Project Canterbury

 The Red Indians of the Plains
Thirty Years' Missionary Experience in the Saskatchewan
by the Rev. John Hines

London: SPCK, 1919.

Chapter XII. The Steam Launch

ALTHOUGH my wife rejoined me in the mission field in 1890, it was not until 1891 that I was able to leave home for the purpose of purchasing the new launch. In the meantime, however, I had made many enquiries as to the best kind of boat to purchase, and several people wrote me from Winnipeg and elsewhere offering to sell me theirs, which, if one is justified in believing the descriptions I received, were equal to, or even better than new boats, though they were secondhand!

I had thought of purchasing an oil boat, as oil would occupy much less space as fuel than wood, but I changed my mind for reasons which I will now disclose. On reaching Winnipeg, I called at the office of a man who had written me that he had an oil boat for sale, one that had only been in use one summer, and therefore was quite equal to new, and I was invited to join him on a trip down the Red River the same afternoon. I did so, and our experience, at least so far as I was concerned, was unique. I was shown all the improvements on the boat, which was supposed to be of the very latest design, and to look at the boat it seemed all right, and suited me as to size, so having filled the boiler in a way which I did not think novel, viz., with a funnel and pail, the owner began getting up steam, by a process which I also thought bespoke much labour, and which left room for much improvement. The oil had to be blown across an unprotected space into retorts, when it became ignited, and blazed away under the boiler; but the arrangement was such that until there was sufficient steam to enable it to work automatically, one had to pump in air by hand to take the place of steam, until, as I have said, the water had boiled and the head of steam was sufficient to force the burning oil into the retorts and so work automatically.

This meant fifteen or more minutes incessant pumping, and any secession of labour caused the oil to fall short of its destination and fall into a sort of flat receptacle, and if through wind or water spraying over the side of the boat the blaze became extinguished, the oil continued to flow, but fell either on the floor of the boat or in the tin. Now in order to re-ignite the dripping oil, a lamp similar to a tin teapot with a round wick projecting through the spout was kept constantly alight, and protected in a sort of cupboard arrangement from wind and water, and every time the jets of blaze became extinguished, the lamp had to be passed along the jets of oil to re-ignite them, something like passing a match over the jet of gas in lighting a gas stove.

Now from what I have said, one can easily imagine the floor of the boat being constantly saturated with paraffin oil, and rendered dangerous in case of fire coming in contact with it. Well, that afternoon we made our exhibition trip down the Red River. The wind was blowing quite strong, and the waves on the Red River beat against the sides of the boat, and what with the spray and the wind we experienced ah" that I have led the reader to anticipate was possible to happen.

The captain, and owner of the boat, was, I could see, quite a novice at engineering; in fact, it appeared to me that outside his own profession he was not very handy. He was an agent for one of the many kinds of tea, which, like his boat according to his own description, was of the best. But I could see too that he was getting very nervous and excited, and I actually asked to be allowed to "run the show" myself, for I thought I could see what was likely to happen if he continued his frantic efforts to keep the retorts burning, for he was not at all particular how he put down the lamp. But in spite of his bewilderment, he thought he knew more about the management of his boat than I did, and continued in charge. When we had gone about a mile down the stream, three parts of the distance we had floated, being without the aid of the engine, he decided to turn round and show me what the boat could do going against the stream, but in the act of doing so, the boat got into the trough of the waves, and one, more sportive than the rest, struck our boat abeam and so upset her equilibrium that the lighted lamp fell out of its shelter, and in an instant the whole of the machinery and boiler were enveloped in a burning flame, and we were drifting! We could not approach the flame to do anything with it, and so we got as far away from it as we could and shouted for help. It was fortunate for us that we were opposite some public works, where there were men working outside, and these seeing our predicament put off in a boat to our rescue. They succeeded in tying a rope to the head of our boat, and then fastening it to the stern of theirs, they pulled us ashore. The flames by this time had licked up all the surface oil, and with buckets and water at hand we prevented any further damage to the boat. My friend assured me that such an accident had never befallen him before, but whether he saw by the expression on my face that I had had enough of oil boats, or what it was, I cannot say; but the sale of the boat was not again referred to in my presence.

