Steamboats of the Peace River

The Peace River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia to the Peace–Athabasca Delta and Lake Athabasca in Alberta, was navigable by late nineteenth and early twentieth century steamboats from the Rocky Mountain Falls at Hudson's Hope to Fort Vermilion, where there was another set of rapids, then via the lower Peace from Vermilion to Lake Athabasca. The Peace is part of the Mackenzie Basin, a larger river complex which includes the Athabasca, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers.

The Athabasca had large rapids too at Grande Rapids and Fort Smith; in this way the rivers were sectional as various boats worked upper and lower sections. The Peace River system was the western arm of the complex. Travellers to the Peace would pack or Red River Cart from Fort Edmonton eighty miles north to Athabaska Landing. Boats bound for the Peace Block would travel all the way north on the Athabasca River to Lake Athabasca, to get to the mouth of the Peace and then turn around southwest again. Traditionally, canoes provided transport in the area.

The first motorized vessel on the Peace system was the SS Grahame, built by the Hudson's Bay Company in Fort Chipewyan in the winter of 1882-83.[1] She carried freight 200 miles (320 km) up the Peace to Vermilion Chutes, where the company’s goods were portaged around the rapids and reloaded into a flotilla of scows and canoes for the journey onward."

The steamboats in the early days of the province provided transport to move food and supplies in and wheat and livestock out the five hundred miles of the Peace and 250 miles (400 km) of the Athabasca. Rolla, Taylor, Dunvegan, Peace River Landing and Fort Vermilion were put-in points.


The Catholic mission at Dunvegan ran the first sternwheeler, the St. Charles, in 1902. Built for Bishop Émile Grouard, her primary purpose was to aid him in his missionary work. She also carried goods for the North-West Mounted Police and the HBC.[2] In 1905, the HBC launched a sternwheeler of their own, the Peace River. Built at Fort Vermilion, this 110-foot (34 m) long vessel could carry forty tons of freight and worked on the Peace River for ten years.,[2]:123 until she was taken through the rapids below Fort Vermilion.

Steamboats had a limited season, often making only making 3 or 4 trips a year. These trips up and down the river would take several weeks, depending on conditions and sand bars. Boats did not travel at night due to limited visibility. Wood was the traditional fuel, and these sternwheelers could burn as much as three or four cords of wood per hour. Paying passengers had no guarantee of a leisurely trip; although contractors were hired to cut and stack cordwood along the river, the sternwheelers often burned wood in such enormous quantities that the passengers would be called into service and set ashore with crosscuts and axes to replenish the wood supply.[2]:127 The season was short due to winter and ice up, and the boats had to be pulled from the water in winter to avoid destruction by the ice.

As development came late, with the Peace River Block being opened up only about 1910, so followed the steamboats. The Grenfell was built in 1912 at Peace River, but sadly sunk two years later. The Northland Call was also made in Peace River and ran for half a dozen years in the teens. The D.A Thomas was built in 1915 by Baron Rhondda of Wales, the British Peerage name for same D.A. Thomas, who was a coal baron in the British Isles. He wanted to exploit the coal and oil deposits of Chetwynd, and so built the 168-foot (51 m) huge leviathan. She was quite unsuccessful owing to the First World War, although she ran until 1929.[2]:127 The D.A. Thomas steamed up and down the Peace until the late 1920s, but the expansion of rail into the area finally made her uneconomic and obsolete. In June 1930 she took the drop over the Vermilion Chutes, suffering some damage on the rocks, and then limped on to Fort Fitzgerald. There, she was dismantled and scrapped with parts being used for other purposes including storing grain. Other sternwheelers of that era included the Pine Pass, the Northland Echo and the Lady Mackworth, sister ship to the D.A. Thomas.[2]:127

End of an era

For the years from 1915 to 1925 the Peace River artery became the easier route to the north and Peace River town became the shipping-off point. The boats were transferred to the upper and lower Peace, and the Slave River. At this time the HBC ran all their boats down the Peace system to the Mackenzie River chain, boats like the Prospector and Distributor, which were useful in the war for the Norman Wells Canol project. The Hudson's Bay Company boats steamed until 1948.

The arrival of the Model T Ford, and bulldozer, and gravelled roads finished the river steamers in the Peace River Block. Also, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway worked its way to BC and arrived in Dawson Creek in 1930, completely doing in the steamboat era. Farther east the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway bypassed the worst rapids on the Upper Athabasca River by rail and thus made Waterways, or modern Fort McMurray, the transport head for the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. Other Railways—the Central Canada and Pembina Valley—tried to alleviate transport woes but became weakened by the Depression and were not completed.

Smaller boats of various kinds continued to work on the Peace for another 20 years, but the age of steamboats was gone. The final commercial freight run up the Peace River was made by the Watson Lake, a steel-hulled vessel, in September 1952. Her last trip completed, she was hauled out of the water and loaded on a flatcar and shipped by rail to Waterways to continue work up north.

The US Army built a diesel paddler for tug service on the Peace River in 1942. It worked on the raising of the Peace River Bridge (part of the Alaska Highway), the re-located and exiled bad boy bridge of Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It promptly collapsed again in 1957.

List of vessels

  • D.A. Thomas - paddlewheeler (187 feet (57 m) long, 37 feet (11 m) beam, 300 ton cargo, 300 passengers) placed in service in 1916 by the Peace River Development Co, and later the Alberta Arctic Transportation Co. (1921) and Hudson's Bay Co. (1924), operating on the Peace River until 1930.
  • Canadusa - gas motor vessel operated by the Alberta Arctic Transportation Co on the Peace River. Later operated on Lake Athabasca and Athabasca River in 1930s by the HBC.

See also


  1. Jack Danylchuk (2007). "Back on the River". Up Here magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-11-29. McKay’s father had worked as a deckhand on the Grahame, a Hudson’s Bay Co. sternwheeler built in Fort Chipewyan with milled lumber, its furnace and boilers hauled north from Edmonton. Launched in 1882, the Grahame picked up freight and passengers below the rapids on the Athabasca, churning between Fort McMurray, Fort Chip and Fort Smith.
  2. Downs, Art (1975–1979). Pioneer Days in British Columbia Volume 2. Heritage House and main author Harold Fryer. ISBN 0-919214-68-1.:120

Further reading

  • Pioneer Days in British Columbia Volume Two Art Downs and Harold Fryer ISBN 0-9690546-2-9
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