Conquering vast distances
In pre-homesteading days, First Nations people, Metis, fur traders and others relied on horses and eventually squeaky oxcarts on the plains and dogsleds in the north. The arrival of steamships briefly offered hope for faster shipping until the railways came, bringing homesteaders who transferred their household goods to wagons, and slogged through gumbo and sloughs to their destination. Gas-powered vehicles of course changed everything.
Full steam ahead on Saskatchewan waterways
In their day, the ear-splitting arrival of a steamer stopped everybody in their tracks. Steamboats edged out oxcarts for transporting goods, until shifting sandbars and seasonal low water levels of our rivers ended the steamboat era on the Saskatchewan River. Steamboat companies here were the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the Winnipeg & Western Transportation Co. (WWT) and the Northwest Coal and Transportation Company (NCT).
S.S. Northcote: (built 1874; HBC, WWT), a 150-foot long, 28.5 ft. wide, 3.5-foot draft, flat-bottomed sternwheeler, plied the Saskatchewan river. It may have been our province’s only “gunboat”: in 1885 it transported troops from Swift Current to Saskatoon, Clark’s Crossing, Fish Creek, and Batoche, where its funnels were sliced off by a lowered ferry cable as it ran the gauntlet.
S.S. Lily: (built 1877; HBC, WWT) a 100-foot long, 24-foot wide, 14 -inch draft, flat-hulled sternwheeler with steel-clad hull, carried goods from Fort Carlton to Edmonton. In 1883, the WWT Co., hoping to link the railway at Medicine Hat and posts on the North Saskatchewan, sent the Lily up the south branch, but it hit a rock and ignobly sank in about three feet of water.
S.S. Manitoba: (built 1878; WWT), a 190-foot-long, flat-bottomed sternwheeler, operated on the upper North Saskatchewan until it was crushed by ice in the spring of 1885.
S.S. Marquis (1882; WWT), a flat-bottomed sternwheeler 200-feet-long, 33-foot-wide with a 5-foot draft, ran mainly on the lower North Saskatchewan.
S.S. North West: (1882; WWT) a 201-foot-long, 33.5 foot-wide and 4.5 draft, flat-bottomed sternwheeler, ran chiefly on the lower Saskatchewan.
The May Queen was a 35-foot-long, 4-foot draft, V-hulled steam launch. In 1883, the Temperance Colonization Co. tried to run it from Medicine Hat to the fledgling Saskatoon settlement but cut the service after its abortive maiden voyage upriver.
S.S. Baroness (1883; NCT) a 173 foot-long, 30 foot-wide and 1.5 ft draft flat-bottomed sternwheeler, built chiefly to carry coal in Alberta, also transported troops to the Northwest Rebellion site.
The same was true of the S.S. Alberta (1883; NWT), a 100-foot-long, 20-foot-wide, flat-bottomed sternwheeler.
The City of Medicine Hat, owned and piloted by the dashing Captain Horatio Ross, was merrily chugging through Saskatoon in 1908, when it smashed into a pier of the Victoria Bridge and sank. Captain and crew all escaped, but a herd of cattle crossing the bridge above, stampeded. All those aboard the steamboat escaped to safety, but the spectacular accident (not to mention the shifting sandbars) helped end the steamboat era on the South Saskatchewan River .
S.S. Minnow (1884, NCT), 75 feet long, and 10 feet wide, had a shallow draft and was steam propeller driven. It also carried troops.
The shores of Last Mountain Lake were hot real estate for developers, and steamboat rides on the lake were a merry summer diversion. In 1904 the Welcome was built for William Pearson and plied the waters of the lake in 1905. That year a paddle-wheeler called Lady of the Lake also operated on the lake until 1907 when it sank in a storm. Some say it was the same boat as the Qu’Appelle, retrofitted for William Pearson Steamship and registered in 1908.
