Steamboats of The Mackenzie River

Steamboats Of The Mackenzie River

The Great Mackenzie River in Canada's North is a major artery. Used for thousands of years by the Dene, Beaver (Dunneza), Cree and Athabaskan natives, it was explored by Alexander Mackenzie, the Scot who lent his name. The river was an important communication link to the North, in a land that for years did not have roads, trains or airplanes. Police, explorers, and gold prospectors travelled by canoe and barge to get to various destinations.

In 1898 the Klondike Gold Rush gave an impetus to the exploration of the North. Some sourdoughs even travelled to Dawson City using the Mackenzie River. It was a more difficult route than the more common but still onerous Skagway trails, but what came out of this was a deep desire to explore and inhabit the North.

Police, government agents, and the Hudson's Bay Company were the main Canadian players in the Far North region during the period 1910–1950. This was also the active period of steamers on the river. As the lower tributaries of the Mackenzie became settled with roads and railways (the Peace, Athabaska, and Nehanni), the boats moved farther north, to work the trackless Arctic. Three companies competed for supremacy of the fur trade and water transportation in the early 1920s: The Hudson's Bay Company, Lamson Hubbard Canadian Co., and Northern Traders Co. each with a fleet of vessels. A series of amalgamations and takeovers left only two main water operators after 1924: the HBC through its wholly owned subsidiary Alberta & Arctic Transportation (later Mackenzie River Transport), and Northern Traders Co. who also gave up its transportation arm to the HBC in 1926 but would later be revived as the Northern Transportation Company Limited in the 1930s. The HBC continued in the business of transportation in conjunction with serving its own posts through Mackenzie River Transport, until 1946 when it got out of public freighting.

The Northland Trader, SS Distributor, and Mackenzie River were several of the sternwheeler steam-driven boats on the river. Others were the Weenusk, the Northland Echo, the Northern Light, the Midnight Sun, the Ingenika, and SS Wrigley. In the 1920s-1930s, many of these were replaced or converted into diesel or gas driven boats. The gold mines of Goldfields, Yellowknife, the uranium mines of Great Bear Lake, the oil wells of Norman Wells, and the mining exploration of Pine Point all provided trade for the vessels. Waterways on the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray became the southern service hub for the North. Boat yards and warehouses were built, as were wharves and railways. Alberta's Great Waterways railway arrived in 1922. Portage links were built at Fort Fitzgerald, so the cargoes could reach Fort Smith, the start of navigation for Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River proper leading down to the Arctic Ocean.

There are no further rapids on the river's thousand-mile course—Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, and Aklavik were destinations in the remote land. The Great Depression drove many people north, while the Second World War gave a huge impetus to northern shipping with the Eldorado Mine at Great Bear Lake, and the Canol war projects. To feed these needs, steel barges were built by the U.S. Army. After the war the DEW Line Project expanded shipping. Northern Transportation Co Ltd. set up in the Hay River. Allied Shipyard of North Vancouver built a series of knocked down barges, which were transported and welded together at Waterways for service in the North.

The northern barge traffic is still essential to the heavy freight as fuel, food, and heavy equipment can be moved economically in the summer months to the North and oil fields of the Beaufort.

Read more about Steamboats Of The Mackenzie River:  List of Historic Vessels, See Also

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