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Excerpts from Ted Barris' Fire Canoe

Wednesday, Sep 30, 2015 at 4:00pm

Ted Barris' Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited tells the history of Canadian steamboats, captained by seafaring skippers who'd moved inland and piloted by indigenous peoples who knew the intricacies and dangers of the waterways. These boats, named "fire canoes" by aboriginal people, helped to form the Canadian West, and Barris brings the tales of them alive in this new book.

We will have the pleasure of hosting Barris for a book launch in both our Saskatoon and Winnipeg stores. The Winnipeg launch will take place on October 13th, 2015, followed by the Saskatoon launch the next day.

After the jump you will find two excerpts from Fire Canoe, the first featuring a Winnipeg angle and the second with a touch of Saskatoon.



Chapter One: First Down the Red (pg 9-12)

When, rarely, the wind subsided and the wild prairie grasses stood motionless and silent, the only sound heard by the five thousand inhabitants of the Red River Settlement in the middle of the 19th century was the ceaseless rumble and wash of the Assiniboine and the Red River that met below the fort to flow north to Hudson Bay. Otherwise, for its fifty-year existence the Settlement had lived in the silence of isolation. At a precise moment in time—on Friday, June 10, 1859—this pastoral harmony came abruptly to an end.

On that spring day citizens of the settlement heard a different sound, like the low echo of someone blowing across the lip of a bottle. It was a sound unlike anything ever heard before. Within moments there was pandemonium. Panic-stricken aboriginal families fleeing to the river forks cried out that a fiery monster was pounding down the river towards them. Then the “monster” appeared, as suddenly as an apparition. Little more than a tub ninety feet long and twenty-two feet across, and surmounted by a great house-like superstructure, the Anson Northup, shrouded by swirling steam and woodsmoke, rounded the final bend and bore down on the Red River Settlement.

“The boat arrived unexpectedly in the centre of the colony . . . no one anticipating its coming,” wrote Bishop Alexandre Taché, a spectator on the riverbank. “Its arrival was treated as quite an event, and, to the surprise of the public, cannon thundered and bells pealed forth chimes to signal rejoicing. The puffing of steam moving about on our river told the echoes of the desert that a new era for our country was being inaugurated. Each turn of the engine appeared to bring us nearer by so much to the civilized world.”

The steamer nosed into the Assiniboine to glory in the fort’s impromptu welcome. Owner and builder Captain Anson Northup allowed a smile to cross his granite face as the proud mate Edwin Bell tugged a line releasing high-pressure steam through the whistle. The Governor settlement, meanwhile offered reserved congratulations.

Well might the appointed Governor reserve his enthusiasm over this pioneer steamboat which now linked the Settlement with Fort Abercrombie, Minnesota, only three hundred miles away. The American free traders had competed in Company-dominated territory before, but the Anson Northup marked the first time the Americans had enjoyed the advantage of a more efficient transportation system. The superior capacity, speed, and economy of the steamboats made the York Factory route of the Hudson’s Bay Company obsolete. The remoteness that the Company had exploited for centuries ended; suddenly Hudson’s Bay men had to grapple with a rival more ominous than competitive independent fur traders—American Manifest Destiny.

Captain Northup’s smile was not only that of an agent of Manifest Destiny; he had just won himself a small fortune. The aggressive Americanism stemmed from a St. Paul Chamber of Commerce that had eight months before offered money to the first man or company to put a steamer on the Red, the challenge being to overcome the land divide between a now fully navigable Mississippi River system and an untouched Red River system. Bull-headed and greedy, Northup persuaded the St. Paul businessmen to double the prize money to two thousand dollars. He immediately purchased an abandoned light-draft steamboat, the North Star (previously constructed on the lower Mississippi as the Governor Ramsey with machinery from Maine). His suggestion to build a fifty-mile canal joining the Mississippi and Red rivers in Minnesota was laughed down, so Northup decided to walk his boat overland from Crow Wing on the Missis- sippi to Lafayette on the Red.

Through the winter of 1858–59 Northup appeared to be the only contender for the St. Paul money. Guiding seventeen span of horses, thirteen yoke of oxen, and thirty teamsters, he carted the North Star’s extracted 11,000-pound boiler, engine works, and rough timbers for a new hull over 150 miles of Minnesota forest, drift-snow, and a series of makeshift bridges—no minor miracle. However, by spring breakup on the Mississippi River, another captain, John B. Davis, had quietly slipped a small, flat-bottomed, square-bowed steamer, the Freighter, into the upper Minnesota, a tributary of the Mississippi. Confident his light craft and his own ability would bring him success, Davis made a lightning dash for the Red at the peak of the spring thaw, when flooding submerged the land between the Minnesota and Red rivers. Davis was set on the two thousand dollars and a claim on gold struck on the Saskatchewan River in the Northwest. He lost his Freighter to the shallows of the flooded divide and his crew to a barrel of whisky, and left Northup alone in the bid for the money.



Chapter 3: Paddles of Peace and War (pg 83-84)

In the spring of 1885, when the steamer Northcote landed near Saskatoon to debark a hospital unit for Gen. F.D. Middleton’s wounded, the fatigued boat travellers heard about the militia’s humiliating retreat from Cut Knife Hill near Battleford on May 2. The Riel Rebellion was moving to a climax.

The Northcote’s sternwheel scarcely stopped chopping up the river at Saskatoon, pausing only to accept a welcome cargo—some freshly caught jackfish, which a farmer named Eby delivered personally by wading out to the steamer. Middleton paced about his Clarke’s Crossing camp waiting for Gat Howard’s prized weapon, his gatling gun, and the Midland Battalion with the Field Hospital Corps. By May 5 the steamer caught up to Middleton. A robust New Brunswicker with heavy overcoat and full beard joined the Northcote crew at Clarke’s Crossing. Just thirty-five, Captain E. Shelton Andrews was a fully papered master of the high seas; in 1884 the Temperance Colony of Saskatoon had hired him to skipper the launch May Queen down from Medicine Hat with a scow of lumber for their growing South Saskatchewan town. The captain had homesteaded and married just before the Duck Lake incident, but “as they had no-one else to splice their wire ropes [the militia] took me on as a combatant, and I took part in the expedition of the Northcote against Batoche.”

Perhaps the Métis sniper’s bullet that shattered part of Gen. Middleton’s shaving mirror (to which the General responded, “Lucky shot. Never happen again,” without missing a stroke around his walrus moustache) wrongly convinced the commander that his enemy were poor shots. After seizing Gabriel’s Crossing (Gabriel Dumont’s abandoned farm site) on May 8, Middleton ordered Dumont’s stable dismantled for its planking, and Dumont’s billiard table and washing machine removed to the Northcote. It was then that he announced his idea to convert the steamer into a gunboat! Under S.L. Bedson, Chief of Transport for the Field Forces, and Captain Smith of the Infantry School Corps, the Northcote dressed for the mission.

The stable planks were tacked outside the maindeck walls, and oat sacks, boxed materials, and pressed hay were packed around the upper deck. Armed with thirty-five riflemen, one cannon, and her top speed of five miles per hour, the Northcote would perform a diversionary manoeuvre as “Middleton’s Navy” in the assault on Batoche.

According to Middleton’s precautionary strategy, the Northcote stirred the river mists at Gabriel’s Crossing shortly after six on the morning of May 9th, 1885, and steamed down to the last bend above the Batoche settlement, where she was to await Middleton’s bombardment of Riel’s camp from the east, and then split the Métis defence by opening fire from the river. With two clumsy barges lashed to her bulwarks, the Northcote paddled gently into the current toward her delay point. The two skippers and the chief clerk eyed uneasily the flimsy shielding around their wheelhouse. Below on the cabin deck and boiler deck, sea captain Andrews, Captain Smith and his thirty-five troops, and an ailing Lieutenant Hugh John Macdonald, son of the Prime Minister, casually positioned themselves. Raconteur-reporter George H. Ham enjoyed the early morning with a cigar; he had come aboard to get the story, handle a rifle, and (because his father, John V. Ham, ran a legal firm with partner John A. Macdonald in Ontario), keep a guardian eye on the Prime Minister’s son.

The first gunshot ripped into the Northcote “at ten minutes past eight,” a startled George Ham reported, “passing through the pilot house. The rebel spies had watched the steamer the previous night on the opposite bank from Gabriel’s. . . . This first shot was evidently a signal to the rebels of the boat’s approach, and as she rounded the bend a moment later, she was raked fore and aft with a storm of bullets coming from either bank.” Dashing below to join his ward, Ham jabbed Macdonald’s rifle through the protective sacks and returned the fire with Smith’s infantrymen.

Faithful scouts had given Dumont an explicit description of the Northcote’s features; mounted, Dumont raced up and down the riverbank directing Métis gunfire. “Captains Segers and Sheets, who piloted the steamer, remained at the post of duty,” Ham commended, “and with them was Talbot, the purser, who kept a steady fire from the pilot-house, which was made a special target of by the rebel marksmen, they being fully aware of the disaster which must overtake us if we were wounded in this vulnerable point. Dozens of bullets pierced the wheel-house. Segers received one in the coat sleeve; and in the cabin in which I write, a scene of wild disorder prevails.”



Thanks to Dundurn Press for providing us with these excerpts.

Categories: Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Event News, New Releases, History

More articles from books


Fire Canoe

- Ted Barris

Hardcover $33.99 - Add to Cart
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The story of steamboating in the Canadian West comes to life in the voices of those aboard the vessels of the waterways of the Prairies.

Their captains were seafaring skippers who had migrated inland. Their pilots were indigenous people who could read the shoals, sandbars, and currents of Prairie waterways. Their operators were businessmen hoping to reap the benefits of commercial enterprise along the shores and banks of Canada's inland lakes and rivers. Their passengers were fur traders, adventure-seekers, and immigrants opening up the West. All of them sought their futures and fortunes aboard Prairie steamboats, decades before the railways arrived and took credit for the breakthrough.

Aboriginal people called them "fire canoes," but in the latter half of the nineteenth century, their operators promoted them as Mississippi-type steamship queens delivering speedy transport, along with the latest in technology and comfort. Then, as the twentieth century dawned, steamboats and their operators adapted. They launched smaller, more tailored steamers and focused on a new economy of business and pleasure in the West. By day their steamboats chased freight, fish, lumber, iron ore, real estate, and gold-mining contracts. At night, they brought out the Edwardian finery, lights, and music to tap the pleasure-cruise market.