Steamboats of the Mackenzie River

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The Mackenzie River and its watershed.

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.[1] 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[edit]

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[edit]

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,[2] 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.

Later years[edit]

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[edit]

image name launched notes
SS Grahame at, Fort McMurray, in 1899.jpg SS Grahame 1883
  • Paddlewheeler operated by the Hudson's Bay Company, launched in 1883 by Captain J.M. Smith, operating from Ft. McMurray to Fort Fitzgerald on the Athabasca and Slave Rivers. 130' keel, 24' beam. 450 ton cargo.[3]
Steamship Wrigley at the junction of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers.jpg SS Wrigley 1886
  • Screw-prop steamer operated by the Hudson's Bay Company, commissioned at Fort Smith in 1886, operating on the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers below Fort Smith. Captain J.W. Mills piloted this vessel from 1893 to 1903. 90' keel, 14' beam. 130 ton cargo. The Wrigley was overhauled and rebuilt in Fort Smith in early 1898, and continued to serve until it was replaced by the S.S. Mackenzie River launched in 1908.[3]
The S.S. Athabasca at Athabasca Landing..jpg SS Athabasca 1888
  • Paddlewheeler operated by the Hudson's Bay Company, built in 1888 at Fort McMurray shipyards to operate on the Athabasca-Slave Rivers from Fort Mcurray to Fort Fitzgerald. Replaced by Athabasca River in 1922. 135' keel, 28' beam.
The S.S. St. Joseph on the Athabasca River..jpg St. Joseph 1893
  • An Oblate Order mission ship, on the Athabasca, Peace and upper Slave rivers.[4]
The steamboat St. Alphonse, an Oblate Order Mission ship on the lower Slave and Mackenzie rivers.jpg St. Alphonse 1894
  • An Oblate Order mission ship, on the Mackenzie and lower Slave rivers.[4]
The Hudson's Bay Company tug Messenger at the Saint Henri Mission, Fort Vermilion.jpg Messenger 1897
The steamboat St. Emile, an Oblate Order Mission Ship on the Lesser Slave Lake.jpg St. Emile 1902-3
  • An Oblate Order mission ship, on Lesser Slave Lake.[4]
St. Charles an early steamship on the upper Peace River.jpg SS St. Charles 1903
Midnight Sun, at Athabasca Landing, Slave River.jpg Midnight Sun 1904
  • Built in 1904 by Northern Traders Co. Operated on the Lesser Slave Lake and Lesser Slave River.
The steamship Peace River, at Peace River Crossing, 1905.jpg Peace River 1905
Hudson's Bay Company steamboat, Mackenzie River, on river in Northwest Territories.jpg SS Mackenzie River 1908
  • Steelframe paddlewheeler built at Fort Smith and launched in 1908 by Captain J.W. Mills operating on Great Slave Lake in the 1920s by the Hudson's Bay Company. It was mothballed by the HBC in 1923 but reentered service during 1929/1930. In the 1940s it was commissioned for use during the Canol oil project along the Mackenzie River but was no longer being operated in 1947. Steel frame. 125' keel. 115 ton cargo, 40 passenger.
Northland Sun passing unidentified boat.jpg Northland Sun 1909
  • Built in 1909 by Northern Traders Co. Operated on the Athabasca-Slave Rivers from Fort McMurray to Fort Fitzgerald.
Northland Call, Athabasca Landing.jpg Northland Call 1910
  • Built in 1910 by Northern Traders Co. Operated on the Athabasca-Slave Rivers from Fort McMurray to Fort Fitzgerald.
Northland Star, docked.jpg Northland Star 1911
  • Built in 1911 by Northern Traders Co. Operated on the Athabasca-Slave Rivers from Fort McMurray to Fort Fitzgerald.
Gathering fuel for the steamship Grenfell on the Peace River.jpg Grenfell 1912
Northland Echo on the Athabasca River, Alberta.jpg Northland Echo 1912
  • Paddlewheeler built in 1912 by Northern Traders Company, who thought its shallow draft would enable it to transit the who length of the Peace River. It only transitted the Vermilion Chutes once, and only functioned until 1914. It may have been rebuilt (or a new ship of this name built) and operated by Northern Traders Company on the Athabasca and Upper Slave Rivers between Fort McMurray and Fitzgerald. Scrapped in 1923 and rebuilt as Northland Echo II.
Northland Trader
  • Screw steamer operated by Northern Traders Company on the Slave-Mackenzie Rivers until it was wrecked on Great Slave Lake in October 1924.
D.A. Thomas 1916
  • Paddlewheeler built for Peace River Development in 1916 to operate on the Peace River above the Vermillion Chutes. Sold to Lamson-Hubbard in 1920, then to Alberta Arctic Transportation in 1921 and finally to the HBC in 1924. The shipped was badly damaged and scrapped in 1930. 187' keel, 37' beam. 300 ton cargo, 300 passenger. One of the larger paddle wheeler steamships to ply in the Mackenzie watershed.
Ft. McMurray 1916
  • Paddlewheeler (100 ton cargo, 40 passengers) built at Fort McMurray and launched in 1916 to operate between Fort McMurray and Fort Fitzgerald by the Hudson's Bay Company. Out of service by 1921.
Liard River 1919
  • Paddlewheeler (80' long, 16' beam) launched in 1919 at Fort Smith to operate from Fort Simpson up the Liard River to service Hudson's Bay Company posts. Wrecked on the Nelson River in October 1922.
Sternwheeler S.S. Distributor on Slave River, Northwest Territories.jpg SS Distributor 1920
  • Paddlewheeler placed in service in 1920 by the Lamson & Hubbard Co., acquired by the Alberta Arctic Transportation Co. in 1921, and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1924. Operated on the Slave-Mackenzie River network, below Fort Smith on the Slave River, in the 1920s-1940s. Converted to oil in 1944. Decommissioned in 1946. Scrapped in the 1950s. 176' keel, 30' beam, 200 ton cargo, 250 passenger.
Steamboat, Northland Pioneer, at Fort Rae, Northwest Territories (NWT).jpg Northland Pioneer 1921
  • Gas motor vessel (100' long, 20' beam, 90 tons cargo) launched in 1921, operated by Northern Traders Co. on the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers and Great Slave Lake.
Lady Mackworth 1919
  • Gas motor vessel built by the Lamson & Hubbard Co. and acquired by the Alberta Arctic Transportation Co in 1921 to operate on the Mackenzie and Liard River network. Acquired by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1924.
Sternwheeler S.S. Athabasca River at Athabasca Landing.jpg Athabasca River 1922
  • Paddlewheeler (146' long, 36' beam, 200 tons cargo, 48 passengers) built and launched in 1922 by the Hudson's Bay Co. to operate between Fort McMurray and Fort Fitzgerald on the Athabasca and Slave Rivers. Operated until about 1946.
MT Liard River 1923
  • Gas motor vessel launched in 1923 by the Hudson's Bay Co. to operate on the Slave-Mackenzie-Liard Rivers. Still operating in 1946.
Northland Echo II 1923
  • Paddlewheeler operated by Northern Traders Company on the Athabasca and Upper Slave Rivers between McMurray and Fitzgerald. 135' keel, 24' beam. Continued to be used into the 1930s by the Northern Transportation Company.
  • Gasoline motor vessel operated by the Northern Traders Co. in the 1920s along the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Alexander Mackenzie". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2016. 
  2. ^ The Edmonton Bulletin, August 30, 1920
  3. ^ a b 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. 
  4. ^ a b c d "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. 
  5. ^ a b c "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. 
  6. ^ "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.