Steamships “All aboard!” on the Saskatchewan

9 Dec

Shine a little light on your path

Steamships “All aboard!” on the Saskatchewan


  • [Aboard ships]:…the world is far, far away; it has ceased to exist for you–seemed a fading dream, along in the first days; has dissolved to an unreality now; it is gone from your mind with all its businesses and ambitions, its prosperities and disasters, its exultations and despairs, its joys and griefs and cares and worries. They are no concern of yours any more; they have gone out of your life; they are a storm which has passed and left a deep calm behind. ~Mark Twain

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.

  • She was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far above the water that I seemed perched on a mountain; and her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that I wondered how I could ever have considered the little “Paul Jones” a large craft. There were other differences, too. The “Paul Jones‘s pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and ‘look at the river;’ bright, fanciful ‘cuspadores’ instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black ‘texas-tender,’ to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night. Now this was ‘something like,’ and so I began to take heart once more to believe that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all.~Mark Twain

Gordon Errett Tolton in Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion states that steam powered paddlewheelers came to the Red River in the 1860s, and soon the Hudson Bay Company were using steamboats across the North and South Saskatchewan River waterways. Theodore Barris, the esteemed steamboat historian and author of Fire Canoe : Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited , noted that the Cree called the steamships, “Kuska pahtew oosi”, the “Fire Canoe“, the title also of Anthony Dalton’s book Fire Canoes: Steamboats on Great Canadian Rivers

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.

  • The moment we were under way I began to prowl about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk’s office was elegant, the bar was marvelous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible cost. The boiler deck (i.e. the second story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of deckhands, firemen, and roustabouts down there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers! This was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines–but enough of this. I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully ‘sir’d’ me, my satisfaction was complete.~Mark Twain

The “S.S. Northcote” built at a cost of $53,000 was launched August 1, 1874. The namesake of the previous Hudson Bay Comapny’s governor, Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (later known as the Earl of Iddelseigh) who fought for Hudson Bay Company to implement steamboats on the inland rivers and lakes of Manitoba and through the Northwest Territories. The “Northcote” was capable of carrying 150 tons drawing 3.5 feet (1.1 m) of water fully loaded. Her first trip carried mail and supplies for the North West Mounted Police detachment with Bob Louden as one of the pilots. “The “Northcote” made her first run this spring from above the Grand Rapids to Fort Edmonton and return, with a full cargo both ways in 30 days, a full river distance of 2,500 miles (4023.4km),” reported Thomas Dowse, “This I presume was only daylight running.”

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.”

  • It was regarded as the highest
    achievement of mortal conception to be a steamboat pilot, with
    the exception, perhaps, of being a steamboat captain.” ~ George C. Nichols, an ancient river mariner

Steamer captains from the United States were enlisted to navigate the Saskatchewan with her new steamers. Captain John Scribner Segers (July 3, 1832- April 15, 1909) was one of these riverboat captains fresh off the Mississippi River. “He had a passionate fondness of adventure and a knack of getting into and, more important, getting out of the most impossible situations,” recounts D.J. Comfort, “He had to be one of the more colorful of riverboat captains and tested the waters of more rivers than many would sail in a lifetime.” In 1883, he piloted the “Lily” coursing down the Saskatchewan for the first time. He received his Masters Certificate, Passenger Steamers in the summer of 1901.

  • When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained. ~Mark Twain

Thus, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Swift Current became port towns linked to Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. “It was customary in those steamboat days for young and old, male and female, in every town along the river, at the deep baying sound of the first whistle to gather at the levee to welcome the first boat,” wrote Thomas Hughes, “to the lonely pioneer, the vigils of a long winter in the wilderness were trying, and the arrival of the first boat was an important event in his life, when he heard from his childhood home and the outside world, and when his exhausted larder would be replenished .”

  • Do you know what it means to be a boy on the banks of the [river] to see the steamboats go up and down the river, and never to have had a ride on one? Can you form any conception of what that really means? ~Mark Twain

The eastern portion of the water route ends at the Grand Rapids, a canyon in Manitoba, where the river drops 75 feet (24 m) along a length of two miles (5 km). This is where the Hudson Bay Company built an inland port and warehouses to connect the lake systems of Manitoba to the river system of the Northwest Territories (later the province of Saskatchewan). A short 3.5 miles (5.6 km) railline, a rail portage, was constructed during 1877 to help portage the steamers from Lake Winnipeg across the Grand Rapids canyon to the Saskatchewan River. This tramway first proposed in 1859 by Simon James Dawson, civil engineer with the Hind Expedition was the first rail of the north west plains.

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.

