Steamships "All aboard!" on the Saskatchewan
Before the advent of railways or roadways, conveyance along the waterways was a welcome alternative to traversing prairie trails on squeaky Red River Carts pulled by oxen or on prairie schooners behind a team of horses. Journey across such Red River Cart trails was difficult, there were streams and rivers to cross without bridges, and often times without ferry crossings. Carts would get bogged down in mud, and passengers eaten by mosquitoes.
The steamship era lasted about fifty years spanning the years between 1871-1918. Early pioneers relied upon these paddlewheelers, these steamers, to transport trade goods and make passenger trips before the rail lines were established. Commercial trade opened up, the steamboat supplemented by stage coach, dog train and ox cart.
River boats in the prairies were flat bottomed, and wide. A stern wheel was driven with boiler and engines fitted on the deck. Upstairs, boasted the salon, engine room and private staterooms or cabins, perhaps a ballroom or saloon deck. Atop these levels was the wheelhouse from which the pilot steered the craft. These sternwheelers were essentially a motorized raft designed to float across the surface of the water, and able to navigate shallow waters.
It was in 1874, that the riverboat successfully joined the ranks of canoe, Metis freighter, bullboat, flat bottomed scows and York boats along the inland water routes. Settlers relied upon the steamers to transport coal to heat their schools, homes and business ventures. Timber was hauled for construction as immigrants finding their way to the "Last Best West" needed building materials, household goods, and agricultural supplies. Grain was freighted to market by steamboat and flatboats or scows. Along the way, the steamers offered stopping points for passengers.
Captain Francois "Frank" Aymond piloted the "Northcote" to The Pas with Joseph Favell as pilot, and continued to Fort Carlton on her inaugural journey in the summer of 1874. The press regaled this event thus, "the steamboat just launched on the Saskatchewan is the forerunner of a great fleet of steam craft which is hereafter to navigate this long line of waterways". Aymond piloted her again in the summer of 1875 completing the trip to Fort Edmonton upstream from Grand Rapids in eighteen days. The return journey, downstream was successful in three days.
Settlements sprung up along the North Branch, Fort Saskatchewan Royal North West Mounted Police post, Battleford and Prince Albert and the "Northcote" was a common site between May and September. James Griggs commanded the "Northcote" in 1877.
These river boats followed in the tradition of the sternwheelers used on the Mississippi River since 1812, on the Missouri River as early as 1819, and the Red River in 1859. Huge loads could be freighted along these large riverways. After steamboats opened the Saskatchewan, fur trade routes were altered, and it was not long before the Athabasca River, Mackenzie River and Peace River to the far north opened to steamship travel as well. Rudy Wiebe notes that "during the summer of 1874, the Plains Cree began to comprehend what a mass of Whites was pouring in upon them. Police troops, surveyors for railroad and telegraph lines, land speculators, settlers trekking their carts along the Carlton Trail from Red River to Pitt and Victoria and Edmonton. The first sternwheeler steamer...filled with passengers and three hundred cartloads of Company freight."
And where the North branch meets the South branch of the Saskatchewan, the steamers must ply Cole's Falls, a canyon near Prince Albert 13 miles (20.9 km) in length. Along the North branch, the most common route was (upstream) from Lake Winnipeg to the Forks west of Prince Albert and onwards to Edmonton and back. Steamers which travel the length of the North branch between Prince Albert and Brazeau can only draw less than 22 inches (55.88 cm) of water.
Thomas Dowse explains that, The river as its name implies, viz: "Rapid Running River," is not to be compared with that of the Mississippi or Red Rivers....the Saskatchewan from Edmonton to Lake Winnipeg, 1,200 miles (1931.2km) by river the fall is 1,783 feet (543.5 m), or three times the rapidity of the Mississippi or Red River currents....This river is one stream for some 450 miles (724.20km) before it divides into its two branches."
The South Branch leaves Chesterfield House near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and flows past Saskatchewan Landing, a small prairie port of call. Swift Current became a growing city at the junction of river, Battleford Trail and railway. The South continues to wind its way past Elbow, Moose Woods near the future site of Saskatoon. The river continues on to the ferry crossing established by Jean-Baptiste (Xavier) Letendre, the site later known as Batoche.
The "Northcote" turned its attention to passenger traffic, renovated to carry as many as 50 passengers along the river route. Freight was shipped competitively with Metis freighters, the HBC charged $6.25 per hundredweight, versus $8.50 and upwards by the cartsmen. However, the HBC received as much as $70 per passenger.
