City of Bridges
Life on the South Saskatchewan
Every city needs a backbone - here in Saskatoon, it’s the slow moving waters of the great South Saskatchewan River. The river once provided water for the legions of buffalo who roamed the prairies, and the plains First Nations who hunted them, and now feeds the taps of every house in Saskatoon. As the backbone of the city, the river is a prominent character in almost every story from the city's history. Follow us on this tour as we follow the South Saskatchewan River through Saskatoon's major life events and growth into one of Canada's most prominent prairie cities. This scenic riverbank tour starts at River Crossing on Spadina Crescent East, where you can see the devastating effects of the extreme prairie climate on the environment. After that, we’ll follow the promenade under the Senator Sid Buckwald Bridge, where we will find the next stop and learn about the geological foundations of Saskatchewan, along with the sad fate of the prairie buffalo. Then we’ll cross over the historic Traffic Bridge to learn about the settlement of Saskatoon by the Colonial Temperance Society. Mere steps away, we’ll see the “Worst Nautical Disaster In Prairie History,” that shook the foundation of the Traffic Bridge. We’ll leave the bridge for a nice walk along Meewasin Trail to Broadway Bridge, where we’ll learn how the site for Saskatoon was chosen and how the Great Depression spurred the bridge’s construction. After that stop, we’ll continue along the trail until we reach Saskatchewan Crescent East and 15th Street East, where we’ll learn about some of Saskatoon’s worst accidents, along with the affect wartime had on the city. Finally, we’ll end our tour at University Bridge for a reflection on the South Saskatchewan River’s continued importance to this day.
1. The Sea of Grass
As a city centered in the nation's agricultural heartland, Saskatoon has always been vulnerable to the extremes of prairie climate. The "Grain Belt," a strip of rich and fertile soil that surrounds Saskatoon, is ideal farmland. But the exceptional soil can often be bested by unforgiving weather. By the early 20th century, agricultural scientists developed new strains of popular grains which could tolerate the short growing season, but early settlers lived in constant fear of extreme weather and crop failure. A traditional folk song describes the continual challenges of prairie life, My father came west in the 'eighties To a land where the wheat grew like grass He got hit by the dust in the 'nineties Now he's going back East second class It's forty below in the winter And it's twenty below in the fall It rises to zero in springtime And we don't get no summer at all1 The intensity of Saskatchewan's weather was matched only by the persistence of its insects. Rather than the traditional four seasons, pioneers insisted that there were actually five: Black fly season, mosquito season, horse fly season, house fly season and, winter.2 Despite these obstacles, settlers established themselves in the grain belt and by 1883, enough people lived here for Saskatoon to incorporate as a city.
2. The Bottom of the Sea
After the retreat of the inland seas between two and three million years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet, an immense glacier three kilometers thick began to shape the landscape. As it retreated across the continent at a glacial pace, it acted as a sheet of sandpaper that ground down the landscape. The movements of the glaciers also deposited the dark, fertile soil that Saskatchewan depends upon for its agriculture. Around 11,000 years ago, while the glacier was receding, the ancestors of Saskatchewan’s Plains First Nations arrived.. While central Saskatchewan is the traditional land of the Cree and Nakota (Assiniboine) First Nations, other groups such as the Sioux and Saulteaux moved into the region, fleeing violence and persecution from white settlers. Now that the Ice Age was over with, the Cree and Assiniboine nations adapted to the newly available resources and quickly became masters of the buffalo hunt. The arrival of the Europeans began the calamitous decline of both the buffalo and the Great Plains First Nations. For thousands of years, the buffalo provided them with food, clothing, shelter, and tools. In only a few short decades, the fur trade and mass hunting by Europeans pushed the buffalo to the brink of extinction. Even after the great herds were practically gone, the buffalo had one more gift to give. For a brief period in Saskatoon's early history, a line of buffalo bones lay stacked alongside the river in boxcar loads that stretched the length of approximately five city blocks. They were shipped from the prairies to be ground into fertilizer, and one other surprising commodity: a type of dishware made from a mix of ground bone and porcelain known as "bone china." The heavy, dense bones of the buffalo made for high-quality bone china, and even before Saskatchewan's agriculture burst into bloom, many consider the bones of the once plentiful buffalo to be the province's first major export.1 As high society British sipped tea from cups made of the bones of critically endangered buffalo, the indigenous populations of the plains were starving and facing total economic collapse as the buffalo herds, the primary basis of their subsistence and way of life, vanished.