  • I entered upon the small enterprise of ‘learning’ twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great … River with the easy confidence of my time of life. If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.~ Mark Twain

The Steamboat “Lily” traveled the North Saskatchewan on regular trips between 1878 to 1883. Built in Glasgow, Scotland in the Yarrow and Company shipyards, she was purchased by Chief Commissioner James A. Grahame of the Hudson’s Bay Company for 4010 pounds. After a long voyage, the steamer Colville brought the pre-fabricated parts along the Red River as far as the Grand Rapids. Construction began here in 1878, and the newly resurrected Steamboat “Lily” overwintered at Fort Carlton. Governor General Lord Dufferin christened her at Grand Rapids. The “Lily” came equipped with a steel hull which was faster than other sternwheelers, she sat lower in the water and damaged easily against boulders lying in wait along the shallow river bottom. It was in the winter of 1880-1881 that whe was renovated with oak panelling along her bottom as a protection against rocks.

  • Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.” ~ Mark Twain

Traveling between Winnipeg and Edmonton, Steam boats at full tonnage were able to convey in one month the equivalent of 150 to 200 ox carts over an entire summer. Steamers were capital intensive compared to ox carts of the fur trade route which were labour intensive. This practice was not only cost effective, but speeded up the turn-around time to ship goods. Lewis H. Thomas writes of what changes the new technology demanded ~ “steam boats in place of boat brigades, flat boats, or canoes; railroads in place of Red River carts and pack ponies; packing plants in place of family butchering and processing plains provisions; and ranching in place of the buffalo hunt.” Longer voyages, rising costs, dwindling labour force and an uncertain European market for furs forced the Hudson Bay Company to change their operating methods. It was considered that the “enormous expanse of grass and parklands of the Northwest was idle and unproductive…a blot upon our civilization.’ as The Globe” would have it. “Man was master over nature…this mastery implied domination and exploitation” coinciding “with the steam phase of the industrial revolution”.

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 growth of courage in the pilot-house is steady all the time, but it does not reach a high and satisfactory condition until some time after the young pilot has been “standing his own watch” alone and under the staggering weight of all the responsibilities connected with the position. When the apprentice has become pretty thoroughly acquainted with the river, he goes clattering along so fearlessly with his steamboat, night or day, that he presently begins to imagine that it is his courage that animates him; but the first time the pilot steps out and leaves him to his own devices he finds out it was the other man’s. He discovers that the article has been left out of his own cargo altogether. The whole river is bristling with exigencies in a moment; he is not prepared for them; he does not know how to meet them; all his knowledge forsakes him; and within fifteen minutes he is as white as a sheet and scared almost to death. Therefore pilots wisely train these cubs by various strategic tricks to look danger in the face a little more calmly.
    - Mark Twain

Cheyenne“, “Alpha“, “Minnesota” and “Manitoba” were set upon the Saskatchewan Rivers in 1879 by Winnipeg and Western Transportation Company (W&WTC). The “Minnesota” was re-christened the “City of Winnipeg” over the winter months of 1880-1881 and completely re-built. Captain James Sheets at the wheel of the “City” and pilot Robinson sitting at the “Princess” were contracted to tow the “City of Winnipeg” across Lake Winnipeg to Grand Rapids. The newly retrofitted “City” was caught by storms and dashed to pieces. The Winnipeg Free Press wrote, “Had the “S.S. City of Winnipeg” been content to cruise in safe waters and not let her grandeur govern her head, she might have had many years of usefulness on the Red River of the North.” Her sister ship, the “S.S. Manitoba” was also constructed in 1875 by the Merchants International Steamboat Line in Moorhead, North Dakota. “The “Northcote” now sailed under steamboat captain Jerry Webber in 1881, and the Lily under John “Josie” Smith.

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.

  • I think that much the most enjoyable of all races is a steamboat race; but, next to that, I prefer the gay and joyous mule-rush. Two red–hot steamboats raging along, neck-and-neck, straining every nerve–that is to say, every rivet in the boilers–quaking and shaking and groaning from stem to stern, spouting white steam from the pipes, pouring black smoke from the chimneys, raining down sparks, parting the river into long breaks of hissing foam–this is sport that makes a body’s very liver curl with enjoyment. A horse-race is pretty tame and colorless in comparison.~Mark Twain

The steamships, writes the Winnipeg Free Press, “with their racing and cavorting were the talk of the town”, adventurous, they all sought fame and excitement. “The absolute necessity for every steamboat upon the …
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 face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book–a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”~Mark Twain

1881 rates for shipping goods was 6 and 1/4 cents per pound and shipping was available between Fort Garry, Manitoba through to Edmonton, Alberta. (Winnipeg: Established 1738 as Fort Rouge; renamed 1822 Fort Garry; incorporated in 1873 as the City of Winnipeg.) Passengers availed themselves of the service as well. For $70 between Fort Garry to Edmonton) one could travel as a cabin passenger, and for $35, travel as a deck passenger. A shorter trip say Fort Garry to Grand Rapids would set the passenger back only about $12.00.

