The region of North Dakota that has been the focus of several different types of transportation is the extreme northeastern part of the state. The area in and around Pembina has given us Red River carts, Greyhound buses, and horse-drawn airplanes.
Prior to the coming of the railroad, most of the meat and furs from the North West Company at Fort Pembina were hauled to St. Paul, Minn., by Red River carts. These two-wheeled vehicles, invented by the Metis, first appeared at Fort Pembina in 1801.
They were made entirely of wood and were latched together with strips of buffalo hide. Each cart could hold nearly 1,000 pounds of cargo and was pulled by a single ox. By the late 1830s, more than 1,000 carts were used to make a couple of trips a year to and from St. Paul.
On April 2, 1962, Motor Coach Industries, owned by Greyhound, opened a new plant in Pembina. MCI began making buses in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1933, and 15 years later, Greyhound Lines of Canada was their major customer. In 1958, MCI was purchased outright by Greyhound Lines.
Greyhound buses have continued to be a major employer in Pembina, and last spring, Greyhound hired 55 employees to help build luxury buses for the company.
The most unusual form of transportation to come out of Pembina occurred during the first few months of 1940 when teams of horses were seen towing airplanes across the open snow-swept prairie. These were not beaten-up small planes ready for the scrapheap but brand new Hudson reconnaissance bombers manufactured by the Lockheed Aircraft Company in California.
After the planes were purchased in Pembina by the Canadian government, a Canadian farmer would hitch up his team of horses to the front of the plane and tow it across the border where it would then be flown to a Canadian military airfield near Winnipeg. Crowds would gather to watch this unusual spectacle.
The reason for this operation was because of the Neutrality Act passed by Congress in 1939. The act was written because the U.S. wanted to stay out of the war that was raging in Europe at the time. Even though we wanted to stay neutral, there was much sympathy in this country with our traditional European allies because 82 percent of Americans "blamed Germany for starting the war."
We wanted a provision that would enable us to assist our allies without antagonizing Germany. That appeasement policy was contained in the "cash-and-carry" provision of the Neutrality Act. This meant that we could sell war materials to our allies if they paid cash and provided for the shipment of those materials.
On Sept. 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany. War materials could now be provided to our allies through Canada, but we were prohibited from flying airplanes into the country. In November, 400 airplanes were flown to Sweetgrass, a town in western Montana on the Canadian border. A major obstacle of this location was the rough terrain. The executives at Lockheed favored eastern North Dakota with its level fields.
Late in November, Northwest Air Lines, a company with close ties to Lockheed, worked out an agreement with George Kochendorfer, an area resident whose farm was located next to the Canadian border. He agreed that Lockheed could use part of his land for an airfield, which would serve as a transfer point for 600 airplanes over a five-month period.
On Jan. 15, 1940, the first planes arrived at Kochendorfer's airfield. Once the planes landed, titles were handed over to a Canadian agent, and a Canadian farmer hitched each plane to a team of horses and hauled them across the border.
At the beginning, this operation appeared to hold much promise. Lockheed planned to pave the airfield and erect buildings on it, but bad weather and high winds began to delay deliveries.
Then, in the spring of 1940, after German armies overran Norway and Denmark and invaded France, the U.S. State Department issued a new regulation that permitted Lockheed and other aircraft companies to send their planes directly into Canada. Since we no longer needed to be covert in our airplane deliveries, the Pembina deliveries from Lockheed ceased. Less than 50 planes were transported into Canada through Kochendorfer's airfield.
It has been reported that the opening scenes of the 1941 Tyrone Power-Betty Grable movie, “A Yank in the RAF,” shows airplanes on the Pembina border being hauled into Canada. The narrator says, the way to get around neutrality restrictions is “Yankee ingenuity and a stout rope.”
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)