Eriksmoen: The riverboat captain who founded Grand Forks also founded a city 1,400 miles further west

"Did You Know That" columnist curt Eriksmoen writes this week about Alexander Griggs, who is often referred to as the "Father of Grand Forks."

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Alexander Griggs is known as the "Father of Grand Forks." Photo courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
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Alexander Griggs is known as the "Father of Grand Forks," and is also known as one of the founders of another city of over 30,000 people. Fourteen hundred miles west of Grand Forks is Wenatchee, Wash., a city he also helped to establish. Because of the impact he had on those cities, he is one of very few people to have life-size bronze statues, in their likeness, erected in two different cities.

Griggs spent most of his life as a riverboat captain and gained fame and fortune navigating his boats on the Mississippi, Minnesota, Red and Columbia rivers. He started working on riverboats at the age of 13 and, while still a teenager, he became a riverboat pilot. In the process of preparing to become a pilot, Griggs was so small that he had to stand on a box to manage the wheel. Griggs County is named in his honor.

Alexander Griggs was born on Oct. 27, 1838, in Marietta, Ohio, to William and Esther (McGibbon) Griggs. William was a day laborer who sought out work wherever he could find it and. When he was about two years old, the family moved to Beetown, Wisc. In 1849, the Griggs family moved again, this time to St. Paul and, when Alex became a teenager, he was hired as a cabin boy on a steamboat.

Alex was a precocious youngster and he was promoted rapidly, becoming the captain of the steamboat Iola at the age of 19, navigating his boats up and down the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.

On his trips, Griggs was enchanted by a young lady who loved to sing at the St. Paul dockyards. Her name was Ettie Strong and they began a short courtship that culminated in marriage in 1865. Ettie was an accomplished singer who enjoyed performing in musical theater, and together they made their home in Henderson, in south-central Minnesota, and had eight children, with the four sons later joining their father in the steamboat business.


One of the people who took an interest in the young steamboat captain was James J. Hill, who was also the same age as Griggs. Hill had been working with wholesale grocers, for whom he handled freight transfers, especially dealing with railroads and steamboats. Having learned nearly all of the aspects of the freight and transportation industry, Hill decided to create a transportation company, called Hill, Griggs & Company. This company was a partnership founded on Aug. 20, 1869, between James J. Hill, Chauncy Griggs, and others, to transport wood. There is no known close relationship between Chauncy and Alex Griggs. On Feb. 20, 1871, the charter of the company was expanded to carry on a merchandising and transportation business on the Red River of the North and, since Hill brought in Alex Griggs to build a steamboat on the Red, Alex, not Chauncy, represented Griggs as Hill's new business partner.

The Hudson Bay Company had a booming business on Lake Winnipeg, near a new settlement that shared its name with the lake. Hill believed that Winnipeg would soon become a thriving community since the province of Manitoba, in which Winnipeg was located, had been organized in 1870, creating more stability within the province. Because the Northern Pacific Railroad was quickly advancing towards the Red River, Hill knew that large amounts of supplies could be transported cheaply by way of barges, flat-boats, and steamboats up the Red River to Winnipeg. Hill was correct in his assessment that Winnipeg was about to experience a population explosion. From 1871 to 1881, Winnipeg grew from 241 to nearly 8,000 people.

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James J. Hill was a railroad executive who became known as the "Empire Builder." Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

Prior to 1870, there had been limited steamboat activity on the Red River. In 1859, the Anson Northrup was the first riverboat to navigate on the Red, but the Native Americans in the area protested against their usage. They complained that the boats drove away the game and killed the fish, while the whistle made such an unearthly noise that it disturbed the spirits of the dead and their fathers could not rest in their graves. However, by 1870, the complaints had subsided, and Hill established the Red River Transportation Company to haul cargo and people between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Winnipeg.

In early July of 1870, Griggs signed a contract with Hill to build a steamboat to haul freight and people on the Red River. After spending July 4th in Henderson with his family, Griggs and his partner, Howard R. Vaughn, went to St. Paul to relinquish the proprietorship of the St. Anthony Falls steamboat that Griggs had been operating.

On July 7, Griggs and Vaughn traveled west to gather timber and materials to build a steamboat and other vessels. They arrived at Fort Abercrombie in early September and established a construction site at McCauleyville, located directly across the Red River from the fort, and begin building the steamboat that they named Selkirk.

Since there were already vessels on the Red hauling cargo to Winnipeg, Griggs decided to quickly get in on the competition and rapidly built some flatboats to haul cargo, while Vaughn and other carpenters continued to work on the Selkirk. Griggs took the lead in floating the flatboats to Winnipeg, and while on the trips to Winnipeg he carefully observed the shorelines looking for the best site in which to build a permanent base of operation. After making about 40 trips that fall, Griggs had two sites that showed the most promise. The first was at the location which became Fargo in 1872, but most of the choice sites at that location were already claimed. Another choice site was located 115 miles north of McCauleyville at a place where the Red Lake River flowed into the Red River.


There were about a half dozen structures there, one of which was a post office. About a month earlier, Charles Cady gave the community the name Grand Forks when he was appointed postmaster. Griggs filed a homestead claim at that location and unloaded flatboats with enough logs for a small cabin to be constructed. After digging a foundation for the cabin and piling up a few logs, Griggs returned to McCauleyville to finish his business there and then returned to Henderson to spend the winter with his family.

While in Henderson, Griggs convinced several of his friends to move to Grand Forks in the spring. One of those people was Thomas Walsh, an Irishman, who agreed to assist Griggs in building a saw-mill and establishing a general store. In return, Griggs would deed over to Walsh a half interest in the townsite.

Early in 1871, Vaughn left Griggs to become the customs agent at Pembina and Hill made Gregg his partner in the Red River transportation business. As soon as the Red River began to thaw in the spring, Griggs returned to McCauleyville and completed building the Selkirk and, with the assistance of a work crew, started to build another steamboat and more barges and flatboats. With a fleet of river vessels, Griggs soon became predominant supplier of goods to Winnipeg.

We will continue the Alexander Griggs story next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist


Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist portrait

Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist portrait

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