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.”

  • Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it, for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dread-earnest of reading matter

In 1883 Steamboat “Lily” was lost near Medicine Hat, Alberta. And it was here that Elliott Torrance Galt (son of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt) and Nelson Todd launched the “Baroness” that same year, the namesake of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, the patroness. The Fort Macleod boatyard gave way to a boatyard near the Coalbanks mine, and used wood from the Porcupine Plains sawmill. The “Alberta“, another coal carrier, christened after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, launched April 15, 1884. The “Minnow” sternwheeler was loaded upon a rail flat car and shipped to Medicine Hat to be used as a tug boat for the “Alberta” and “Baroness“. Similarly, Captain E. Shelton Andrews, purchased the “May Queen” and shipped it by railline to Medicine Hat, in 1884.

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.

  • All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it”.~Mark Twain

Seven privately owned sternwheelers became active in the Canadian Government’s steamboat navy in 1885 for the North West Rebellion; The steamers “Northcote“, “Baroness“, “Alberta“, “Minnow“, “Northwest“, “Marquis” who pulled 30 separate scows and barges. Even though by this time, steamwheelers had superceded Red River carts as a mode of successful transportation, the riverboats could not be used over the winter months. When the winter ice broke up in this era, the river would churn up huge blocks of ice upon the river banks, some as high as 20 feet. It takes the spring sun and warm weathers of April and May to turn the meltwaters into a navigation water route. General Middleton had to wait until spring thaw in May, and the optimal time was mid June for successful water route transportation of rations, ammunitions, troops and medical service to the battlefield. Thus in early April he brought his troops overland.

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.

  • Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! I still kept in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; one place along, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring.

Both the “Marquis” and the “North West” were grounded for a spell when the Saskatchewan jumped its course at the “Cut off” above Cumberland. The river started to cut a new channel developing into a large marsh plain which joined Cumberland Lake draining the river channel, and flooding the countryside with low waters. The years between 1887 to 1896 were very dry, and the prairies suffered drought conditions which waylaid steamship travel considerably.

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.

  • I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there, the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?”~ Mark Twain

The pilot needed to navigate the ever shifting sand bars in the river channel, sail through heat, fogs, high winds and thunderstorms, steer around rapids, rocks, wildlife, fallen trees or sweepers, ice jams in spring and autumn. Sudden floods would beach ships, or may rise and carry away docked ships. Most importantly the pilot needed to feel the travel of the boat itself to be award of changes in current and depth of water. Poles were used to take soundings of the changing water levels calling up to the pilots, the depth in feet. To stabilize the sand bars, a pile was driven down into the river in strategic places to collect sand and allow water channels to remain open.

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.

  • Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale under-side of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was justabout the bluest and blackest–fst! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs–where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know. -Mark Twain

During years with a high water table and during spring run off and flooding, the steamers sailed successfully, lowering their smokestacks to squeeze under bridges. However, Saskatchewan cycles between years of flooding and then drought with their incumbant low water tables. Rapids, swamps, rocks, sweepers, and sandbars beleaguered the days of steamboating. Pilots would need to circumnavigate the carcasses of herds of bison drowned in the river. These masses of Buffalo carcasses would eventually become a permanent river island. Where water routes provided an excellent travel system for the fur trader and early explorer, the waterways were not dependable for the steamer.

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.

  • Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
    - Mark Twain

The last steamer which sailed into Saskatoon was sundered against the Traffic Bridge (Victoria Bridge) pier in Saskatoon June 8, 1908. Built over the years of 1906-7 by Captain Horatio Hamilton Ross (1870-1925) of the Ross Navigation Company, the luxury ship had a short life. It was the season of most dependable and reliable steam ship travel, the water was high, the the “City of Medicine Hat” came downstream to Saskatoon. The steamer navigated the waters below the Canadian Northern Railway bridge successfully. However, the steamer, caught up by a telegraph cable, was swept against the piers of the Traffic Bridge where it floundered, and capsized losing its tonnage of flour. No lives were lost.

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.

  • Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain”~Mark Twain

Ross, a prosperous Remittance Man did not give up, he went out and bought two tugs, which were so loaded by freight, he needed to buy another boat “O’Hell” for a cruise/party ship. Ross Navigation towed log booms, barges and ships, and hauled freight as well as holding parties aboard cruise ships. “Nipawan“[sic] was a luxury ship which Ross launched in the midst of stiff competition.

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 steamersWinton“, 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.

  • It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs, looking up at stars, and we didn’t even feel like talking aloud.” -Mark Twain

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For more information:
Bibliography

Steamships All Aboard! on the Saskatchewan

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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