Turtle Mountain and the Boiler Trail

Mr. La Riviere is the oldest settler of the Turtle Mountains, having located here in 1874 after buying from Major Cameron the old depot used by the British North American Boundary Commission when it was no longer required by them. Mr. La Riviere was first well-known throughout the Northwest as a very successful trader, but of late years has taken to farming and stock raising. Considerable improvements made at this point prove more than anything the advancement of settlement at the

Turtle Mountain

and afford a striking contrast and change to the appearance of the place but a few years past. Mr. La Riviere has built a fine store and hotel. These, in association with the numerous buildings for his stock and machinery, and the steam saw mill of Mr. Wilson, form quite a town at the Mountain.

The Milli

is owned by Mr. Williams and is situated on La Riviere’s property in a very fair situation. The large quantity of logs laying around the mill bore testimony to the activity of the settlers on the Turtle during the past winter. The logs were laying piled in numerous small lots, each one the property of a separate individual. Balm of Gilead with poplar and a little oak was the chief timber sawn at the mill and in answer to an inquiry we were informed that he was furnishing the best lumber at $25 per thousand board feet, sheeting at $20 and shingles at $3.50. The latter are of very good quality and are of poplar. The low figures asked for lumber fairly astonished us considering the difficulty and labour getting the mill into the country and its distance from West Lynne, some 150 miles. It is also the intention of the proprietor to add to the mill two run of stone for gristing purposes for which he intends to charge 12 1/2 cents per two bushel bag.

After seeing that our horses would be cared for, we entered the hotel and were greeted by Mr. La Riviere, the proprietor. Introducing my companion to him, I warmly congratulated our host on the great changes since my last visit. As it was Sunday, Mr. La Riviere had given up the use of his large dining room to Rev. Mr. Patterson, a young Presbyterian clergyman stationed at the Turtle.ii Quite a number of people of both sexes were congregated to attend the Divine Service about to commence. An eloquent sermon was preached by the young minister, but as myself and my companion had tasted nothing since our early breakfast that morning, and had driven a distance of about 30 miles from Badger Creek, our thoughts were more centered on the preparations for our meal than the words of the preacher.

After the close of the service, we attended to the wants of the inner man and also made the acquaintance of a number of the settlers. I met a few old friends, some of the earliest pioneers of the Mountain, Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Alexander.iii Mr. Sharpe at one time farmed on a Red River lot about two miles from West Lynne and sold out to go to the Mountain some four or five years ago. He informed us that not for the best farm on the Red River would he exchange his lot. The soil was lighter and not so rich, but he felt fully compensated by being able to go to work earlier in the spring and being free from the everlasting mud at that season of the year.

In the morning we looked around at the stock and farm of our host and visited the mill. The saw for the manufacture of shingles was quite a novelty to my companion who had never seen one before and who remarked that in his country they used slate or thatch as roofing materials. Taking our farewell of our host, (and a supply of oats for which we had to pay two dollars a bushel), we were once more on our way westward accompanied by Mr. O’Brien, a Government Land Guide on his way to the Land Office.iv We found the trail very bad with numerous small creeks to cross. One of the worst was at Mr. Porritt’s where the horses refused to go in.v After repeated unsuccessful attempts to force the horses to do so, they were unhitched, jumped over, and the buckboard pulled over afterwards.

Mr. Porritt informed us that there was a far better trail to the north known as the

Boiler Trailvi

and on his suggestion we determined to strike across towards it. After reaching the Boiler Trail, (so called from its being made by the boiler and machinery taken out by Hugh Sutherland to the Souris coal fields), we found a much better road.vii Settlers going west to the Land Office should always take this route. It leaves the Boundary Trail about two miles west of La Riviere’s and joins again in the neighbourhood of the Land Office. An inquiry from any of the settlers will give you the required information to find it. The land along the “trail” is a beautiful rolling prairie distant from the timber from three to six miles. The country is well watered with streams of good spring water as clear as crystal from the Mountains but these are not very difficult to cross. As we journey on, a lot of useful information was given to us by our companion, Mr. O’Brien.


. This mill at La Riviere’s, the first to operation in the Turtle Mountains is still in excellent condition and is located on the Killarney fairgrounds. Powered by a large steamer, (one of at least 65 horsepower is required to drive the saw through a 12-inch poplar log), the capabilities of this old mill are demonstrated each July during Killarney’s Prairie Pioneer Days. Local legend credits Jesse James as once having work on this mill.

Machinery for the saw mill has passed here for Turtle Mountain, Messrs. Williams and Harrison proprietors, and it is said that one or two more mills will be started there this summer or spring.