[Peel, Steamboats on the Saskatchewan; Tolton, Prairie Warships; www.rvsunsetcover.ca; Saskatchewan History 1960 (v.13 no. 3): 138]
“The Iron Horse”
A brief history of Saskatchewan railways
The first trains to cross Saskatchewan were on the Canadian Pacific Railway line, completed in 1885. Originally their intended route was to go through the parkland region, through Battleford. But the government was spooked by fears that an American rail line close to the boundary might be bad for business up here, so the route was altered to cross the province in the south. “Curses, foiled again!” was the feeling of speculators who had bought land near the route that got dumped. Not only that, the seat of government was moved from Battleford to Regina.
1876: Early plans for the railway heading for Edmonton spawned important communities like Battleford. Railway and telegraph surveyors and linemen working at the confluence of the Battle and North Saskatchewan rivers called the place Telegraph Flat. The NWMP and the HBC set up there too, and the fledgling settlement was named Battleford, first capital in the province.
1882: When CPR plans shifted to the south, communities sprang up along that line too. The CPR reached the little one-horse town of Moose Jaw in 1882 and declared it a “divisional point.” Railway workers and surveyors flooded in, and the population tally leapt to between two and three thousand. Settlers and freighters arrived in droves, buying horses and wagons and trekking north from there.
In 1885 when the Northwest Resistance broke out, the tracks had reached as far west as Qu’Appelle, but there were still gaps on the route. Some troops had to trek on foot over glare ice or icy slush, or ride freezing in open sleighs or flatcars.
1886: The second railway to come to what is now Saskatchewan was the Manitoba and North Western Railway, which reached Langenberg that year, having started at Winnipeg. Later it passed through Yorkton. In 1900 the CPR took over the line.
1880s: An obscure railway company was the Qu’Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan railway company (QLLS). After an abortive beginning involving a cash crunch, by 1890 it linked Regina and Prince Albert through Craik, Saskatoon and Rosthern, and the line had been leased by the CPR. The first bridge in Saskatoon was originally called the QLLS bridge. Alas, it kept collapsing into the river in the annual spring ice break-up – an occupational hazard for bridges. Finally concrete piers were erected, and that solved the problem.
In the 1890s the feds were plotting vast railway expansion, an ambitious dream that gave birth to the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern railways. The latter crept westward by way of Saskatoon and Battleford along the Yellowhead route, sort of, and eventually the province was criss-crossed with a network of railway tracks like a diagram of the human circulatory system.
1917: Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk railways were strapped for cash. Spurred by a royal commission report, the feds bought the Canadian Northern Railway system in 1917.
1918: The government also took over the Grand Trunk Pacific, and Grand Trunk railways and some other regional railways to form the Canadian National Railway company.
By 1927 in Regina, the CPR had built the Hotel Saskatchewan (almost as stately as the bessborough Hotel to be built in Saskatoon, but not so iconic).
In 1935 the CNR’s opulent Bessborough Hotel finally opened in Saskatoon. It was a hop or two from the railway station on 1st Avenue, so travellers could get there in minutes. (In the 1960s developers put up a pretty replica of it at the front of the mall as a nod to the colourful, smoke-ridden past).
In the 1960s the railway yards were trundled out of downtown Saskatoon to its western perimeter to make way for the Midtown Plaza. Malls were quite novel in those days, and railway yards are messy and smoky. The move was celebrated, but it resulted in less train travel because the new railway station is out in the boondocks southwest of the city. In Regina, the same thing happened
, but notice Toronto kept its railway yards along Lake Ontario. (Train travel is still valued in the east, with so many more people moving around.)
Gradually the railway service that linked Saskatchewan cities and towns was axed. By the 1970s railway branch lines were being abandoned, and in their absence the grain elevators that dotted the province couldn’t do their job any more, and were shut down.
Around 1982 the Canadian National cancelled its passenger service from Saskatoon to Calgary, though railway freight still gets to go that way.
Nowadays it seems people who travel across Saskatchewan on Via Rail tend to be wealthy Asian tourists and CNR employees. Just an impression.
