Steaming the North Saskatchewan:
the Paddlewheel Era in Kalyna Country
The North Saskatchewan River has a long and rich history, with as many twists and turns as its serpentine course takes flowing from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Winnipeg. One of the more fascinating periods in the river’s passage through time is the era when steamboats plied the challenging waterway between its mouth at Grand Rapids, and Fort Edmonton in the west.
Of course, the North Saskatchewan enjoys the honour of being the corridor by which European explorers first penetrated the western-most reaches of the Canadian prairies. Beginning with the trailblazing expedition of Anthony Henday in 1753-4, and then continuing through the subsequent development of the fur trade from the late 18th century through the mid-19th centuries, the river was an important means of transport, first by canoe, and then by York boat. However, as the North West Territories became the focus of growing commercial activity, and agricultural settlers began to follow in the footsteps of the fur traders, it became increasingly desirable to introduce more sophisticated and efficient watercraft so as to fully exploit the transportation potential of the river. Although the fur companies made extensive use of overland trails to supply their scattered outposts and to collect the furs that had been harvested by Native and Métis trappers, it was expensive and time-consuming for ox-drawn carts and horses to haul heavy and bulky freight over the vast distances of the Interior.
Consequently, in the fall of 1874, the Hudson’s Bay Company successfully introduced – after a failed attempt the previous year – the first paddlewheeler onto the Saskatchewan River, in the hopes of reducing transport costs and improving communication with frontier operations. Called the Northcote, this steam-powered boat was soon put to work carrying materials and men along a large part of the Saskatchewan as well as some of its major tributaries. The Northcote made its first trip through Kalyna Country in the summer of 1875, arriving in Edmonton on 22 July after an 18-day trip from Grand Rapids. Bearing a cargo estimated to be 130 tons, and taking just four days to cover the distance between Fort Pitt (northeast of present-day Lloydminster) and Edmonton, the Northcote powered its way into the hinterlands of Far West fuelled by cord wood that had been previously stockpiled at strategic points along its route.
Although this feat heralded the start of an important new era in the North West, it was not to be characterized by smooth sailing or to achieve the kind of renown that paddlewheelers attained in their heyday on American rivers like the Ohio or Mississippi. The very name of the Saskatchewan—which means “fast flowing” in the Cree language —was one indication that the current was a major challenge that had to be overcome for ships to reach their upriver destinations. Other obstacles included numerous rapids and sandbars, which could only be successfully negotiated if the water was sufficiently high. But the greatest difficulty posed by the Saskatchewan was its widely fluctuating flow, as this essentially restricted the use of steamboats to periods when the water was deep enough to provide passable channels.
Thus, in 1876 the Northcote only made one trip as far as Edmonton due to the low level of water. The following year, the Northcote was able to reach Edmonton on 29 May, and afterwards made four shorter runs between points further downriver, demonstrating that the service could be commercially viable if conditions were right. However, in 1878 low water again resulted in a frustrating season, and no trips made it higher than Carlton House, fifty miles west of Prince Albert. Nevertheless, the introduction of a second paddlewheeler, named the Lily, signaled that the Hudson’s Bay Company was determined in its efforts to make steamship service work on the Saskatchewan River system.
Whereas the Lily was intended for use on the upper Saskatchewan, the Northcote was to be primarily deployed on the lower part of the river. A two-decked sternwheeler with a 14 inch draft and steel-plated hull, the Lily was faster than the Northcote and had a gross tonnage of 207.01. It first reached Fort Edmonton on 10 June 1879—nine days and two hours after leaving Cumberland House, just west of the present-day Manitoba border—and remained there for fifteen days, waiting for winter furs to be delivered from the outposts in the north.
The Lily then returned to Edmonton on 5 August, carrying not only cargo but Lieutenant-Governor Laird of the Northwest Territories on an official visit. Also on board was a stipendiary magistrate who had been assigned to the police barracks at Fort Saskatchewan to try a case of cannibalism from the previous winter. Adorned with bunting, and greeted by a salute from two antiquated pieces of ordnance, the Lily headed back just two days later, but soon ran into trouble. Ten miles below Fort Saskatchewan (at a point just north of Highway 38’s Vinca bridge) the Lily struck an underwater rock that seriously damaged its hull. Steered to shore, where the stern slowly settled in eight feet of water, it was subsequently raised and temporarily repaired, enabling it to return to Edmonton by 18 September for berthing over the winter. Meanwhile, Governor Laird and his entourage were forced to complete their journey to Battleford by skiff, putting somewhat of a damper on the festive mood of their voyage.
The following year the Lily—whose cabin was expanded by fifteen feet to accommodate staterooms—made a total of five trips to Edmonton, as well as one to Battleford, before being docked in Prince Albert for the winter, when it and the Northcote were extensively overhauled. Although two-inch spruce planking was added to the flat bottom of the Lily, the extra weight and bulk did nothing to improve the river-worthiness of the craft.
At this time, passengers were charged the following fares for travel between Fort Garry, north of Winnipeg, to Forts Victoria, Saskatchewan or Edmonton: $65 for a cabin, or $32.50 for a place on the deck. Return-trip rates were only marginally lower. While passenger traffic was increasing due to the expanding settlements in the North West, it was freight which made steamboat service economically viable. Whereas it was estimated in 1879 to cost anywhere from $8.50 to $14.00 per hundredweight to haul cargo by Red River cart into the Saskatchewan Country and further north, the steamship charges for 1880 worked out to $6.25 per hundredweight. Obviously, it was both cheaper and faster to ship materials by boat, notwithstanding the difficulties sometimes encountered. Thanks to the decision made around this time to route the trans-continental railway through the southern prairies (which meant that it would be years before any secondary lines penetrated the more remote parts of the Interior), it seemed that a prosperous future awaited the steamboat industry.
