Manitoba History: On Board the Steamer “Northwest”, Saskatchewan River

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The following document is an interesting letter written in 1888. It was forwarded to Manitoba History by Catherine G. Taylor of Kelseyville, California.

Steamboat at Selkirk, Manitoba, 1877.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

July 22nd, 1888
28 mailed

Dear Father and Mother

I left Selkirk pier, Str. “princess” 17th July. After a very pleasant voyage of three days on Lake Winnipeg I arrived in Grand Rapids on the 20th Inst. Grand Rapids is beautifully situated on a beautiful bay at the mouth of the Saskatchewan. About six white people live there. The balance of the population being composed of Half Breeds and Indians. The only means of existence are fur trading, fishing and trans-shipping from Lake boats to River boats and visa-versa. There is quite a large fishery and a fine Hudson Bay Post located there. A Rail Road and Telephone—3½ miles long connect the Lake and River boats as navigation is impossible for that distance over the Rapids.

We left Grand Rapids on the evening of the 20th and have since been winding very slowly up the great Saskatchewan. Navigation is very dangerous on this end of the River, as Rapids are numerous, swift, and rocks and we have a number of lakes to cross. The “Northwest” is 200 feet long and carries four hundred tons. She runs swift on smooth water but a high wind on the lake will smash her to atoms. As I write we are lying in the lee of an Island waiting to cross Cedar Lake which is forty five miles long—The cabin passengers are composed of some people from the Old Country and one Lady from Ont. bound for Prince Albert, some fur dealers and Hudson’s Bay Co. men, the Dr. and myself—all very fine people—(Myself included of course). It is very interesting as long as the boat is running as the diversity of the scenery affords us ample company in leisure moments, but when the boat ceases to move and we have a little run on shore to eat berries and be eaten by mosquitos, the scenery becomes monotonous and we hail with delight the signal for proceeding to a fresh scene. If you have not seen one of those large river boats running up rapids I am sure it would interest you. About a dozen Indians are harnessed in straps attached to a large York boat filled with roap (sic) about 6 inches in diameter. The Indians walk along the bank pulling the York boat about ¼ of a mile up the rapids. The large roap (sic) is then fastened to a tree or pier up stream and on the other end to a spool on the Steamer which is wound up stream by steam. This is repeated until we are out of the Rapids. In about 6 days more we expect to be near the scene of the Rebellion—We are having delightful weather. Millions of fish of all kinds and wild game in every direction. Good day will see you again in a few days.

Monday 23rd July

We have not moved an inch since I wrote above. A gale blowing from the west. Cannot say when we will get out of this—My expenses are $3.00 per day—which accounts for my anxiety to proceed. We expect to reach Prince Albert in about a week when nearly half our voyage on this boat will have been completed. Twelve hundred miles on one boat—imagine—and on one river after three hundred and fifty miles on one lake and one boat. However, the accommodation is good perhaps better than you could get on any boat on Lake Ontario. There are state-rooms for 80 cabin passengers and altogether over 1000 people could be accommodated on this boat—You will perhaps be surprised as I was to hear of such Enterprise away up here in the far north—but what is still more difficult to comprehend is this fact. Two days drive from Edmonton north—connects us with boats as large as this—which run nearly 3000 miles north or within sixty miles of the Arctic Ocean. The people of Manitoba know less of this northwest Country than the people of Ontario do of Manitoba or Montana. A lady correspondent of a Boston paper is on board with us and adds considerable to the enjoyment of all on board. I will endeavor to procure a copy of the paper containing her no doubt flowery description of this vast wilderness—and forward to you which of course will be months yet.

Thursday July 26th

On Tuesday we stopped 2 hours at one of the old Hudson Bay posts called The Pas—beautifully situated on the first raise of ground since we left Grand Rapids 140 miles. Up to this time we have not seen enough dry land to pitch a tent on. And here at “The Pas” there cannot be over 50 or 100 acres of ground—however what there is, is good and presents a very imposing appearance after 3 days of muskeg—Two Hudson’s Bay Coy. men, one Free Trader and a few hundred Indians comprise the population—oh! I might add—a school teacher and a Church of England Clergyman. There are 3 Hudson Bay Co. buildings inside of an enclosure of 5 or 6 acres all painted white. White picket fence also. The Church of England once white with paint is now very much weather beaten. From appearances you might call it any where from 100 to 1000 years old. Yet there is something more than ancient about it, probably it is the history connected with it—It takes me back to school days at S.S. No. 9 Reach. I remember well the poetry in the 3rd or 4th book on “Sir John Franklin”—T’was he who built this church when he was travel-ling through this then Heathen Wilderness—You will read of it in history—About 70 miles of very winding river with marsh on either side brought us on Wednesday morning to Cumberland House the chief Hudson Bay post for a district 1700 miles long. The chief Factor for the district (Mr. Belanger) who has been on the boat with us from Grand Rapids, will get off at this point, and we will miss him very much. He has been the life of the boat. A very fine jovial fellow with a heart that compares with his size (315 lbs). He invited The Dr. and myself to (dinner?). We accepted the invitation, & I assure you we enjoyed the moose steak and the nose which is considered one of the greatest delicacies in this part of the country—Cumberland House beautifully situated on a gravelly point on Lake Cumberland on an Island with an evergreen background. An abundance of vegetation. We left Cumberland yesterday afternoon and do not stop for two days unless stuck on a sand-bar which is quite a usual thing in this part of the river. The banks of the river have been gradually raising (sic) since we left Cumberland and have now reached about 5 feet and rapidly increasing in height.

Saturday 28th July

For two days after leaving Cumberland we did not see a house and as yet have only seen 4 or 5. The banks of the river are now about 100 feet high with beautiful evergreen banks on either side. We have been making extra good time the last two days and consequently expect to reach Prince Albert some time to-night. The country on either side is high, sandy loam and partially covered with wood which is gradually growing less. The river is very wide and full of rapids. Two Mounted Policemen boarded our boat last night from Prince Albert to see if there was any whiskey on board. This boat (carries?) an excursion from Prince Albert to Battleford tomorrow on her way to Fort Pitt. It will be eight days making trip. We are within 17 miles of Prince Albert. Mostly prairie clay-loam. Dry land fine country. I will probably be here for a week. I will write you again after leaving P.A. and give you a description of the town & etc.

With Love to all I will close abruptly as I have some business to attend to.

Yours aff’ly
I. A. Yerex

Cannot write good as boat is always heaving. I. A. Y.