During the week, steamers were great work horses, transforming into excursion boats on the weekend for vacation holidays. Grand pianos and dance floors set out providing a festive treat for passengers willing to pay $35 a day. Such was the sheer grandeur, scale and opulence of the steam ships, that on September 27, 1881, the Governor General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne was treated to a lavish early morning reception aboard the "Northcote" before sailing away on board the "Lily" that afternoon.
The small "Alpha" made the trip between Fort Ellice to Fort Pelly in 1880. This freighter was mainly used upon the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, though she could carry 30 passengers and nine crew members. Her life was short lived, she was caught up in winter ice and there disintegrated in the fall of 1882.
The "Marquis" arrived upon the mighty Saskatchewan in the summer of 1882 under Captain James Sheets. This ship, the largest on the North Saskatchewan, was again commissioned by the W&WTC working for the Hudson Bay Company. Now there were five ships servicing the Saskatchewan, the "Marquis", "Northcote", "North West", "Manitoba", and "Lily". Peter McArthur hauled these huge ships up against the white water at Grand Rapids with winches and manila warps to reach the mouth of the Saskatchewan. Edmonton residents relished this rapid transit. In just ten days passengers arrived in Winnipeg. The "North West" took the first leg to Prince Albert which took five days in low water, and only two days when the water was high. "Lily," manoeuvred the length between Prince Albert and the Grand Rapids and finally a lake steamer finished the route to Winnipeg. During seasons of low water, the "Lily" with a lighter draught would take the first 500 mile (804.67km) run between Edmonton through to Fort Carlton.
river to maintain its character and reputation against
the willful encroachments and usurpations of any other boat,
was in early days so vital that the racing propensity of a river
steamer has become almost proverbial," asserted Nichols, "A captain would rather
expose himself to the possibilities of wrecking his boat on an
impediment, or exposing the overtaxed boilers, than allow an
approaching rival to outdistance him. And the pilot was his
right hand in every such encounter."
Water was the means of travel for the Temperance Colonization Society who settled at Saskatoon. In the spring of 1884, the "May Queen" was piloted by Captain Andrews to Medicine Hat from Saskatoon towing a raft of lumber. However, even though the TCS had high hopes for a fleet of steamers, the "May Queen" could not make it bake upstream as she drew too much water. She was dismantled in Medicine Hat.
The North West Navigation Co. headed by William Robinson and Captain Peter McArthur had the "North West" ready in 1881. She could sleep 80 passengers, carry freight, and was equipped with honeymoon suites and a grand piano on the saloon deck. "On the evening of the 22nd, word was passed about the streets that a steamboat was coming up the Saskatchewan and as it had been rumored for some time that a new boat would shortly ply the river, it was not many minutes before a large crowd had congregated at the landing to ascertain whether it was the Northcote or the new one. The moment the whistle sounded, however all doubts were dispelled, as it was a strange voice that awakened the echoes of the valley of the Saskatchewan," wrote the Saskatchewan Herald in 1882, "The North-West is a fine large steamer with powerful engines and has plied upon the Manitoba streams and now that the "navigability" of the Rapid River of the North has been demonstrated beyond it, with adventure, she has been transferred to this river and is commanded by that veteran of steamboating, Captain James Sheets, whose name and face have been familiar over the years on the rivers of the North-West."
Over the years of 1883 and 1884, first Class passengers with overnight cabin were charged $58.00 to travel Winnipeg to Edmonton. $30.00 was the fare for travel on board the deck, and they needed to carry their own bedding. Children over five and under twelve could travel half fare. Meals were an additional 50 cents. Here, though, "first-class passengers on the upper deck enjoyed fine food and wine, those below beans and biscuits with tea." tells Bill Gallaher. Luggage and freight were sent at $6.00 per hundred weight, however, generally a paid passenger was allocated a one hundred pound allowance for their baggage. Passengers could board at Winnipeg and travel to Grand Rapids aboard a lake steamer. There, passengers, luggage and freight would disembark to continue on aboard the short railway and be transferred to a Saskatchewan River Steamer to proceed thence the rest of the way to Edmonton. The Prince Albert Historical Society relates that such a trip upstream would take about two weeks. If the steamer met with accident or became grounded, passengers would continue on their journey on their own avails.
Captain Andrews was charged with piloting supplies to the theatre of war. James Sheets was the Captain and superintendent of the journey. And to Captain Segers who had sailed riverboats for the British Army along the Nile River, fell the task of sailing the converted steamer-gunboat "Northcote" up the Saskatchewan River to provide support for the Canadian Government militia. The Metis had strung a ferry cable across the river which sheared off the stacks, spars, funnels, whistle and masts from the steamer leaving the troops aboard the sternwheeler sitting ducks for the Metis sharpshooters.
