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Saskatchewan’s Ferry System

By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
February 2008

Two horses pulling wagon with seated man onto wooden ferry

Ferry across the South Saskatchewan River, Batoche, c. 1906
WDM Library 7-E-63

Highways to the West
It was not by southern prairie trails that the first Europeans ventured into the vast wilderness of western Canada–it was the great northern rivers that brought adventurers and fur traders to the interior of the continent.

The Athabasca, Clearwater, Churchill and Saskatchewan river systems provided access to the riches of furs that European fashion demanded. Traders, voyageurs, First Nations trappers and Métis freighters paddled along these rivers to a string of trading posts established by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its rival, the North-West Company.

River Crossings
While rivers were the highways of the north, in the south they were roadblocks to overland travellers and crossing them posed all sorts of difficulties. The most suitable crossing sites were places where rivers were narrow with gently sloping banks. But crossings were dangerous business on makeshift rafts. Sometimes wagons had to be floated across, horses and cattle made to swim. Strong currents, deep water and treacherous ice conditions in spring were just some of the dangers.

The First Ferries
The first Saskatchewan ferries, like the boat kept on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River near Fort Carlton and another at Batoche for crossing the South Saskatchewan, were owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Both were left there for use by occasional travellers on the Carlton Trail that stretched from Red River (Winnipeg) to Fort Edmonton. Even earlier, First Nations people sometimes built what were called “bull boats,” makeshift crafts made from buffalo hides stretched over willow sapling frames.

In 1871, Xavier Letendre offered Saskatchewan’s first semi-regular ferry service–a barge across the South Saskatchewan River at Batoche. A year or two later Gabriel Dumont also set up a ferry a few kilometres upstream. By 1875, the territorial government decided that ferry operators needed permits to operate–the permit was given to the highest bidder who then charged a fee to his passengers. When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, the government took over all ferry service. In 1912, ferry operators were put on salaries, ending the toll system for daytime crossings.

Batoche Ferry
Xavier Letendre’s ferry was outfitted with two oars to help propel it across the river, no easy job in the strong river current. A series of moveable or “current” boards under the deck were positioned to catch the current. The wheel at the side of the ferry controlled these boards. About 1873, Letendre set up a cable system, anchored to a tower on either side of the river, to prevent the ferry from being swept downstream.
By 1926, it was time for a new ferry at the Batoche crossing. The government built seven new scows that year, including one for Batoche. It served another generation of travellers until it was replaced by a larger, motorized ferry in the late 1950s. Ferry service finally ended at Batoche in 1968 when Gabriel’s Bridge opened a few kilometres to the south. The old Batoche ferry, its weathered deck worn by thousands of horse-drawn wagons, cars and trucks, was rebuilt in 1972 from the old 1926 scow for the movie Alien Thunder, the story of Almighty Voice. It is now on exhibit at the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw.

Twentieth Century Ferries
In 1926, the number of ferries in Saskatchewan peaked at 47. Maintaining the ferries, the cable systems, the approaches to the ferries, and the houses provided for the operators was a big job. Ferry construction crews were hired to do the work.

Vehicles pulled by two or more horses 78,497
One-horse vehicles
Saddle horses 13,232
“Loose” animals 36,658
Passengers 489,601
Automobiles 169,198
Tractors and steam engines 230
Total Units 812,144

With the construction of bridges in the 1930s, 1940s and later, the number of ferries declined, although traffic counts remained high. In 1955, 28 ferries transported nearly 900,000 passengers and vehicles of all kinds. By 1969, the last year in which ferry traffic records included the number of passengers, nearly 2,000,000 passengers and vehicles of all description crossed Saskatchewan rivers on 20 ferries.

Over the years, wooden scows were replaced by steel ferries, and the old current board method of propelling them replaced by gas or diesel motors. In 2005, 12 ferries provided seasonal service to Saskatchewan motorists: Estuary, Lemsford, Lancer, Riverhurst, Clarkboro, Hague, St. Laurent, Fenton and Weldon on the South Saskatchewan; Paynton, Wingard and Cecil on the North Saskatchewan. There was also a barge on Wollaston Lake.

If you’ve never experienced a river crossing on a Saskatchewan ferry, you might want to try it this summer. Most of the ferries accommodate six vehicles and the crossing takes only a few minutes; the Riverhurst ferry is larger, the crossing longer. For a look at an older ferry, stop in at the Moose Jaw Western Development Museum where the Batoche ferry is featured in the Water Transportation Gallery.

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