My Father’s Steamboats *

by Mary Agnes Medd

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1971, Volume 17, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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* Written in May 1952 and published herein through the courtesy of Mrs. Frank Rowan, Miniota, Manitoba.

My father, Captain Peter McArthur, came to Fort Garry in 1869. In the following year he was taking out logs at Broken Head River. He told me he supplied the flagstaff for Upper Fort Garry - 14 inches at the butt and 4 inches at the top. I forget the height.

He built the Prince Rupert in the 1870s at Fort Garry. It ran on the Assiniboine to Portage la Prairie and sometimes farther. He did not think much of this vessel. It rode like a bucking pony, but had the distinction, nonetheless, of being the first steamboat built in Manitoba. I gave the registration papers to the Manitoba Museum.

My father's next project was to form the Northwest Navigation Company in partnership with a brother and a man named Pratt. They built two fine boats, the Northwest and Marquette. These were designed after the Mississippi river boats, with side paddles, two boilers, and comfortable furnishings. Each was two hundred feet long. The Northwest had a big square piano which we afterwards used in our home.

The whistles gave a deep blast like those on ocean liners. Father got the whistle from the Northwest when she was dismantled and put it on his sawmill at Winnipegosis. Men hearing it in the spring over at Waterhen and Crane River, thirty-five and forty miles away, would come to work in response to its blasts.

The first trip of the Northwest up the Assiniboine cleared $2,000. The main cargo was flour for the Hudson's Bay Company posts, Fort Ellice and Fort Qu'Appelle. There were also some passengers on this trip who were on their way to Prince Albert and Edmonton.

There was much trouble on the Assiniboine with sandbars, and once they ran out of firewood. Coming to a homesteader's place which had a rail fence about it, they bought the rails for $5.00. When the man took the money from father, he asked, "Have you any resin on you?" That would be for a dance.

Another time just at dusk, an Indian was standing on the bank when the boat was coming round the bend of the river, with navigation lights on and smoke pouring from her funnels. Never having seen a steamboat before, the apparition made him run so fast that his hair swept out behind him.

The Marquette ran on the Red River down to the States carrying freight and passengers. Both the Marquette and the Northwest were sold before the railroad was built to Saskatchewan. As well as operating his own boats, father was Inland Navigator for the Hudson's Bay Company. He had taken some boats up Lake Winnipeg and over the Grand Rapids to the North Saskatchewan River. He ran a boat for the Company on the Saskatchewan River in 1879. He was stationed at Grand Rapids at one time and attended to the portaging of freight for the Company, as steamers never came down the rapids but ran from the head of the rapids to Prince Albert and Edmonton.

Lake Manitoba, 1891, raft containing 25,000 ties and 500,000 feet of lumber. Made up at Fairford by William Sifton, contractor for Peter McArthur, Westbourne Landing.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Boat 5, N12767.

Isabelle 2nd., towing lumber into Mossy River, June 1925.
Source: Mrs. Frank Rowan, Miniota, Manitoba.

My father was proud of his achievement in taking the Northwest up Grand Rapids. In previous attempts the log chains had broken going up the falls, and it was his own idea to send to Philadelphia for a goose-neck expansion joint, of drawn copper, which would allow for two feet of expansion under pressure. This worked and the objective was attained.

The record of this feat is still unbroken. To quote an authority: "The passage of the Grand Rapids was a first-class feat of engineering. This rapid has a vertical drop in the middle of a raging cataract, a quarter of a mile wide and three miles long. The Northwest was taken up under her own paddlewheel power, augmented by a three-inch hawser.

About 1885, father built the Saskatchewan in the Whitemud River at the railway crossing at Westbourne. She was 125 feet long, 30 foot beam, with side paddle wheels, two engine and boilers, and cost $30,000. When she was finished, she was steamed down the river two miles to where father had built a cottage. We moved there to live. This was later known as McArthur's Landing.

The Saskatchewan was licensed to carry passengers. I remember Charles Mair, the Canadian poet, at our house on his way up the lake for a trip. He was telling my mother that he liked his eggs hard-boiled.

Father was very good about letting us children go up the lake when he went for a load of lumber. Mother would take along her sewing machine and there was a little square-shaped rosewood piano on board which had come from England by way of York Factory and had been carried over the portage on men's shoulders.

I liked to see father giving orders to the crew from the top deck when we were casting off. I'll tell you, those men hopped to it! We would back down the river a little way into Perch Creek to turn around. Then down the nine miles of the beautiful Whitemud, past Totogan, to the lake.

We children raced up and down the long tarred and sanded upper deck behind the huge smoke-stacks. We never wearied of leaning on the railing behind the paddle wheels watching the rainbows in the spray.

When we reached The Narrows, known as the place of the Indian legend from which Manitoba got its name, the anchor was dropped, and the Siftons would come out in a small boat to get their mail, and to bring us wild strawberries and cream. Coming home after loading up at Fairford, there was always trouble getting up the river. At almost every bend the nose of the boat would stick in the soft mud and it was heart-breaking work getting her off. The steamer was too long for the river.

About 1891, on the last trip of the season, with a hired Captain in charge, the Saskatchewan burned and sank in eleven feet of water. After this calamity, father bought the Lady Blanche and towed his lumber down in a big barge. In 1900 he built the mills at Winnipegosis, taking the Lady Blanche up by water. When they reached the Waterhen River, the water was so low, and the boat having a deep draft, they were held up. But father had two small empty barges in tow, and these he lashed to the tug to give her more buoyancy, and they got through to Lake Winnipegosis. The old Lady Blanche was soon dismantled, however, and the tug Isabelle was built for towing. That made the fifth steamboat which father built.

Captain Peter McArthur.
Source: Mrs. Frank Rowan, Miniota, Manitoba.

One of three boiler of the Northwest at Fort Edmonton: Alberta Legislative Building (1911) in background. The Northwest, built at Moorhead, Minnesota, 1881, by Peter McArthur; sold to HBC in 1883 and taken to Edmonton; wrecked by ice in 1886.
Source: Mrs. Frank Rowan, Miniota, Manitoba.

Page revised: 18 October 2011