The next day I took train to the Lake of the Woods, and inspected several boats of a similar kind to the one I saw in Winnipeg. These were managed by more expert men, and the elements were in favour of the boat, but as I would have wide lakes to cross and long distances to travel in my district, and also as I could not control either the wind or the waves, my aspirations for a boat driven by oil had completely forsaken me; besides, we had no oil wells in our neighbourhood, therefore oil would be an expensive fuel. But wood was plentiful everywhere, and our stock of fuel could be replenished at any time, so I decided to purchase a boat that burnt wood. Besides, I asked myself this question, viz., if these oil boats are such "daisies," how is it that their owners have so soon become tired of them and are offering them for sale? In answering my own question, I said to myself there must be some reason for it which, if the truth was told, would not enhance their value, and so I decided to go on to Toronto and consult a boat builder, one with whom I had already communicated.

On arriving at Toronto I called on the Poison Iron Works Company, and found the senior partner a very genial sort of man, and his good wife being a sister of one of the city clergy I found myself among friends. After some talk with Mr. Poison about the boat, he like a practical man said, "Don't tell me the kind of boat to build, but describe to me the kind of work the boat is expected to do, such as the strength of the currents she will have to ascend, the depth of water in the rivers, and the breadth of the lakes you will have to cross." Having heard my report, he said, "What you want is a boat with power to stem the rapids, and a good draught that will enable her to ride the waves you may have to encounter on the lakes, and we can make a boat that will do the work, but the money at your disposal is not enough to pay for such a boat as you require."

"Well, what am I to do?" I asked. He said, "Do you not know some of the clergy in Toronto?" "No," I replied, "I never was here before." "Well," he said, "my wife is expecting her brother to call in to-day on his way to a meeting of the clergy, and she will explain your difficulties to him, and perhaps something can be done to help you--and, by the way, you had better make your home with us whilst you are in Toronto, that is, you can travel about and accept all the invitations you can get, but regard this as your home, when board and lodging fail you elsewhere." I thanked him for his kind invitation and gladly accepted it, and then we walked down to the lake to inspect his iron works. In the meantime the Rev. Mr. B. had called on his sister, and later in the afternoon he cam« again, bringing with him five or six other clergy, and later on others called to see me. All were quite willing, yea, even quite anxious, that I should preach in their churches for them, but they were not so willing to give me a collection to defray the cost of my new boat, because as they said, "It is summer time, and our rich people are away at the lakes, and the collections at the present time are not sufficient to cover church expenses; but you can speak about your needs, and if anyone present cares to send you something direct, why, of course, they can do so, but we cannot spare you anything out of the offertories." I thanked them for their good-will, and accepted their offers as regards the use of their churches, and I do not think I preached once without receiving £5 and sometimes as much as £25 for my efforts. The result was that by the time the boat was completed, I had not only sufficient money on hand to pay for it, but enough to buy two Peterborough canoes, and two American organs for Church services. But, as Toronto was more than a thousand miles from East Selkirk--the termination of the railway journey, or rather the place from whence I would have to proceed home by water--my next important business was to get the boat to that point, so I interviewed the chief of the freight department of the C.P.R. in his Toronto office, and as such men have no time for unnecessary words, we made our conversation as crisp and businesslike as possible. The conversation took the following form:

Agent: Who, and what are you, and what is your business?

I: My name, vocation, place, and people among whom I laboured.

Agent: Why don't you shoot the Indians, they are no good.

I: Very singular, but the bad Indians have the same opinion about the white people, and their method of dealing with them would be the same as you have suggested, if they were not in such a hopeless minority.

Agent: Then there are some Indians who are some good, and have kindly feelings towards the whites?

I: Yes, and I referred him to the conduct of my Indians during the rebellion.

Agent: Well, what do you want, a subscription?

I: Yes, but not in the shape that is in your thoughts at the present time, but in the way of saving me from any great outlay in getting my boat to the head of water communication.

Agent: You will require a flat car such as is used for shipping machinery to the West?

I: Yes! What will you charge me for such a car all to myself from Toronto to East Selkirk?

Agent: Will seventy-five dollars (£15) be too much for you?

I (thoughtfully): Thank you, Sir, very much, for such a handsome reduction on your usual charge, but do I understand you that I am privileged to put other things on the car beside the boat, so long as I do not exceed its carrying capacity?

Agent: Yes, so long as you do not overload it.

I then told him about my canoes and two organs and a couple of bales of clothing for distribution among Indians.

Agent: You will be quite within the limit in putting them on board.

I made out a cheque then and there for the amount and passed it over to him, and we parted the best of friends.

I told him that I was very much afraid that I should miss the high stage of water on the rapids in the lower reaches of the Saskatchewan, and I asked him to give orders for a quick transit, and in less than a week the boat was at Selkirk. Quite a number of gentlemen who owned and used small yachts on the Red River, inspected my boat whilst it remained in the station yard at Winnipeg. It was no toy like most of those in use on the Red River, it was substantially built, being 32 feet in length, six feet six inches beam, and three feet draught. The photograph was taken in the Poison Company's yard after the boat had been loaded on the car, and just before it started on its one thousand miles of railway journey. I had taken the precaution to have all parts subject to friction in duplicate, including the main shaft, and the propeller in triplicate. I also took out with me a set of tools so that I could do my own repairs if needed, for, be it remembered, I was taking my boat five hundred miles from the nearest machine shop. In short, it was a unique experience, inasmuch as it was the pioneer boat of its size in the Saskatchewan.

Perhaps some one would like to know if I had had any experience in handling machinery, and my answer is "No!" I knew no more about running a steamboat when I ordered mine than did (to use a common expression) the man in the moon; but as soon as the engine fitters began their work, I stood by them most of the time and asked the why and the wherefore of every piece of machinery that was put into the boat, and I jotted down in my pocket book all the information I obtained in this way.

After the boat was completed and launched in Lake Ontario, I ran it for two days with nothing to guide me but my notes, and the only companion I had with me was the nephew of one of my clerical friends, whom I took with me to steer the boat, and it was after my cruise was over that the boat was taken out of the water and placed on the car.

During my nine weeks stay in Toronto I made many friends, who not only demonstrated their interest in me and my work whilst with them, but in after years showed me many favours by helping me with the work committed to my charge.

I reached West Selkirk about 8 p.m. with my boat, and it was 10 p.m. before we got to work, and between the railway car and the water lay a huge pile of lumber. This had to be levelled out and ways laid on which to roll my boat off the car. The shipping agent gave me every assistance, and engaged men to help me, and by 2 o'clock in the morning the boat was safely launched.

We had a hurried cup of tea on the banks of the river, and then started floating down stream to the mouth of the Red River, where the lake boat was anchored.

I made arrangements with the captain for two men alternately to steer my boat, and keep it in line with the boats in front. The lake steamer had three boats in tow besides mine, and my boat was tied to the end of the last boat, so that my little launch was nearly a quarter of a mile behind the towing boat. We no sooner entered Lake Winnipeg, than a fearful storm came on which lasted several days, and at times we did not make two miles an hour. There was no communication between the barges on account of the storm, but there were two or three men attached to each barge who took their turn at cooking and steering. On glancing back from the steamboat, my little boat could be seen shooting out, first on one side and then on the other of the last barge, only to be snatched back again as soon as the line tightened, all of which convinced me that the men engaged to steer my boat were not on board. I afterwards learned that as soon as we encountered the storm the men became frightened, and hauling in the line they drew my boat alongside the barge and by some means got on board, and my boat was left to fate. The storm was such that we were three days reaching the Little Saskatchewan, which is less than halfway across the lake, and the widest part of the lake still lay before us. There was a large fishing station at the mouth of the Little Saskatchewan, and one of the barges was destined for this place. The cargo on board these barges consisted of food for the employees, tons of salt, etc., for freezing the fish, and empty boxes in which to pack the fish. As we spent one whole night at the camp I arranged for a service, which was well attended by men representing eleven nationalities, but all understood a little English. In examining my boat I found the upper deck or covered-in top had been badly bruised. Undoubtedly this took place when it was hauled alongside the barge for the men to get off the boat which, owing to the motion of the water, had struck the barge and sustained the injury, so I determined to part company with the lake boat and complete the rest of the journey under my own steam, providing I could find two men brave enough to accompany me.

