Saskatoon’s Centennial Has River Tales to Tell

By Cliff Speer

Ness Creek Journal, Spring 2006

Weir and American Pelican at Saskatoon’s weir

Saskatoon’s infamous weir – works well for pelicans, but not for wayward pontoon boats!

On June 8, 1908 Saskatoon suffered “the greatest marine disaster” in its history. At least that was the spin put on the news report by the Saskatoon Star at the time. The “disaster” involved the sinking of the stern-wheeler, City of Medicine Hat. It was on its maiden voyage from Medicine Hat to Winnipeg when the captain maneuvering under Saskatoon’s rail bridges, lost control in the spring flood currents and plowed into the base of the Victoria Street Bridge. The ship capsized, but everyone on board escaped injury. A $28,000 loss to the steamer’s owner and considerable loss of pride to the captain, could hardly qualify as a true disaster. However, as both were the same person, his marine aspirations suffered quite a setback!

Tales of history are the stuff of centennial celebrations for Saskatoon in 2006 and none are so intriguing as those connected to the South Saskatchewan River. On July 15, 1993 Saskatoon’s second marine disaster befell another couple of boats during serious flood conditions. This episode involved the W.W. Northcote and Little Northcote pontoon tour boats, named after the infamous stern-wheeler that failed its military mission on Batoche in 1885. The flood currents tore the pontoon boats loose from their sand bar moorings near the Mendel Gallery, early that fateful July morning. There was no where for them to go, but over the weir, which only took minutes. Then it only took 15 minutes for the powerful backwash at the base of the weir to pin and pommel them till they sank.

Disasters make exciting reading, but there is also good news associated with river history. Toward the end of the last century, a movie which achieved international acclaim was shot along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Summer of the Monkeys, a 1910-era tale of a boy who spends his summer trying to capture 4 runaway circus monkeys from a train wreck, was in large part filmed near an impressive set of riverbank cliffs and in the nearby river valley south of Saskatoon.

Sand banks along the South Saskatchewan River near Saskatoon

Photo: Dominique Hurley

Centennial River Run is a canoe tour to acquaint paddlers with “100 years of South Saskatchewan River history.” This is an ambitious undertaking, but the best historians in the City will deliver the goods. On the June 25 trip, well-known historian and author, Bill Waiser is on board to interpret river history while tour participants paddle a short stretch of river south of Saskatoon. On the September 17 tour, City Archivist and author, Jeff O’Brien will regale canoeists with river tales.

If you would like to celebrate Saskatoon’s Centennial in a unique way, here’s a chance to give it a special river twist. More information on the Centennial River Run is available from Cliff Speer, CanoeSki Discovery Co. Tel: 653-5693. Email: Website: