Steamboats of the Mackenzie River
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The Mackenzie River in Canada's Northwest Territories is a historic waterway, used for centuries by the original Dene as a travel and hunting corridor. It is part of a larger watershed that includes the Slave, Athabasca, and Peace rivers extending from northern Alberta. In the 1780s, Peter Pond, trader with the North West Company discovered this watershed and began viable trade with the Athapascan-speaking Dene of these rivers. The Mackenzie River itself, the great waterway extending to the Arctic Ocean, was first put on European maps by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789, the Scottish trader who explored the river. The watershed thus became a vital part of the fur trade, and before the advent of the airplane or road networks, the river was the only communication link between northern trading posts and the south. Water travel increased in the late 19th century as traders, dominated primarily by the Hudson's Bay Company, looked to increase water services in the Mackenzie River District.
Steamboat service established
The first steamship to ply in the Mackenzie River watershed was on the Athabasca River in 1882, and its name was the "S.S. Grahame", a sternwheeler built by the HBC, operating from Athabasca Landing north of Edmonton to the Slave River rapids, the only significant obstacle en route to the Mackenzie. In 1886, the "S.S. Wrigley" was launched on the other side of these rapids, at Fort Smith, and for the first time a steam-driven vessel operated on the Mackenzie River as far as Aklavik in the river delta before it spilled into the Arctic Ocean. A series of small portage trails were established between Smith's Landing (later Fort Fitzgerald) and Fort Smith to skirt the 16-mile rapids - this was later upgraded into a full road in the 1920s.
Effect of the Klondike Gold Rush
In 1898 the Klondike Gold Rush gave an impetus to the exploration of the Canadian North and the Mackenzie River basin was promoted as the best route to the Yukon if one was departing from Edmonton. The 1898-1900 period was very busy for the waterways with many new private vessels built and running between the Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers. In 1908, the Hudson's Bay Company launched the S.S. Mackenzie, the first steam-powered shallow-draught sternwheeler ship on the Mackenzie River. In the 1920s, police, church missions, government agents, oil and mining companies, prospectors, and competing fur trade interests descended on the Northwest Territories and water transportation services boomed. Three companies competed for supremacy of the fur trade and water transportation: the Hudson's Bay Company, Lamson & Hubbard Trading Company, Alberta & Arctic Transportation Co., and Northern Traders Company each with a fleet of steam vessels. A series of amalgamations and takeovers left only two main water operators after 1924: the HBC and Northern Traders Co. which later became the Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL) in the 1930s. The HBC continued in the business of transportation in conjunction with serving its own posts through Mackenzie River Transport, until 1947 when it got out of public freighting. The "S.S. Distributor", built in 1920 by Lamson & Hubbard, was the flagship of the HBC on the Mackenzie River for over 20 years. Communities such as Waterways (now Fort McMurray) and Fort Smith thrived as the base for shipyards along the Athabasca and Slave Rivers, respectively.
Most of the old steam-driven vessels were replaced by diesel or gas-powered tug boats in the 1930s and 1940s. The Northern Transportation Company Limited inaugurated a new fleet of steel-hull, diesel tugs in 1937, and the Hudson's Bay Company and its transportation arm Mackenzie River Transport Limited got out of the common carrier business in 1947. The last steam-propelled sternwheelers, the "S.S. Distributor" and "S.S. Mackenzie" were retired around that time. In later years, with the construction of the Mackenzie Highway from Alberta to Great Slave Lake, the importance of the Athabasca-Slave River route dwindled and NTCL operations were based from shipyards in Hay River in the 1970s. The northern barge traffic is still essential to the heavy freight as fuel, food, and heavy equipment can be moved economically in the summer months to communities along the Mackenzie River and oil fields of the Beaufort.
List of Historic Vessels
|SS St. Charles||1903|
|SS Mackenzie River||1908||
|MT Liard River||1923||
|Northland Echo II||1923||
- "Alexander Mackenzie". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2005.
- The Edmonton Bulletin, August 30, 1920
- Patricia Alice McCormack (2010). Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s. UBC Press. pp. 75, 80, 128, 141, 199, 286. ISBN 9780774816687. Retrieved 2012-11-29.
The Hudson's Bay Company launched the Grahame at Athabasca Landing in 1883 for service on the Athabasca, lower Peace, and upper Slave rivers. This ship could carry 140 tons. According to the Edmonton Bulletin, "The Indians were terribly astonished at their first sight of a steamboat". It ran from Fort McMurray to Smith's Landing, up the Clearwater River to the Methye Portage, and up the Peace River to the Vermilion Chutes.
- "Transporting Northern Dreams: Steamboats on the Peace River, 1903-1930". Peace River Museum. Archived from the original on 2012-12-06. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
The result of these concerns was the creation of what would be called the "mission boats" by Bishop Emile Grouard, the Vicar Apostolic of Athabasca-Mackenzie.
- "The S.S. St. Charles, 1906, Peace River Crossing, Alberta, Canada". Peace River Museum. 2012. p. 3. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05.
- "The Peace River Trading and Land Company and the S.S. Grenfell". Peace River Museum. Archived from the original on 2012-12-06. Retrieved 2012-12-06.
The Company's vision of providing water transportation on the Peace River took the form of the steamboat S.S. Grenfell. It was to be built in the West Peace River boatyards at Peace River Crossing by George Magar who was to stay on as Captain after the boat's launch in the spring of 1912. The Grenfell was a sternwheeler designed to carry both freight and passengers and travelled the Peace River from Fort Vermilion to Hudson's Hope. Its main competition was the S.S. Peace River, operated by the Hudson's Bay Company.
- MacGregor, James Grierson (1974), Paddle wheels to bucket-wheels on the Athabasca, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, ISBN 0-7710-5450-5
- The Edmonton Bulletin newspaper articles, 1920-1924.