Finally, I succeeded in engaging two Saulteaux Indians who knew the course. Unfortunately I did not understand their language, but as they could understand me when I spoke to them in Cree I was satisfied. Now this was an experience that few men would have cared to make. The lake here was one hundred miles wide, and we were quite two hundred miles from the Grand Rapids by the course we had to follow, as we had to practically coast our way out in order to get access to wood, for we could only take on enough fuel for six hours running at a time. The lake boat left about an hour before my men turned up, and I, with many others, began to think I had acted rashly in breaking company with the large boat, but I had passed three days of such anxious strain fearing every minute to see the line break and my boat left to drift on the stormy lake, that I determined to stay with her and share her fate the rest of the journey. The men turned up eventually, and I explained to the man at the wheel through an interpreter that he was captain as regard the course, for I knew nothing about it, and the other man received instructions in the duties of fireman. I drew his attention to the steam gauge, and showed him the spot I wished him to keep the finger on, and in course of a few hours he had learned his business fairly well.

After three or four hours' run, we came abreast of the lake boat with her barges, and the Indians made me understand that they were out of their course and aground on some submerged rocks, so I ordered the man at the wheel to steer out to them that we might ascertain if they were in any danger, and after about an hour's run we drew up alongside and asked if we could render them any assistance. The difference in the size of our respective boats made our offer appear ridiculous in the extreme, and reminded me of Land-seer's picture, "Dignity and Impudence." The captain did not fail to remind us of our insolence, and casting his weather eye towards the quarter from whence the wind was blowing, advised us to make for the shore as quickly as possible. Before leaving them, however, we learned they were in no danger, that one of the barges which had been aground was off again and in deep water, and the other it was hoped would be so in a short time, and so we took our departure. That night the storm on Lake Winnipeg was such as to break all previous records. The wind blew from the north shore, which was one hundred miles at least from our part, and so the full force of the storm was upon us, but my little boat rode the waves like a gull, and I do not think we shipped a barrel of water during the whole of the voyage, but others on the lake at that time did not fare so well; our friends, for instance, got out of one difficulty only to get into another, for, owing to the fury of the storm, both the barges broke loose and were lost with all their cargo, and the steamboat alone escaped.

On our arrival at Grand Rapids when we learned this news, I asked myself the question, where would my boat have been now, if I had remained in tow, and echo answered; "Where?"

Some weeks later, news reached us that a fine sailing yacht, belonging to the Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, which had been rented to the N.W. Mounted Police to patrol the north shore of the lake in search of whisky smugglers, was I caught in the same storm and became swamped, the two police on board were drowned and the captain of the yacht was; found some days afterwards clinging to the bottom of the upturned boat. He was rescued, but owing to the long exposure his limbs had become perished, and he died soon after being landed at Winnipeg. Yet with the full force of the gale beating upon our craft, she not only weathered the storm, but as I have said, shipped very little water.

On reaching Grand Rapids the people seemed to fight shy of us, not feeling quite certain whether they really saw us in the flesh, or whether we were only the shadows of the departed! But the triumphant sound of our whistle, and my own familiar voice soon convinced them that we were represented in person and not by shadows, and every one seemed glad, as they had heard from the steamboat that arrived before us of the severity of the storm and our isolated and dangerous position. The excitement was such that the chief factor of the H.B. Company's business in that district, who happened to be at Grand Rapids at the time, engaged a crew of men and provided them with one of the Company's inland boats to pull around the south shore of the lake and search for our dead bodies, so sure were they that we were drowned. I had not been very long at Grand Rapids before I heard the water was already too low on the Red Rock Rapids and others west of Cross Lake to permit of my getting the boat home that year, so after taking it out of the river and placing it on two cars, the kind already referred to, we hauled it across the portage and ran the cars into the warehouse on the other side, where the boat remained until the high stage of water the following June. I engaged a couple of men to take me home in their canoe.

My people at the Pas were very much disappointed, particularly my wife, at my not being able to bring the boat home with me.

Project Canterbury