The history of water transportation in Saskatchewan begins with the small birchbark canoes used by generations of the original inhabitants of the province before European contact. This mode of travel would have been ideal for many of the rivers as well as the smaller to medium-sized lakes in the province. After European contact, larger birchbark canoes were designed and built to carry the heavier payloads of the fur trade. The main fur trade water routes in the province included the Churchill River system in the north (see Figure WT-1), the Qu’Appelle River and lakes in the south, and the Saskatchewan River between the two. By the first part of the 18th century, French fur traders had penetrated west into Saskatchewan by canoe, building two posts a short distance east of the forks of the North and South Saskatchewan rivers in the early 1750s. They were followed by English, Scot and American fur traders from Montreal. One small but famous group included Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, Alexander Henry, and their chief guide Louis Primeau, who were the first non-Aboriginals to canoe north from the Saskatchewan River to the Churchill system. By the second half of the 1770s, Peter Pond had crossed the height of land separating the Hudson Bay watershed from the Arctic watershed at the Methye Portage just north of present-day La Loche. It was only a matter of time before this canoe route through Saskatchewan became part of a larger trans-Canada water route to the Arctic and Pacific oceans.
During the course of the 19th century, York boats would replace canoes as the principal means of water transportation in the province. York boats were wooden rowboats about twelve metres long, with a pointed bow and stern. Although more difficult to portage, York boats had several advantages: they could carry and deliver twice the payload, with only slightly larger crews. Uniformly built with standardized ribs and hull planks, York boats lasted two seasons in place of the one-season life span of a fragile birchbark canoe. They could also handle rougher water on the large lakes, and had large sails. Finally, lower-paid and lower-skilled York boat rowers could replace more expensive and higher-skilled voyageurs. By the early 1820s, the Hudson’s Bay Company was regularly using York boats on the Churchill and Saskatchewan river routes. As the link from the Churchill to the Athabasca and the Mackenzie River, the 19-km long Methy Portage posed a major challenge to York boats. The problem was solved by having two York boat brigades, one traveling west and north of the portage (the Mackenzie Brigade) and one traveling south and east of the portage (the La Loche Brigade), with trade goods and furs exchanged annually on the portage without the need to haul the clumsy boats across. Water transportation on the rivers and lakes of the Qu’Appelle Valley during the fur trade was less important than the critical logistics involved in the Saskatchewan and Churchill river routes. The area was used to collect pemmican from Aboriginal traders, most of which was transported north in Red River Carts. From Fort Qu’Appelle for example, trails led to Chesterfield House on the South Saskatchewan River and to Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan River.
By the 1850s, Lieutenant Thomas Blakiston of the Palliser Expedition (see Palliser and Hind Expeditions) was assessing the feasibility of steamboat travel on the Saskatchewan River. The Hudson’s Bay Company first put a steamboat called the Lily—touted as the successor to the York boat—on the Saskatchewan River in 1873; this was followed one year later by the famous Northcote. From the beginning, seasonal variations in the water level along with shifting sandbars sabotaged steamboat travel on the South Saskatchewan River. The Northcote was used as a troop carrier to reinforce General Middleton’s forces at Batoche on the South Saskatchewan River in the 1885 Resistance. Although steamboat travel on the North Saskatchewan River was less treacherous, the steamboat era was short lived, in part because of the precipitous decline of the fur trade by the late 19th century, the rising importance of land travel, the beginnings of air travel, and the introduction of boats driven by internal combustion engines. By the early 20th century, rail travel was the primary means of transportation in the province, with road construction and travel rapidly growing during the rest of the century. Today, water transportation is mainly recreational in nature; motorboats are responsible for the bulk of the remaining commercial water transportation.
Gregory P. Marchildon