[Archer and Derby, The Story of a Province: A Junior History of Saskatchewan; Ted Regehr article, Canadian Encyclopedia, and personal recollections. CPR: Berton, The National Dream: The Last Spike, 471-2. Maps: 1905: map of railways in Sask., p. 134; 1914: map of railways in Sask. prior to 1914, p. 171]
Prairie people were adept at finding ways to overcome vast distances, often in deep snow. Tinkerers invented surprising ways to carry goods and passengers (especially patients) through seemingly impassable territory, before modern transport technology speeded things up.
Riding in horse-drawn sleds in winter, passengers took along a brick warmed in the family’s stove. They’d put the brick in a drawer of a “footwarmer”, and snuggle under buffalo coats or blankets. It made winter sledding more bearable.
In wintertime in the early years, mail, goods and people were swung over the North Saskatchewan at Nipawin, in a basket powered by human muscle-power at first, and later by Model T engines, using a system of overhead cables.
Back in the day when doctors did house calls, dogsleds, cutters, railway jiggers and even a pair of elk were exploited as “ambulances” in winter to get to their distant patients and take them to hospital.
Dr. William Mainprize of Midale contrived three early snowmobiles using a Model T chassis, open-air cab and tractor wheels. One had a narrow axle that would fit between rails.
Another doctor, Dr. Iser Steiman, invented an early “ambulance” with an enclosed cab or “pod” for the patient, using an engine to propel his snowplane, which was equipped with sleigh runners. He too “rode the rails” at times.
A third doctor, Dr. Thomas Argue, with the help of a mechanic, combined the two concepts by inventing a contrivance with continuous-running traction as well as sleigh runners.
In 1905, a makeshift “ambulance” was invented to carry patients sixty miles to hospital in Yorkton. The patient was put in a long box mounted above two pairs of sleigh runners, and sheltered by canvas or other heavy material draped over it like a covered wagon.
[Early snowmobiles: Saskatchewan History; sleds: Prairie Tapestry: Dundurn, 359; general knowledge]
And then there were the notorious Bennett buggies during the Depression, involving horse-drawn automobiles rendered impotent by lack of gasoline, which many car owners couldn’t afford.
Municipal transit services
In this time of uproar over pollution, it is ironic that our first public transit systems were electric-powered “street railways” which opened in Regina and Moose Jaw in 1911 and in Saskatoon January 1, 1913. The coaches glided on tracks set flush with the pavement, and were fueled by electricity from overhead cables. Passengers had to walk into the street to board. Such systems are still in use in some older cities around the world. Saskatoon streetcars even had wood stoves inside to keep passengers war, according to a Facebook posting.
In 1937 Prince Albert’s first city bus service was inaugurated, leapfrogging over those earliest electric-powered streetcar and coach services. Prince Albert Bus Lines was privately-owned and run by William Dawson. The fleet numbered two thirteen-passenger buses, and a ride cost ten cents.
Streetcars were gradually superseded by electric trolleys in November 1948 in Saskatoon, and in Regina after a disastrous fire that destroyed much of the rolling stock in the car barns in 1949. The trolleys were powered by overhead lines too, but had to stay on track. They could also pull up to the curb to pick up passengers.
People in outlying areas with no transit service and no overhead wires clamoured for service. The first bus used in Saskatoon was a Chev rented from Gray Goose Bus Lines in 1937, and then a Studebaker purchased from Tom Guest, owner of an auto dealership downtown.
Because trollies were tethered to electric cables, our cities gradually replaced them all with diesel-powered buses that could go anywhere they could maneuver — handy when construction blocks streets. Trolley coaches ran until the 1970s. In May 1974, six new Flyer buses arrived in Saskatoon from Winnipeg, signalling the end of all trolley coaches in the city.
In the 1970s Regina introduced a Telebus service that sent buses to people’s homes, but it was too costly to be sustainable.
The municipal transit sector has leaned over backward to help people with disabilities. Saskatoon buses, for example, have lower-floor capability to help disabled or elderly people get on board. Many buses have “audible stop announcements” which help the hard-of-hearing, and maybe some cellphone addicts not playing attention.