In mid-August 1881 the Northcote made its first appearance at Fort Edmonton since 1877. It was back again with 50 tons of freight for the Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.) the following May, picking up 14,528 pounds of fur that had been collected in the winter. An indication of investor confidence in the profitability of Saskatchewan steamboat operations was the fact that the Northcote, Lily, and another boat on boat Lake Winnipeg, were sold by the H.B.C. to a new, albeit closely related firm: the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Company (W.W.T.C.). That same year, three new sternwheelers were added to the Saskatchewan fleet over the shipping season: the North West, the Marquis and the Manitoba, the intention being to use the first two boats on the lower river, and the latter as well as the Northcote on the upper river. The Lily was taken out of service in 1882 for an overhaul, only to be subsequently wrecked attempting to reach Medicine Hat.
In addition to introducing the new steamboats, the W.W.T.C was able to move 1,468 tons of freight up the Saskatchewan in 1882. In June, the Northcote set a speed record between Grand Rapids and Fort Edmonton, covering the 940 miles in just fourteen days with over 100,000 pounds of cargo and seventy-five passengers. On the return leg it transported 6,680 pounds of fur and 167 pounds of castoreum, while dropping off shingles for Victoria and lumber for Battleford. The North West also made its maiden voyage to Edmonton in July 1882, and two other shorter runs before the fall freeze-up. Not surprisingly, optimism ran high for an increase in traffic, but 1883 proved to be disappointing because of the low level of the river. Although the Northcote and the Manitoba made a total of three trips to Edmonton in July and August, a late May attempt by the North West had to be abandoned after it hit a rock at the Victoria Rapids. Swept broadside over the rapids because of its broken rudder irons had locked the paddlewheel, the North West escaped being swamped or further damaged, but never completed its mission. That same summer, a scow constructed in Edmonton was used to clear rocks on shallow parts of the river downstream, but the initiative proved to have no discernible effect on improving navigation.
Due to the unpredictable performance of the steamboats, shippers understandably began opting for the slower but more reliable service offered by overland haulers. The reduction in cargo struck another blow to paddlewheel operations, which again were severely constrained by extremely low water on the Saskatchewan in 1884. The following year the Riel Rebellion provided the struggling W.W.T.C. with unexpected revenues transporting troops and supplies throughout the North West—the Northcote even seeing action as diversionary gunboat at the Battle of Batoche, where its smokestacks were toppled by a ferry cable. After being repaired it was used to deliver the captured Métis leader, Louis Riel, to Saskatoon, and to convey soldiers engaged in a vain pursuit of Poundmaker and Big Bear. Meanwhile, two other boats—the Alberta and a coal steamer, the Baroness—made upriver runs to Edmonton in June, by which time the rebellion was drawing to a close.
Afterwards, the Northcote was contracted to pick up members of the Winnipeg Light Infantry who were garrisoned at Fort Edmonton. Normal commercial operations resumed on the river by the beginning of July, with the North West arriving with a load of freight at the end of the month. Returning downriver with only a small quanitity of lumber, the North West broke her hog chain braces crossing a shoal just above the Jump-off Rapids, near the mouth of Namepi Creek. Although a crew member was immediately dispatched to Edmonton by foot to fetch a trained blacksmith, another crewman managed to temporarily fix the braces in a matter of hours, allowing the crippled boat to continue to Prince Albert.
There, the ship’s hull—which was humped during the hog chain incident — had to be straightened before it could be returned to service the following year. In 1886 freight rates were lowered in a bid to attract more customers, but this did little to stem the gradual decline of the steamboat industry on the North Saskatchewan. The North West made two runs to Edmonton in both 1886 and 1887, and by 1888—a modestly profitable year for the W.W.T.C.—it was the only ship still working on the upper river. In 1889 no navigation was possible because of low levels of water on the river. Even though the North West delivered 140 tons of freight to Edmonton on a trip in June 1890, it was obvious that its working days were rapidly coming to a close. With the arrival of a spur railway line connecting Edmonton with Calgary in the fall of 1891 (another season without any shipping), the North West was essentially reduced to a tramp steamer that henceforth saw only sporadic use. Idled entirely in 1895, it took 300 Edmontonians on a downriver excursion in 1896, only to have a rock tear off all of her paddles in the vicinity of Sucker (Namepi) Creek. Quickly repaired, it returned to Edmonton the following day (2 August) and was banked at Ross Flats, where it remained for the next three years. Then, in 1899 it was caught up in mid-August flood and swept downstream, hitting the submerged piers of the Low Level bridge that was in the process of being constructed. The severely damaged boat was last seen drifting south of Saddle Lake on 19 August, bringing to a melancholy end a rather star-crossed chapter in the transportation history of the North Saskatchewan River.
Actually, in 1917, the steamboats “City of Edmonton” and “Alberta” made weekly two-day trips from Edmonton as far east as Shandro, carrying passengers and supplies for railway construction crews, and picking up wheat and hogs for market. But that is a different story, which deserves telling at another time.
Researched and written by Jars Balan for the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum