A City Called Home - Interpretations

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When Steamboats Ruled the River
by Lawrence Herzog

Before the gold rush and the railway and before oil and gas, the steamboats arrived in Edmonton and, for a little place hanging on by its fingernails, they were exactly what it needed. If it hadn't been for the steamboats, Edmonton might never have got going.

It is a part of our past every bit as significant as the coming of the fur traders, the Oblate Missionaries, the Klondike Gold Rush, the arrival of the railway and the discovery of oil. Yet most Edmontonians have probably never heard much about it.

During the fur trade era, a succession of crafts plied the waters of the North Saskatchewan River. The North West Company used the light, streamlined and comfortably portaged North Canoes. From about 1797, its fur trading competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company, utilized primarily York Boats - shallow-draft boats with flat bottoms, capable of hauling twice the capacity of the North Canoe.

In 1873, steamboats were introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company to replace the less efficient method of shipping by York Boat and the transportation of goods kicked into high gear. History in Edmonton - whose population, including dogs and chickens, was 100 on a good day - was soon to be made.

When the Hudson's Bay Company's S.S. Northcote steamed into Edmonton on July 22nd, 1875, it forever changed life. From then forward, whenever the water on the river was deep enough, Edmonton was the upper terminus of a line of steamboat communication starting at Winnipeg.

The coming of the railway and difficulties navigating ever changing river channels sounded the death knell for steamboats on the North Saskatchewan. The last commercial runs were made in 1886 and the Northcote was beached at Cumberland House that year. She was left to rot until, years later, nothing but her boilers remained.

Another sternwheeler, the Northwest, was pulled up on timbers at Walter's Flat (now Walterdale) in 1898. A year later, when the river flooded in August, the Northwest - known in her heyday as the "Greyhound of the Saskatchewan" - was lifted from her moorings and carried downstream, smashing into the centre pier of the net yet completed Low Level Bridge.

Other steamboats did follow - most notably John Walter's City of Edmonton, which he launched in 1909. The vessel supplemented other river transportation by plying back and forth downstream as far as Hewlett's Landing north of Lloydminster, loading and unloading commodities at little wharves along the way. For the next eight years, the City of Edmonton answered an important transportation need in northeastern Alberta - just like the Northcote and the sternwheelers of the late 1800s.