Saskatoon’s Access Transit service has for decades catered to people immobilized by disabilities. The fleet of twenty-eight buses are small, specialized vehicles with lifts to help people get on and off. The buses must be requested up to seven days in advance, and the fare is the same.
In autumn 2019 Regina Transit was building brand new “car barns” that will charge up electric buses from above, and accommodate articulated buses (long, accordion-like vehicles) that carry more passengers..
Now, we hope, electric-powered buses will take over. Happily, they don’t require overhead lines. A battery-powered vehicle could save cities an estimated $300,000 over its operating lifetime. Saskatoon Transit is eyeing them as a greener option, and hopes to introduce them in 2022.
[General: Transit system websites, newspaper articles and contact people. Prince Albert: P.A. Daily Herald 31 August 1967. Regina: transit officials. Saskatoon: Easten Wayman, Saskatoon’s Electric Transit; CBC and Global News articles; (buses) StarPhoenix 9 June 1973, 9 May 1974, 9 November 1998; stoves on streetcars: Posting on “You know you grew up in Saskatoon SK if you remember …”]
Cars and trucks and things that go
General Motors ran the show in the early days
The well-known Wilson brothers (one of them a mayor) were apparently the first auto dealers to get cars on the road in Saskatoon, as early as 1909. Their business McLaughlin Carriage Works blossomed anew as McLaughlin Motor Car Co., which brought in the first carload of McLaughlin cars shipped west of Winnipeg. In 1923 they changed their name to McLaughlin-Buick, which was a General Motors of Canada product.
An early attempt at alternative fuel sources is illustrated by this strange straw-powered McLaughlin car on display at the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon. The fuel system was the brainchild of of R.D. Laurin, chemistry prof, and A.R. Greig, engineer. It created methane from straw, powering the car from a gas-producing blimp-shaped object above the vehicle, connected by a pipe to the carburetor.
We even manufactured cars in Saskatchewan, unbeknownst to many. In 1928 a General Motors Assembly plant in Regina began to churn out Chevs and Buicks. During World War II the factory was repurposed as a munitions plant, but after the war, car production fizzled out.
Vintage automobiles are a perennial source of fascination. Collections of them have popped up in surprising places — such as the Assiniboia & District Museum — and also in veritable car cemeteries that “grace” rural parts of the province. Stock car and sports car buffs show off their gleaming, finely restored vintage vehicles not only at races, but other special events. The odd one can be seen in driveways and at curbs too.
As for electric cars, hybrid electric/gas-powered vehicles have been around for years. But probably because charging infrastructure is spotty in rural areas, fully electric cars only represent 3.3 percent of “market share” in Canada because of their limited distance capability – a problem in a sprawling province such as ours. However, “Sask EV” (a group of plug-in car owners) advises there are Petro-Canada EV fast-chargers in Regina, Moose Jaw and Swift Current, with Whitewood coming on stream soon, and there are three or four charging stations that advertise online in Saskatoon. Sask Power has a web page that explains the difference between fast and slower charging systems, urging potential entrepreneurs: “Support a cleaner environment by installing an EV charging station.”
Trucks are apparently more profitable than cars. In late 2019 Tesla introduced an electric pickup truck. Its appearance was odd, described as as “trapezoid on wheels” or a space rocket. If it were to take over on Saskatchewan roads, imagine the decrease in carbon emissions.
Government incentives to convince us to go electric and stop spewing out greenhouse gases: as much as $5,000 to buy new electric vehicles, and businesses can claim tax rebates (up to $55,000) the year they start using such vehicles, advises Sask EV. Sales of plug-in EV (fully electric) vehicles in Saskatchewan are rising, for example twenty-one in the second quarter of 2018, up to forty-nine in the same period in 2029.