3. Full Steam Ahead
The first European settlers in the prairies were largely farmers from religious and ethnic minorities who established small settlements on cheap or even free plots of land. Groups of people from all corners of the world settled in Saskatchewan, and forged communities with other like-minded families. Some adjusted to their new life comfortably, others soon found they were woefully unprepared for the rigors of farming. According to Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior, most of these were of British origin, and were overwhelmingly "encumbered by an all-pervading ignorance of agriculture."1 Saskatoon was originally established by the Temperance Colonization Society, who believed that alcohol was responsible for many societal evils and wanted the community to be rid of it. They acquired land on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in the hopes that the river would become the major shipping waterway of the plains. This hope was short-lived: the South Saskatchewan was too shallow, and had far too many shifting sand bars to compete with other major shipping arteries such as the Mississippi. While the river had been a good route for fur traders in canoes, it was incapable of supporting large scale 20th century shipping. Despite the disappointment of the river, the settlers of the steadily growing community found another solution. If the river failed to connect them to the rest of the province, then they would forge that connection by rail.
4. SS City of Medicine Hat
Saskatoon's brief flirtation with steamships ended with the demise of the SS Medicine Hat. By the time the steamer met its end, city planners had already recognized the limitations of river travel on the South Saskatchewan and had thrown their lot in fully with the railway. By 1908, Saskatoon was connected by the three major railway lines, and was a transportation hub second only to Winnipeg.2 A number of leading Saskatoon businessmen worked and campaigned to ensure that the railways passed through Saskatoon, and it was due to these efforts that the small community on the banks of the Saskatoon River flourished into a major distribution point. Initially, this future seemed almost out of reach. Out of Canada's three major railways, only the Canadian Pacific Rail planned to run through Saskatoon. Only after two years of lobbying by Saskatoon's new Board of Trade did the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Northern finally agree to pass their lines through Saskatoon. With all three railways secured, and new settlers flooding to the region daily, Saskatoon's meteoric ascent was undeniable.
5. "Last Best West"
By the early 1890s, the frontier of the American West was officially closed. With settlers fanning out across the continent, the price of farmland skyrocketed. By comparison, land on Canada's western frontier sold for a pittance, and the phrase, "The Last Best West," was used in pamphlets aimed at attracting American settlers to fill the land. The campaign was successful, and through the first decade of the 1900s the number of farms across the new province increased exponentially and three small communities clustered around the banks of the South Saskatchewan. The Temperance Colonization Society surveyed a number of sites along the river before finally deciding on the location of their new community. They began by surveying a 42 km long stretch of the river, and found the site on the east side of the Saskatchewan River perfect. The river was shallow here and was suitable for a ferry crossing. The grade on the east bank was also gentle enough for wagons. The original settlement on the east bank originally chose the name Saskatoon, a name derived from the Cree name for the reddish berry that grows alongside the river. However, in 1901, the west side was officially incorporated as a town, and chose the name Saskatoon. Feeling as though their name had been stolen, the east side began going by the name Nuntana, until both settlements eventually amalgamated with the nearby settlement of Riversdale, and became the city of Saskatoon.1 Today, the neighborhood on the east side of the river, a couple blocks behind where you are standing, still goes by the name Nuntana.
6. Black Storms
The collapse of the global economy that was precipitated by the stock market crash of October, 1929 came to Saskatoon in full force in the "Dirty Thirties." The economic crisis came first, but the prairie-wide drought that came on its heels brought the province to its knees. Even after the economy began to recover and prices improved, the farms were still bone dry and unyielding. In the areas hit the hardest, the dust blew up in drifts around fences and houses, and the fiercely blowing prairie winds whipped up a combination of dust and soil so dense that "black storms," sometimes obscured the landscape.1 For much of the 1930s, the net agricultural income of the province was negative; Saskatchewan was hemorrhaging money. By 1930, not even a year after the crash, the number of men in the unemployment relief camp in the exhibition grounds swelled to 500. That was only the beginning, and the number on the unemployment rolls continued to grow relentlessly. The Civic Relief Board, and the city's charities buckled under the flood of people needing assistance, and an attempt to move some working class political organizers to a camp in Regina ended with a riot in which one police officer was killed. The city limped along through much of the thirties, but by the time it regained its financial footing in the last years of the decade, the tension in Europe was boiling over into a conflict that threatened Saskatoon's tenuous regained stability.