– the Crystal City Correspondent of the Emerson International, 15 April 1880

We arrived the latter part of March and stayed at La Riviere’s until our land was located…. In Ranges 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 the land is beautiful and there is good timber for 20 miles. Two sawmills are in the course of erection. Some propose a gristmill as soon as there is wheat to grind. –

Settler, Manitoba Free Press, Wed., 4 August 1880

W.C. Williams, writing in the 28 October 1880 edition of the Emerson International, states:

Our sawmill is in operation producing good poplar lumber at $20 and shingles at $4 per M. One cannot find fault with the price. The proprietors intend to get out a large quantity of lumber during the winter and have it seasoned and ready for the spring trade. They will have a planer and matcher before spring and during the coming summer will add a gristmill. This will be the nucleus for a town.

By Order-in-Council, December 27, 1880, a yearly license was granted to C.W. Williams and the Harrison brothers of Wakopa to cut timber on Sections 1,2,3, 12, and 13 of Township 1-18 on payment of a ground rent of $10.00 a square mile and 5% royalty on all products, “the grounds for according a timber berth being that they have erected a sawmill capable of cutting 5,000 feet of lumber per diem which is doing good service in supplying the Turtle Mountain settlers with the lumber and shingles necessary for the erection of buildings on their homesteads.” Harrison and Williams’ first mill burned down but they promptly replaced it, for there was a lively demand for lumber and shingles. – Beckoning Hills Revisited, page 41

The Wakopa gristmill, apparently established in 1881, like the sawmill, is still in business today. From here the mill was moved to Holmfield, 17 miles northeast of its original location, where it is still in operation as the Prairie Maid Flour Mill. It is still owned by members of the Harrison family, direct descendents of one of the original partners. At the turn of the century some 80 such mills were in operation in rural Manitoba; today the Holmfield mill is one of two remaining.


. The Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, or Knox College, Toronto, (I am not certain which), have recently sent us a missionary in the person of Mr. Patterson, “a broth of a boy”, who has entered upon his duties with a zeal and assiduity and preaching three times each Sabbath and walking a distance of from 15 to 20 miles. (By this method he has adopted all the settlers within a radius of, say, twenty miles are brought within the reach of a preached gospel every two weeks). Upon him has been conferred the privilege of preaching the first sermon to the settlers of Zululand and faithfully did he perform the duty upon the subject, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” – Zulu Zephyrs, 23 May 1881 in the Emerson International

The Manitoba Free Press, in its edition of 6 October 1881, carries the text of two addresses to William Patterson, at a social given in his honor at La Rivieres on the evening of the 9th September 1881 just prior to his departure from Turtle Mountain. In these presentations, both given by Mr. George F. Newcombe and accompany a purse of money, mention is made of his having served Millar, Fleming and Zulu stations, i.e. preaching points. “The extensive field of your labor – extending over fifty miles in length – the absence of bridges consequence upon the early and sparsely settlement of the district, combined to make your journeys, which were performed on foot, difficult and dangerous, but these were overcome with a pluck and perseverance of no ordinary character and indicates unmistakable genuine devotion and love for the good of your calling.”

Beckoning Hills, published in 1956, on page 238, notes that Rev. Patterson was a Presbyterian student from the north of Ireland. In later years he was called to Cooks Church, Toronto, “which he filled to overflowing. From there he went to Philadelphia where he was in charge of the Wanamakers Church, one of the largest in the United States.”


. Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Alexander are mentioned in Footnote 26 and 27 in Southern Manitoba and Turtle Mountain Country.

Mr. Alexander was not the only pioneer of southwestern Manitoba ruined by the failure of the Bank of Glasgow in the late 1870s. Robert King, a pioneer settler of 30-6-20 of the Fairfax district, 25 northwest of Boissevain, a building contractor in Edinburgh, had also lost his savings in its collapse. Writing in Beckoning Hills, page 215, his son recalled that this event resulted in the British House of Commons passing the Limited Liabilities Act.


. An April 1880 Order-in-Council provided for the hiring of twelve government land guides. Two of these were to be stationed in the Turtle Mountains. In its edition of 23 May 1881 the Winnipeg Free Press reported “O’Brien and Thirkell, who have been appointed Land Guides and attached to the Dominion Land Office here, arrived recently and have entered upon their duties.”

In an article dated 13 July 1881 and appearing in the 11 August edition of the Manitoba Free Press noted, “Mr. J.S. O’Brien, one of the land guides attached to the agency here, is reported as doing excellent work, and plenty of it, in locating immigrants in the district. His age and unacquaintance with the system of survey combined in making the discharge of his duties, at the beginning, difficult and embarrassing, but these have been overcome by his characteristics – indomitable energy and perseverance.”

Mr. O’Brien’s name will long be associated with the naming of Lake Killarney. The speech in which he christened it is recorded in Chapter I, The Beginning of Things, Reflections; Turtle Mountain and Municipality and Killarney, 1882 – 1982:

My name is John Sydney O’Brien, a lineal descendent of Brian Boru, the last king of Munster. I have been sent to your country by our great Chieftain, Sir John A. Macdonald. When I look at this beautiful lake it puts me in mind of the Lakes of Killarney in Ireland, and when I look at those hills, they remind me of the mountains of Killarney they call the Macgillicuddy Reeks. I think we should call this lake Killarney, after the beautiful hills of the homeland.