[Electric cars: www.emc.mec.ca/new/ev-sales-in-canada-q2-2019; saskEV.com; saskpower.ca/Our-Power-Future….. Electric trucks: CBC Afternoon Edition 25 November 2019]
Publicly-owned intercity buses: Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) buses used to traverse more than five million kilometers a year, covering twenty-eight bus routes that criss-crossed the province. In the early years of the twenty-first century they were linked with 206 private companies to service remote communities. There were main terminals in the three major cities. But in 2017 the government axed the STC, leaving would-be travellers high and dry, and patients dependent on the kindness of family and friends to drive them to city hospitals.
Greyhound Bus Lines used to link up with STC to deliver passengers to Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, and across the country. But Greyhound shut down its operations in the Canadian West in 2018.
Our province is coursed by a tracery of rivers, the queen of which is the Saskatchewan. Her north and south branches tumble down from the mountains, join east of Prince Albert and flow on to Manitoba. Authors have filled books about her. Steamboats, canoes, and even York boats plied her waters in the past, and now modern watercraft frolic on her surface. She has inspired adventurers, and carried warriors to battle. Incoming homesteaders crossed her in upended wagons. Now her life-giving waters provide irrigation and electric power. She is our Amazon, our Nile, our Mississippi, our Danube. And she is a protagonist in many stories that animate our culture.
John Segers, steamboat captain extraordinaire, piloted the Northcote during the Northwest Resistance at Batoche in 1885. The steamboat was gussied up as a makeshift battleship to carry troops and supplies to Batoche, where it ran the gauntlet of enemy fire. At one point Segers was lying in the pilot house, under siege, steering the boat with his feet! The steamer ran into a lowered cable that sliced off its stacks and wheelhouse. It kept on going, despite the pandemonium on board.
Before bridges were built, travellers often swam their livestock and upended wagons across. By 1885 ferry lines were dotted like beads along the major rivers. But ferry schedules were not always convenient, and sometimes ferries were wayward, escaping their tethering cable lines.
In the absence of ferries or bridges, people had to be inventive. Homesteading brothers Seager and Percy Wheeler travelled in an ox-drawn wagon in 1890 to their first homestead near Clark’s Crossing. Its box was a boat built by Percy, loaded with supplies, a tent, tools and a chair. When they reached a river, they used the boat as transport. Many other early travellers upended their wagons that were coated in tar on the bottom, and crossed that way.
Before the first traffic bridge was built in Saskatoon, in the summer citizens either had to hike across the railway bridge and risk confronting a train – or hop on a ferry.
One of the early ferrymen was Edgar Jackson, whose son became chief surgeon at Saskatoon City Hospital. Many were the times when the ferry broke free, and ferryman and passengers had to scramble to recapture it.
Tom Sukanen built a towering ship in a vain attempt to sail it to Finland, his homeland. The ship has been preserved at the Sukanen museum south of Moose Jaw.
Author Farley Mowat came by his flamboyance honestly. Angus Mowat (chief librarian at the Saskatoon Public Library in the 1930s) and a friend built a boat in a basement, blasted the foundation walls to get it out, then embarked on an abortive expedition down the river.
[Wheeler: Friesen, Saskatchewan History (fall 1996): 19]
Experiments with flying machines
Early pilots really were daring young men in their flying machines, except some were daring young women. Most survived to tell the tale of their aerial exploits. Later our province provided many daring pilots in World Wars I and II.
In 1904 William Wallace “Bill” Gibson (“the birdman of Balgonie”) started fooling around with flying contraptions soon after the Wright brothers’ historic first flight. In Victoria, Gibson devised an engine to power his little aircraft and on September 8, 1910 made a short aerial hop in it — the first flight made by a Canadian airplane powered by an engine built in Canada.
The first airplane to arrive in Saskatchewan was shipped in pieces from Edmonton in May 1911 by the Grand Trunk Railway, for its owner Bob St. Henry, whose real name was Schaffer. He performed dashing aerial stunts over the Exhibition, then flew to Regina, where he did it again.
Ace and George Pepper of Davidson flew about the same time. After experimenting with models and gliders, they got hold of an 8-hp engine and built their own biplane. During the annual fair there in 1911, George took off, coasting about eighty feet at a height of ten or twelve feet before the plane crashed.
Roland Groome, who had been a flying instructor in World War I, was the first licensed commercial pilot in Canada in 1920, and he flew the first cross-country flight in the province, from Saskatoon to Regina.
Aviator Jimmy Ward flew a Curtiss Pusher in Regina in July 1912, three weeks after the terrible “cyclone” of 1912 smashed large areas of the city.
Glenn Martin was a barnstormer who thrilled Saskatoon when he urged his pusher biplane up to 6,400 feet at the Exhibition. Martin returned in 1913 and took three local fans up for rides. Later he formed the company that built the B-26 Marauder of the Second World War.
The Chinese Nationalist League established Keng Wah Aviation outside Saskatoon in May 1919. It was an air training facility for fledgling Chinese pilots being trained for the fledgling air force of Chinese Nationalist president Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
Nellie Carson, born in Yorkton, was the first woman in the province to qualify for a commercial pilot’s license, on October 12, 1929. She immediately set a new altitude record of sicteen thousand feet without an oxygen mask.
Bob Randall of the Saskatoon Aero Club was an early bush pilot who flew on the historic Canadian Pacific Airlines flight over the pole to Europe in 1928.
Stan McClelland, owner of McClelland Aviation, offered thrilling aerial rides in his JN-G-CAAJ to adventurous souls in the early days of flight. His airfield and hanger were a mile northwest of St. Paul’s Hospital.
Flying instructor E.J. (Smudge) Smith-Marriott and passenger Alfred Johnson were killed when their De Havilland (Gypsy) Moth biplane crashed after colliding with high tension wires strung across the river in Saskatoon and plummeting onto a submerged sandbar August 3, 1929.
Canadian Aviation Historical Society – Saskatchewan section, and other sources]
Modern pilots flying over Saskatchewan
Air service is vital in Saskatchewan, especially to the north, where remote destinations are often only fly-in.
Commercial airlines now operating with regularly scheduled passenger service are Transwest Airways of Prince Albert, also offering charters and helicopter flights; West Wind Aviation, which also runs charters and Medivac air ambulance service; and West Wind Aviation’s subsidiary Pronto. Another five are now kaput: Cherry Red, Norcanair, and Saskatchewan Government Airways, according to Wikipedia.
Bush pilots began to fly in goods and people to northern communities, where once the only option in winter was to travel by dogsled. Over the years, pilots who fly into the north have brought in hunters and fishermen hoping to find new Valhallas for their hobby, and by flying in prospectors and mining engineers they helped to open up new venues for mining exploration and development.
Nowadays it’s probably aerial firefighters who face the greatest thrills aloft on a continuing basis. The provincial government’s Ministry of Environment manages this and other aspects of northern forest fires. Their current fleet consists of four Convair 580A land-based air tankers, five CL-215 water-scooping aircraft, and seven smaller bird-dog aircraft that guide the tankers and direct other traffic over the fires, says their website. Parachute jumpers can be dropped to fight the fires closer-up.
The Flying Farmers of Saskatchewan used to be a lively group, linking isolated farm families with more poulated centres. It was founded in Estevan in 1955, with farm families owning their own planes. The FFS not only taught young people how to fly, especially how to land in an emergency, but also leadership skills. Alas, by 2005 membership had shrunk to only about a hundred, and it may not exist anymore.
Saskatchewan Air Ambulance Service (STARS) uses helicopters to deliver remote patients to city hospitals, and saves lives.
In Saskatoon, the newly-minted Saskatchewan Aviation Museum and Learning Centre at the airport preserves vintage planes, some of which – like their De Havilland Tiger Moth — still fly. Sometimes it can be seen winging its way over the city on special occasions. The Tiger Moths were used for flight training during World War II under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCTAP). Some 1550 were built in Canada.
There are several outfits that offer pilot training in Saskatchewan, such as the Regina Flying Club, Millenium Aviation in Saskatoon, and Saskatchewan Polytechnic.
The Saskatchewan Aviation Historical Society also promotes and preserves aviation history in the province.