Demonstrated in France on the Saône River in 1783, the paddle-wheel steamboat first appeared in North America for use on the Delaware River in 1787. After inauguration at New Orleans in 1811 by Robert Fulton, hundreds of boats worked the Mississippi River system between 1830 and 1870. The first paddle steamer in Canadian waters, the ACCOMMODATION, was a side-wheeler launched for a 36-hour maiden voyage from Montréal to Québec in 1809. Other paddle-wheel steamboat firsts in Canada include the Frontenac on Lake Ontario (1816); the General Stacey Smyth on the Saint John River (1816); the Union on the lower reaches of the Ottawa River (1819); the Richard Smith visiting PEI (1830); the ROYAL WILLIAM steaming from Québec to Halifax (1831); the seagoing BEAVER, which first plied waters off BC (1836); the Spitfire, first steamboat into St John's harbour (1840); and the ANSON NORTHUP, first paddle wheeler to cross the international boundary on the Red River (1859).
Paddle steamers figure significantly in Canadian history. The Swiftsure moved troops on the St Lawrence during the War of 1812. The Royal William, built at Québec, was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic almost entirely under the power of steam in 1833. BC steamers ferried thousands of gold seekers into the Fraser (1858), Cariboo (1862) and Yukon (1898) river valleys (300 steamboats worked BC and Yukon waterways between 1836 and 1957). The Red River steamer International was commandeered by the forces of Louis Riel at Fort Garry in 1870; and the Saskatchewan River stern-wheeler Northcote engaged Gabriel Dumont's Métis at the Battle of BATOCHE.
Paddle steamers carried the first wheat exported from Manitoba, precipitated a sophisticated inland canal and lock system in Ontario, freighted the first locomotive to Winnipeg for the CPR, brought the first mail to the Klondike and ferried the first fresh fruits and missionaries into the Far North. The utilitarian steamboat was also a social force. Staterooms, grand pianos and fine wines came with first-class passage aboard even the frontier steamers, and cabin and boiler decks below had fiddle playing, folk dances and card games. After 1900, when railways replaced steamboats as the major means of freight transport, hunting and picnic excursions and moonlight cruises were commonplace aboard steamboats. The last fully operational stern-wheeler, the Samson V (built in 1936 for use on the Fraser River), was taken out of service in 1981.
Stern-wheelers still operate, or are displayed, at various historic sites and attractions. In the Yukon, the steamer Keno, which transported silver, lead and zinc ore between Stewart City and Mayo Landing in 1922, has been preserved to commemorate the mining history of the Yukon Territory. The Keno now occupies a berth in Dawson City. In Edmonton, the Edmonton Queen cruises along the North Saskatchewan River, treating passengers to a scenic view of the river valley.
Author TED BARRIS
Ted Barris, Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited (1977); Peter Charlebois, Sternwheelers & Sidewheelers, The Romance of Steamdriven Paddleboats in Canada (1978); Art Downs, Paddlewheels on the Frontier; The Story of British Columbia and Yukon Sternwheel Steamers (1972).
Links to Other Sites
Encyclopedia of British Columbia
Fast facts and a timeline of the history of British Columbia from the website for the "Encyclopedia of British Columbia." Most of the website content, including articles, photos, and graphics, is available through subscription.
The Colonial Despatches
View digitized copies of correspondence (dated 1846 - 1859) between the British Colonial Office and the "colonies" of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Search or browse this site for references to specific individuals, communities, companies, or industries in the province. Also includes digitized images of maps of various locations. From the website for the University of Victoria.
A Century of Sail and Steam on the Niagara River
Explore 400 years of sailing history in the Niagara River and Lake Ontario region. Peruse original illustrations and rare photographs and the full text of this 1913 publication. From the “Maritime History of the Great Lakes” website.
Early Days of Fraser River Transportation
Relive the early days of Fraser River transportation in this Samson V Maritime Museum website. Features stories and photos of the steamships that provided a vital transportation link between communities during the 19th century.
SS Moyie National Historic Site
Dedicated to the history of the Kootenay Lake region and the S.S. Moyie, the world's oldest intact passenger sternwheeler. From the Kootenay Lake Historical Society.
Texada Island Heritage Society
The website for the Texada Island Heritage Society. Check out the fascinating collection of historic photos of local industrial sites and various marine vessels.
Sheet Music From Canada's Past: Boating
Scroll down the page to view a selection of finely illustrated covers of sheet music published in Canada prior to 1921 (click on the images for larger views). Check the menu on the left for links to audio clips and additional information about Library and Archives Canada's collection of sheet music.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...