Northern Prairie Ships: Premier

Built for the firm of [D. F.] Reid & Tait Fish Company, the Premier was launched before a large crowd at Selkirk on 6 May 1896. Measuring 126 feet long, 22 feet 9 inches in beam, and 8 feet 9 inches deep, she was clad with iron up to six inches above the water line, and grossed 414 tonnage. Featuring electric lighting, a Scotch Clyde boiler, two fire-fighting pumps (one manual, one steam), a 22-foot-long compartment lifeboat with room for 22 people and a wooden lifeboat with room for 20, as well as 85 cork life-jackets, it operated under the helm of Captain T. E. Pollock. With certified room for 75 passengers, it was soon conducting excursion trips from Winnipeg and points along the Red River to destinations around Lake Winnipeg as well as fishing operations. Ports of call included Horse Shoe Island near Grand Rapids, Gull Harbour, Bull’s Head, Snake Island, and George’s Island. A three-day round trip from West Selkirk to Horse Shoe Island cost $10 for adults and $5 for children, meals included. By 1900, the vessel was owned by the Dominion Fish Company Limited, managed by William Robinson.

On 3 August 1908, the vessel departed Selkirk laden with mixed cargo and empty fish boxes, bound for northern ports. Two days later, she docked at Warren’s Landing and loaded up with fish and an entire winter’s consignment of furs from the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Cross Lake. Nineteen passengers were on board, in addition to the crew led by Captain John Stevens and Engineer C. W. Cornish. On 6 August, at sometime between midnight and 12:50 AM, a fire started aboard the vessel. By 2:00 AM, an intense blaze had burned the ship to below its waterline. Two crewmen, Assistant Ship’s Cook Norman Smith and Ship’s Cook Gus Weil, perished in the blaze, along with six passengers: Ellmer Montgomery Jones, Osler Edward Overton, Leonard Parlett Fryer, Mrs. Catherine Couture, W. Olson of Spider Island, and teacher Miss Mary Elizabeth Povah. Their remains were found where they slept, not having had warning nor opportunity to attempt flight. The heat of the fire was so intense that some victims could only be identified by the position of their berths in the vessel. The other 38 occupants managed to get to safety with varying injuries.

The entire cargo was destroyed. No effort was made to extinguish the blaze because the crew were caught wholly unaware. The crew, along with some locals, focused their efforts on extinguishing the fire which had spread ashore to the company’s dock and freezer plant. The tugboat Idell, which came alongside to aid in the rescue effort, sustained fire damage that forced it to retreat. Royal North West Mounted Policeman (RNWMP) Constable Charles Victor Wood ran into the burning Dominion Fish Company warehouse and extracted a keg of gunpowder stored there. He suffered burns in retrieving it but it was conceded later that, had the keg exploded, the loss of life could have been much greater. The entire incident caused some $54,000 in damages, including the lost ship valued at $24,000 and a $30,000 in damaged infrastructure at Warren’s Landing. The lost furs added an estimated $50,000, though the exact value was never known because the bookkeeping records aboard the ship were destroyed.

In the following days, Sargent Smith, Constable Wood, and William Thomas searched the surrounding waters to find the bodies of four victims. The Premier hull was drained, enabling searches to locate more bodies. The remains were returned to Selkirk and Winnipeg by Lady of the Lake. The survivors were brought back by the Wolverine, which also towed the wrecked hull of the Premier to Selkirk.

A inquiry was launched by the Federal Wreck Commander O. G. V. Spain and RNWMP Commissioner Major A. B. Perry. After hearing the testimony of witnesses, the inquiry released its findings on 12 October 1908. Five days later, they were made public in the No. 2 Courtroom at the Winnipeg Assize Court. The inquiry concluded that, although the boat lacked the required certificate covering electrical lighting, along with an inspection by a certified electrician (both of which were required by law), and the watchman (a position for which there was no legal requirement) was reportedly prone to take naps on the job, these were dismissed as factors contributing to the fire. All crew members were cited for having the proper papers, and alcohol was determined not to have been a factor. However, Captain Stevens and Chief Engineer Cornish were stripped of their certifications, on the grounds they had made no attempt to take charge of the situation. It was also revealed that the crew had never engaged in fire or boat preparedness drills. Stevens, though a Captain for a dozen years, had never before commanded a passenger vessel, nor did he appreciate the burden of responsibility he held for those in his care. Upon being notified of the blaze, he took time to partially dress and left the vessel ahead of other passengers and crew, all while failing to raise an alarm. However, the inquiry felt that his lack of leadership was on account of shock and paralysis instigated by fear, rather than cowardice.