Mr. O’Brien, (the homestead records give his name as “James Sydney” rather than “John Sydney”), built his first home on the upper reaches of what we now know as Lake Killarney but named on the original township survey maps as “Oak Lake”. In September 1881 he homesteaded the w 1/2 4-3-17 but located his home directly north on Section 9, a point of land surrounded on three sides by the lake.


. The difficulties presented in crossing this ford, and many others equally as bad along the original route of the Commission Trail at the foot of the Turtle Mountains, was the reason for the popularity of the Boiler Trail further out on the prairie. The Porritt brothers, Frederick R. and Herbert, were the pioneer settlers of 14-2-20 and established themselves during the summer of 1880 at the Commission Trail’s crossing of one of the creeks draining down of the Mountain into the Pembina River. The Porritts, originally from Yorkshire, were members of the first group of English settlers to arrive Manitoba as a result of the promotion of this area by Mr. Armstrong.

First English Party – The first installment of English families, who have been induced through the efforts of L.O. Armstrong to immigrate to southern Manitoba, arrived Saturday, and a second installment arrived on Monday. The party numbered 52 altogether. The majority of the party, and the wealthiest portion, stopped off here, and will settle west of Emerson. The party, according to an Owen Sound dispatch to the Toronto Globe, holds drafts on the Winnipeg banks to the amount of $75,000. A few of the families will remain in Emerson for the summer, among them Messrs. Drew, Gilbert and Pocock who have rented houses in South Emerson. A portion of the party left this afternoon for the Turtle Mountain Country under the guidance of Mr. L.O. Armstrong. This party is but the forerunner of a large number of the same class who will seek homes in Manitoba this summer.

The Emerson International, 3 June 1880

Delighted with Country – W.H. Porritt, Esq., a wealthy Englishman from East Yorkshire, who, accompanied by a son and some friends, has been exploring the country west of Emerson in search of land, returned to town this week, and left for his home in England. Mr. Porritt secured 3,000 acres of land within 12 miles of the Assiniboine River and about 100 miles northwest of Emerson. He left his son on this land and breaking and building operations were commenced immediately. Mr. Porritt was delighted with the country and will come out in August and bring another son with him to locate. Mr. P. considers Manitoba a remarkable country. Although 54 years of age, he made the journey on horseback with very little luggage, and roughed it in every sense of the word, often making his bed upon the floor of a shanty and going to bed with wet clothes and wet feet, and yet he never took cold of suffered from any inconvenience from his exposure – in fact, never enjoyed better health in his life. He will do much to influence English immigrants to Manitoba.

Emerson International, 10 June 1880

The Gilberts, as described by a daughter in Cornerstone of Empire, page 46, settled at Clearwater. George Pocock stayed at Emerson, became a miller in West Lynne and built a beautiful stone house, today the home of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Resch. Mr. Fred Heath who settled northwest of Badger Creek was also part of this group.

Others of this first party brought out by Mr. Armstrong and took up land in Township 2-20 were; Mr. and Mrs. William Cumpstone of 34-2-20; William Lovel, 32-2-20, and Frederick Edmund Tobias of 12-2-20. All secured their homesteads in August of 1880

A few years later, Mr. F.R. Porritt’s name became associated with Desford, the 38th historic site along the Boundary Commission Trail. During the summer of 1881, Mr. Erskin Nichol, a settler from Huron County, Ontario, established a store operated in which the Desford post office was opened in May 1882. Mr. Porritt opened a second store and soon stopping house facilities. He later became the postmaster of Desford. In 1882 the Porritt brothers purchased a John Abel steam threshing engine, the first one southwest of Brandon. See Beckoning Hills, page 21.


. The Boiler Trail was further out on the prairies and therefore avoided most of the worst crossing along the original Commission Trail at the foot of the Turtle Mountains. Therefore, it soon became the more frequently used route, especially during the spring or other wet seasons. The Boiler Trail was frequently referred to as the North Trail; the South Trail being the original road laid out by the Boundary Commission in 1873.


. Mr. L.O. Armstrong had guided Mr. Sutherland’s coal exploration crew along this route in June of 1880. In May a large boiler and steam engine to drive the drilling machinery arrived at Emerson. On 1 June the party set out westward along the Commission Trail. Ten days after leaving Emerson, the Pembina River was crossed without difficulty. Another ten days brought the party to the Turtle Mountains were a week was spent in constructing a bridge across Long River at Wakopa. Two miles beyond, facing the mud Skull swamp and fords through various streams flowing down of the Mountain, Mr. Armstrong guided the party in making a wide detour out onto the prairie.


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