Saskatoon

Shipwrecks and naval battles: a history of steamboats in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan has a history of shipwrecks and naval battles that not many people know about.

The first steamer in Saskatchewan was built in 1873

The S.S. Northcote was used to ferry troops up and down the river during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. (Library and Archives Canada)

Saskatchewan has a history of shipwrecks and naval battles that not many people know about.

"We owe that to the Hudson's Bay Company," historian Bill Waiser told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

The company was looking for a more efficient way to move traffic through Saskatchewan in the 1870s. Steamboats were popular in the United States at the time, prompting Hudson's Bay to take a look at them.

"They wanted a more reliable, efficient way of moving freight and people. And with settlement spreading along the North Saskatchewan River, that's what they started to do," Waiser said.

The first steamer in Saskatchewan was built in 1873.

"They launched it and a few days later, it wrecked."

The S.S. Northcote, shown in 1894, was Saskatchewan's first steamer. (Saskatchewan Archival Information Network)

The parts were salvaged and in 1874, the S.S. Northcote launched.

Experienced captains were brought up from Mississippi to take the wheel of Saskatchewan steamers, which were able to complete a trip from Grand Rapids to Edmonton in 18 days.

Northcote goes to battle

Waiser said the S.S. Northcote also played a role in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.

"When Gen. Middleton and the northwest field force marched north in the spring of 1885 to deal with Métis headquarters at Batoche, he planned a two-pronged attack."

Waiser said Gen. Middleton planned to go over land to Batoche, but also got the Northcote fortified, and planned to sail it down the South Saskatchewan River and divert the Métis away from the advancing land troops.

However, Wasier said the Métis had a cable across the river which pulled down the Northcote's smoke stacks.

Once the Northcote was repaired, it was still used to ferry troops up and down the river.

Steamers stopped being used on the South Saskatchewan River after one sank in Saskatoon in June 1908.

Wasier said the river was high and the steamer hit one of the supports of the Traffic Bridge. While there was no loss of life, the sinking still signalled the end of steamers on the river.

Large steamers have long since gone out of service in Saskatchewan, but Waiser said there are still a few small steamers doing work around the province.

About the Author

After spending five years in radio, Courtney Markewich joined CBC Saskatoon in 2016. She is currently a Social Media News Editor/Presenter for @CBCSask and @CBCSaskatoon.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning