Captain Ross - Laird of the River
by R. J. Taylor
Manitoba Pageant, January 1958, Volume 3, Number 2
Northern Manitoba’s history is studded with the names of Scots who travelled from Hudson Bay on exploration trips to the prairies or built the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but none was more colorful nor represented such rollicking adventures as that of Captain Horatio Hamilton Ross.
He was the son of Sir Charles and Lady Ross of Rossie Castle, Scotland, and he lived as he dreamed living should be, lavishly and happily, on northern Manitoba’s rivers with his fleet of stern-wheelers, tugs and barges.
His steamers were immaculate as they moved between forested banks to carry prospectors, trappers, traders and natives into isolation and hack. So was he, in white flannels, and as eager as a boy for each new sight from his bridge.
Even before 1909 when he became the founder of the Ross Navigation Company with headquarters at The Pas and mildly stepped into the affections of northerners, he had packed a lifetime of adventure into his forty years.
When little more than a boy he left his home to voyage “round the Horn” and landed at San Francisco. Then he trekked overland in a covered wagon into Alberta and built a palatial home in the Canadian Rockies which he referred to casually as the “lodge.” He deserted it to become a cowpuncher on Mosquito Creek, later operated a ranch at nearby High River, staked placer prospectors along the South Saskatchewan River and then built a thirty thousand dollar hotel in the cow-town of Medicine Hat.
He was host to everyone and lived abundantly; he still craved the sea, but compromised with the waters of the Saskatchewan River. He constructed a seventy foot stern-wheeler, the SS Assiniboia, in 1905 and introduced excursions on the prairie waterways. The venture was a social triumph, although not an economic one.
Captain Ross and a party of friends decided one day to travel to Winnipeg. At Cedar Lake, down the Saskatchewan toward Lake Winnipeg, his craft grounded on a sandbar. Winter was coming. Captain Ross gave the neighbouring Indians food from the galley, blankets from the beds and appointed two of them as watchmen.
The party bought and chartered dog teams to reach the railway where Captain Ross bought a ticket for Cairo and spent the winter in Egypt. He returned in the spring to find floodwaters had carried away the Assiniboia. His two watchmen still stood guard over the sunken boilers. He was touched by their loyalty and paid them well.
Then he returned to Medicine Hat to sell his hotel and build the SS City of Medicine Hat, a packet one hundred and thirty feet long. It was launched ceremoniously with the Captain in white flannels as a jovial host.
Once again, in June 1908, the Captain decided to take a party of friends to Lake Winnipeg. The palatial stern-wheeler ran afoul of the piers of the traffic bridge in Saskatoon and the City of Medicine Hat rolled over – wrecked.
Captain Ross went to Ottawa to claim damages and there met statesmen, wanderers from the Laurentians, and explorers. Just as suddenly as he had arrived in Canada’s capital, he left – this time as fisheries inspector for the north.
He needed a new boat and had a tug built, on yachting lines, at Collingwood, Ontario, and named it the SS Sam Brisbin after a boat’s engineer. He sailed for the Lakehead and shipped the Brisbin to Selkirk, Manitoba, negotiated Lake Winnipeg, then had the eighteen ton boat dragged over a four-mile portage at Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River.
It was when he arrived in The Pas that he began the Ross Navigation Company Limited - truly a company of rovers and of good fellowship. It is probable that it also was unprofitable, but a new era of development was already introduced.
Mandy Mine, near the fabulous Flin Flon of today, was discovered, and boats were needed to bring the ore to the railway. The Ross Navigation Company stepped into the breach with “Cap” Ross, in his mild manner, ordering a whole fleet of river craft.
First the SS LePas was built in eastern Canada; then came the SS Minassin, the SS Notin, the SS O Hell, the SS Tobin, and the SS Nipawin. The Nipawin was flagship of the fleet, one hundred and ten feet long with twenty passenger cabins and deck space for a hundred.
Typical of the outlook of Horatio Hamilton Ross was the explanation for the naming of the O Hell. A craft was due to leave The Pas for prospecting camps when the Captain came along with a group of friends to whom he had promised an excursion trip. When he was advised that the schedule had been advertised and the regular passengers were on board, Captain Ross snorted, “O Hell, I’ll get another boat.” He knew of one down the Saskatchewan, and bought it on the spot, ran up the blue and white ensign of his company, and ordered it so named.
Whimsy seized him again when on a business trip to Saskatoon. He glanced at an advertisement for an excursion trip to the British Isles for the Christmas holidays – bought a ticket – missed the first train section, but caught the second made up of steerage passengers and enjoyed a hilarious trip to the coast. There he missed the boat but negotiated passage with the master of a tramp steamer. He landed in England too late for Yuletide celebrations, and later returned to Canada in the royal suite of the Mauretania.
During World War I he undertook special duties for the British Government. Later he visited China to investigate the possibilities of establishing a stern-wheeler fleet on the Yangtse River.
Yes, Horatio Hamilton Ross lived as he dreamed, actively and imaginatively; he foresaw opportunity, initiated action, then gave the cream of each venture to his friends while he launched yet another enterprise.
His impulsiveness would never be understood by stay-at-homes, and his extravagances would have prostrated economists, but his was the spirit of the Old West and the New North.
Tragically he died on 11 February 1925 at the age of fifty-five. He was cleaning a rifle in his office on the banks of the Pasquia River at The Pas when it discharged into his body.
His place in history is marked in historic Christ Church at The Pas with a stained glass window. It also marks his place in the hearts of northerners for it was placed there by public subscriptions, none of which could be more than five dollars, yet the memorial window was almost instantly oversubscribed.
The theme of this window is the “Light of the World” and is flanked by two smaller panels, a font and a chalice. Below is inscribed:
The Indian friends of Captain Ross also had their tribute, a grave high on the hill of their cemetery which looks over the Big Eddy in the Saskatchewan River.
Page revised: 4 May 2020