” after the first fire chief, was purchased in 1908. It was sold to the City of Winnipeg in 1949 to be used 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 a 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 an 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, the typhoid patients on stretchers, 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 to Rainy. The men of the town quickly 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 at 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 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 and 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 the 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 an inboard engine 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 the 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 and more of its traffic was being routed over the north line, and fewer employees were required at this point due to the heavier equipment introduced. And then, as a tourist centre, it began to lose its importance. The depression years, 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 wasn’t any 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 calibre of people who interested many small towns in oil, collected money from local 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 months of concentrated work by volunteers and required the 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 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 a $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 Canadian Customs. From April 1975 to February 1979, 430,019 cars arrived from the U.S. 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 the 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 Assiniboine5 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 timber industry, Arctic was a very progressive company and had put many millions of dollars into the community.
In 1979 a new sewage and water treatment plant was approved for Rainy River. It came on line in 1980 and still serves the community to this day.
A new Macleod’s hardware store was opened in 1980 at the corner of Main and Broadway. 1980 was also the year Rainy River’s new clinic opened.
A new fire engine was purchased by Rainy River in 1981.
In 1982 Citizens called for a long term care facility to be constructed in Rainy River. However, that request was turned down.
The Rainy River Legion purchased the former Beaver Lumber building on Main St. and opened its club there in October of 1982.
In 1984 council started a hospital building fund with a $1,000 contribution. A year later the community received approval to add an extended care wing onto the existing hospital. Over the next decade the community would do battle with government after government and eventually ended up getting a brand new hospital with long term care beds in it. It opened in the late 1990s.
Several attempts to get another industry for Rainy River besides the railway all ended in failure.
Arctic Cat pulled the pin on its garment factory here after several warm winters forced a decline in demand for products. Several local investors banded together to create Weather Wear. However, a few years later it failed and eventually the town took it over and made it into a new town garage and fire hall.
The Ceilia Corporation came to town in the late 1980s and promised to build a factory that would produce panelized housing. It never got off the ground.
Another group lead by one of the proponents of Ceilia, Jan Verhoef, built a factory to produce a similar product to Ceilia’s proposal. It has never reached start-up.
Koeneman Lumber, a remanufacturing plant started up in the mid 1990s but only was in production sporadically and is now owned by the Town of Rainy River in lieu of back-taxes.
Several businesses have come and gone over the years. Some have stayed the course and remain a vital part of today’s local economy.
In the last fifteen years the grain elevator was demolished and the Shell bulk station was dismantled and moved to Kenora. The vacant Gaiety Theatre collapsed due to heavy snow on the roof and Rainy River Super Market burned down as did Stedmans.
Several new buildings have been constructed including a new Quality Bakery in 1989, a new Village Green, Beaver Mills Market, an addition to the Road Runner Motel, Lettners (now Lowes Furniture) several expansions of Rainy River Drugs, Picture Perfect, the Border Gasthaus, and most recently the new Grandma Dynamites restaurant. The former Catholic school is now home to Sears, Gifts Galore and Duty Free. Rainy River also got a Radio Shack when an entrepreneur purchased the old Legion Annex and opened Atwood Enterprises there.
A new state of the art police station was built in Rainy River and an air ambulance landing pad was constructed in the community just last year.
Tourist travel in and out of Canada was made easier when the bridge went toll free in 1989.
Thinking about a brighter future in tourism, the 4008 was moved to a new central location just west of the CNR station. A baggage car and caboose joined them there and a railway museum was opened inside them.
Other tourism initiatives bolstered the community’s profile. The annual Rainy River Walleye Tournament, Railroad Daze and the Rainy River Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival all draw good crowds and pump dollars into the local economy.
Once rivals, Baudette and Rainy River now share almost all their sports. Minor hockey programs merged a few years ago and the high school hockey programs cooped in the 1980s. Other high school sports like track and field and cross country have also been cooped.
The new credit union at the corner of Third and Hwy. 11 brought an ATM machine to Rainy River. That was quickly followed by one at its competitor CIBC and at Marmus Shell.
Internet and cellular phone services also arrived despite word from companies that they were not viable in this region.
The railway ran through Rainy River in the late 1990s and then came back for a brief time. Now all the crews are changed at Fort Frances, however, most rail workers have remained in Rainy River and commute to work.
The community has also faced flooding three times in the past seven years and twice had to construct a sandbag dike along the bottom of town to keep the Rainy River at bay.
At present the community is still looking for a business opportunity that would create jobs for the next generation of Rainy Riverites.
The spirit of this little town never seems to give up. No matter what obstacle it finds in its path to the future it seems to pick up its head and move forward, looking for a brighter light that will illuminate the community for another 100 years.