Ultimately, the fire was determined to have been caused by a smaller fire in the hold a few hours earlier, which had been inadequately extinguished. Eventually, it re-ignited. The lack of preparedness, leadership, and discipline by the crew magnified the problem.

In November 1908, a $60,000 lawsuit was filed by N. F. Hagel at the Portage la Prairie Fall Assizes and heard. Miss Isbister, a nurse aboard the ship, was awarded $4,000 plus costs for her injuries and medical expenses. William Joseph Delaney, a passenger, died in July 1912 of injuries sustained in the disaster.

The Premier was eventually replaced by the Phyllis Williams.

The Premier (no date)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Loudon G. Wilson fonds, PR1978-14, Photo 429.

The burned-out hull of the Premier, docked at Selkirk (October 1908)
Source: “The tragedy on Lake Winnipeg,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 October 1908, page 1.


Death registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.

“New steamer launched,” Winnipeg Tribune, 7 May 1896, page 1.

“Marine news,” Manitoba Morning Free Press, 16 June 1896, page 1.

“Reid & Tait Fish Co.’s,” Winnipeg Tribune, 10 July 1896, page 4.

“The Dominion Fish Company, Limited,” Winnipeg Tribune, 30 July 1900, page 7.

“Where to go this summer,” Winnipeg Tribune, 25 July 1905, page 5.

“Fishermen expect prosperous season,” Winnipeg Tribune, 29 May 1908, page 2.

“Perish in burning of Premier at Warren’s Landing,” Manitoba Free Press, 8 August 1908, pages 1 & 6.

“Terrible disaster on the Lake, eight people lose their lives,” Winnipeg Tribune, 8 August 1908, page 1 & 5.

“Survivors had narrow escape,” Manitoba Free Press, 10 August 1908, page 5.

“Premier enquiry,” Manitoba Free Press, 12 August 1908, page 1.

“Remains of Premier victims discovered,” Manitoba Free Press, 15 August 1908, page 1.

“Victims of Premier disaster buried,” Manitoba Free Press, 17 August 1908, page 1.

“Says there was criminal neglect,” Manitoba Free Press, 17 August 1908, page 4.

“The Premier Enquiry,” Winnipeg Tribune, 2 September 1908, page 1.

“Crew of Premier under criticism,” Manitoba Free Press, 3 September 1908, pages 1 & 9.

“The Premier disaster,” Winnipeg Tribune, 3 September 1908, page 1 & 9.

“Captain Stevens’ rigid examination,” Manitoba Free Press, 4 September 1908, pages 1 & 5.

“New facts brought out at Premier fire enquiry,” Manitoba Free Press, 8 September 1908, page 3.

“Premier enquiry will close today,” Winnipeg Tribune, 9 September 1908, pages 7 & 10.

“Judgement will be read in Winnipeg,” Manitoba Free Press, 16 September 1908, page 1.

“Family claim heavy damages,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 October 1908, page 1.

“Judgement in the Premier Disaster,” Winnipeg Tribune, 17 October 1908, pages 1 & 7.

“Premier officers lose certificates,” Manitoba Free Press, 19 October 1908, page 10.

“Jurisdiction is now challenged,” Winnipeg Tribune, 31 March 1909, page 1.

“Nurse injured in “Premier” fire is awarded $4,000,” Winnipeg Tribune, 23 December 1909, page 1.

“Another “Premier” victim,” Winnipeg Tribune, 30 July 1912, page 4.

This page was prepared by Nathan Kramer.

Page revised: 12 February 2022