Traffic on the Red River Ox Cart Trail waned when the railroad reached the Red River in 1871, but the route and its carts remained important symbols of the state’s pioneer spirit. For Minnesota’s centennial, in 1958, Delmar Hagen recreated an ox cart drive, following the trail from Pembina to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. In 2008, the sesquicentennial, Orin Ostby, who had assisted Hagen in his trek, reprised the journey.
In the early 1800s, when the Métis people began using the ox carts for long distance transportation, Pembina, their main settlement, was fairly isolated from both Canadian and American trade centers. The early “Red River Carts” were actually pulled by horses, but oxen soon proved to be better suited for the task. The 400-pound carts could carry about 800 pounds of cargo, more than several horses could pack.
The two-wheeled carts had no metal parts. They were made of wood and held together with buffalo hide, so they could be easily repaired on the trail with an axe and a knife. The axles were not greased, because sand and dirt would have accumulated on the grease and quickly ground up the wooden axle and wheel hub. As a result a caravan of loaded carts generated loud squealing and screeching that could be heard for over a mile.
The cart’s wheels were more than five feet high and “dished” so the wheel rims stood out farther from the cart than the hubs. This gave the cart a wider stance, protected the axle and wheel hub from hitting trees next to the trail, and probably allowed the wheels to flex a bit to dampen bumps. The large wheels gave the cart plenty of clearance, made for a smoother ride and made the wheels less likely to get stuck.
A network of cart trails connected Pembina with the buffalo hunting grounds and other communities. Entire families put their supplies in carts and headed to the hunting grounds with the other families of the community, where the men hunted and the rest of the family processed the meat and hides.
A set of ruts crossing the lawn in front of the water treatment plant on 37th Avenue Northeast may be a remnant of the Ox Cart Trail.
The Ox Cart Trail stayed close to the river from the Minneapolis Waterworks through the Riverside Power Plant to Lowry Avenue.