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.
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.