The Sternwheeler "Manitoba" was to join the steamships of the Saskatchewan River System, the "Prairie Navy", to aid Canadian militiamen in the Northwest Rebellion. She got stuck at the Sturgeon River north of Prince Albert, and could not be freed, and in the spring ice break up of April 1885, she was destroyed.
In May of 1885, wounded militiamen were carried aboard the "Northcote" from Batoche to Saskatoon to be treated at field hospitals. And it was May 19 when Louis Riel arrived in Saskatoon aboard the "Northcote" on his final journey to Regina.
The shifting sand bars and shallow rivers plagued the steamers. Charles Salyer Clapp, a private with the Canadian Militia, wrote of the trip between Saskatchewan Landing to Clark's Crossing, a distance of 200 miles (321.9 km) was not rapid. Two thirds of the trip was spent dislodging the river boat off of sand bars each time it ran aground. To avoid the shifting sand bars, the Northcote" employed two men to sound the depth of the river with poles at the bow of the ship and the bow of the raft. Nonetheless the river did not afford a swift flowing channel wide enough for the river boat, and it faltered upon sand bars two to six times each day. It was no wonder, the "S.S. Northcote" was 150 feet (45.72 m) long, and 28.5 feet (8.7m) across its breadth. Fully loaded. the "Northcote" drew 40 inches of water, and with a light cargo it drew 22 inches (55.88 cm). The steamer had a registered tonnage of 290.63. On this voyage the "Northcote" was fully loaded at a time of low waters. Four companies of the First Provincial Battalion were aboard, along with the Gatling Gun, and hospital staff. The "Midlanders" aboard the steamer left Swift Current April 22 and arrived at Clarke's Crossing on May 5.
Captain Richard Deacon, (September 16, 1849-1935) the first licensed Steam Boat captain on the Saskatchewan river. He built his own steamer in 1887 to haul logs along Shell River to Prince Albert. The steamer "Josie" set sail in the spring of 1888. This steam tug was followed by the "Pathfinder" sidewheeler, and the "Marion" steamer. Besides hauling logs, lime and clay for bricks Deacon, and his Son, Alfred.A. Deacon provided excursions for Sunday Schools and Ladies Aids down the river.
The side-wheeler steamer "Glendevon" met a fiery death August 6, 1891, the cook was lost in the inferno but the rest of the crew escaped. At the time of the fire, this little tug was anchored at the mouth of the Little Saskatchewan.
Horatio Hamilton Ross (1869-February 11, 1925) launched the "Assiniboia" on the South Saskatchewan River. By this time rail lines were handling most of the freight overland, so the paddle steamer became a passenger liner and party cruise boat. "But thus
are the ups and downs of life; it may demand a certain degree
of ability to earn money, but a superior degree of prudence is
requisite to retain it," posited Nichols, "There are said to be circumstances in
each man's life, which if taken at the flood will lead on to fortune; but there are also circumstances in every man's life,
which if taken at the ebb will lead on to poverty.
In 1896, the "North West" was offered for sale, commercial river fair was no longer warranted. She was set out near Edmonton ar Ross Flats where she was worn away by the elements for three long years. The flooding of 1899 brought the "North West" out of her moorings, and she was carried in the roaring current crashing into Edmonton's Low Level Bridge foundations. "The Greyhound of the Saskatchewan" was lost in the North Saskatchewan River.
The tree line of northern Saskatchewan near Prince Albert and Carrot River provided lumber for lumber, fuel for homes and fodder to feed the steamship boilers. The commerce of the fur trade shifted to the logging industry. Upon selling Rupert's Land to the Dominion Government, the Hudson's Bay Company retained its most successful trading posts, one twentieth of the best farmland in the region, and was compensated £300,000 ($1.5 million) for the remainder of the purchase transaction. The HBC shifted from a fur trading company to a land development and sales company.
A fleet of nine river boats served the Prince Albert area, "Alice Mattes", "City of Prince Albert", "George V"and "The Alberta". Between 1906 and 1911, the population of Prince Albert swelled from 3,005 to 6,254 persons. The first rail traffic bridge erected in 1909 was built complete with a revolving span which could sing open to allow steam ships to pass through.
When a steamer ran aground on shoals, sand bars or muddy river bottom, the "spars" were utilized which were stiff wooden poles set down into the river bottom. A wire cable connected the spars to the derrick and then with a winch at the capstan. When the wire was taught, the boat was lifted up and out of the mud and forward towards the river waters. At the same time the paddewheel would churn sand and water, aiming to propel the ship ahead. Such a navigational feat was referred to as the "grasshopper".
And at rapids, strong cables were fastened permanently at the shore line which would allow the boat to use its winch to climb up the falls.
In 1890, the railway was constructed joining Prince Albert and Regina. Steamboat service was thus complemented initially with railway shipping points. However, the "flyers" and "fast mails" soon outweighed the pleasant features of steamship travel, and it became tedious and unsatisfactory. "With the advent of the railroads the steamboat trade fell off rapidly."
The history of steamboating must include the lake steamers on Last Mountain Lake (or Long Lake) which stretches 75 miles (120.7 km) in length shortening the freight run between Saskatoon and Regina. In 1885, the Qu'Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railroad and Steamboat Company, (later bought by the Canadian Pacific Railway), established a short rail line between the city of Regina and Sussex near the south end of Long Lake. (The community of Sussex, Assiniboia, Northwest Territories is now more commonly known as Craven, Saskatchewan.) Grain and freight could be hauled by lake steamer between Valeport and Port Hyman near Sussex at the southern end around the lake, and to the Last Mountain House trading post on the eastern shore. (The northern end was very shallow and has since become the Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary, and Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area) William Pearson, also sailed two steamers along Long Lake providing cruises and passenger service. The Pearson Land Company and the Pearson Steamship Company was instrumental in bringing settlers to the area between 1905 and 1913. McKillop & Benjafield ran a lake steamer bearing their name, and the Pearson Land Company operated the "Lady of the Lake" ("later named Qu'Appelle", firstly christened Welcome") The "Qu'Appelle" met her fate in a blaze of glory as part of the World War I victory celebrations, 1918. These pleasure craft established the beginnings of Lake View Park and Cairn's Point, now popular tourist resorts re-named Saskatchewan Beach and Regina Beach. Other communities also arose, Lumsden, Watertown, McKillop Landing, Arlington Beach, Taylorboro, Sunset Cove and Sundale Resort.
Boats could speed downstream with high efficiency, yet burn huge amounts of firewood and coal, the cargo it was shipping, on the upstream voyage. It was easy to burn 20 cords of wood per day. If one was to stack one cord of wood it would result in a pile 4 feet (122 cm) wide, 4 feet (1.22 m) high, and 8 feet (244 cm) long. When under full steam, a ship's boiler could consume one and a half cords of wood every hour. Wood piles or cordwood berths were laid out along the shore line for the steamers until coal became the preferred fuel. Boats could make their way at the end of May, with the river cresting from spring melt off around the beginning of June, the high water levels dissipated by the end of June in some years ending the nautical shipping season then and there.
It was this steamer, "the greatest nautical disaster in prairie history" which is documented in the film "The Last Steamship: The Search for the SS City of Medicine Hat." Nils Sorensen relates that the sternwheeler made front page news, when it sank in the spring flood waters of the Saskatchewan. Then anchor was recovered in 2008, and 1,000 artifacts were recovered in 2012 when a portion of the Traffic Bridge on the south side of the river was torn down.
The North Saskatchewan afforded travel for a short time after 1908. The rail lines commenced in the southern portion of the province through Qu'Appelle, Regina, so steamers were still valuable in the northern region along the North Branch to convey freight and passengers till the rail line came north.
The lumber industry between "The Pas", Carrot River, Nipawin, and Cumberland House region continued to avail themselves of boats for the lumber industry up until 1954. The Finger Lumber Company was purchased in 1919 by Charles Winton, David Winton and Alvin Robertson who re-named the operation The Pas Lumber Company. Operating mills at both Prince Albert and The Pas, they employed the steamers "Winton", the "Emma E", the "David N. Winton", and the "Alice Mattes" and barges along both the Saskatchewan River and the Carrot River. In September of 1926, the "Jack Winton" was sunk in shallow water. The ""David C. Winton" and two wrecking barges were discharged to salvage the sunken steam boat out of waters which had risen another five or 6 feet (1.8 m).
The steamboat industry, trying to survive in mounting competition, now offered freight rates of $1.80 per hundred weight undercutting rail line and stage coach rates of 1886 which charged $2.50. For general merchandise, the steamboats also proffered a cheaper rate $2.90 as compared to $4.50 by rail. Copper ore was the next commodity shipped down the water routes between Sturgeon Landing in the north making its way across lake and river to the Saskatchewan route. This ore industry was active between 1917 and 1925.
Soon steamboating in Saskatchewan ceased entirely.
For more information:
Navigation of the Saskatchewan. Steamers
Saskatchewan Gen Web ~ Transportation
Ballad of the Saskatchewan ~ A Poem
The Aged Pilot Man ~ A Poem
Table of Steamships upon the Saskatchewan
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