7. "The Hub City"
As the "Hub City," Saskatoon prided itself on its transportation. By the mid 1920s, three major railway lines ran through the city, and despite most of the roads being unpaved, the city had installed an extensive streetcar line. As a city with so many moving parts, chugging engines, and intersecting routes, it was inevitable that there would be accidents. Here on Saskatchewan Crescent was the site of one such accident in the winter of 1922: a streetcar was going on its route, when suddenly, the brakes failed. The car careened off the road, went down the embankment, and crashed into the river. Given that it was winter, the river was frozen solid and all of the passengers that were thrown from the vehicle landed on the ice - there were zero deaths.2 The worst accident, which happened at the height of the Second World War, caused a flurry of controversy. As the city readied itself for the possibility of an enemy attack, however remote it might be, city officials organized frequent fire, police, and first raid drills, and coordinated mock attacks on city governance and communications. If these measures kept citizens on their toes, overzealous military officials only aggravated tensions by urging Saskatonians to fear the presence of enemy agents hiding in their midst. It was in this uneasy climate that caused speculation when a Canadian National freight train plowed into a Canadian Pacific Railway passenger car in 1943. The first thought on many people's minds was that it had to be an act of sabotage. Both trains had received green signals to progress through a railway crossing and collided violently. Most of the passengers escaped injury but, Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN train, was gravely scalded by the escaping steam from the engine and died of his injuries in hospital the next day. While both train lines called it a terrible accident, some remained convinced it was the work of enemy saboteurs.3
9. Beer and Bread
The Meewasin Trail, the winding pavement path on which you are standing, extends for over 60 km along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Adding to Saskatoon's "Hub City" status, a stretch of this trail contributes to the total 24,000 km of trail that form Canada's Great Trail. This trail is the biggest recreational trail in the world and crosses 13 provinces and territories and connects the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans. Walking along the Meewasin Trail gives one an appreciation for how closely linked Saskatoon and the South Saskatchewan River are. The city's drinking water is drawn from the South Saskatchewan, and the power station at Gardiner Dam generates enough electricity to power 100,000 homes.1 The river also provides the water needed to irrigate wheat fields, and its massive watershed supports wildlife across Alberta and Saskatchewan. The South Saskatchewan is in the backdrop of practically every scenic photo taken in Saskatoon, and the collection of bridges needed to cross its impressive width gives the city the title "Paris of the Prairies." Any loaf of bread made from central Saskatchewan wheat, or any beer produced in one of Saskatoon's much praised breweries, is grown or brewed with water from the South Saskatchewan. Because of this, people across Canada, without
1. The Sea of Grass
1. Gail A. McConnell, Saskatoon: Hub City of the West, (Saskatoon: Windsor Publications (Canada) Ltd., 1983), 16.
2. McConnell, 15-16.
2. The Bottom of the Sea
1. William P. Delainey, John D. Duerkop, William A. S. Sarjeant, Saskatoon: A Century in Pictures, (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982), 13.
3. Full Steam Ahead
1. Delainey, Duerkop, and Sarjeant, 45.
4. SS City of Medicine Hat
1. The Globe and Mail, "Shipwreck from 1908 found in South Saskatchewan River," Nov. 15, 2012, online.
2. McConnell, 37.
5. "Last Best West"
1. McConnell, 28.
6. Black Storms
1. McConnell, 48.
7. "The Hub City"
1. McConnell, 25.
2. CTV News Saskatoon, "From streetcars to hybrids: the history of Saskatoon transit," July 24, 2013. Online.
3. Bill Waiser, "Trains collided on Saskatoon's west side during second world war," Bill Waiser. Website. January 3, 2018.
8. The Bessborough Hotel
1. McConnell, 54.
2. Jacqueline Wilson, "Inside HMCS Unicorn, Saskatoon's navy recruiting base," Global News, April 23, 2016. Online.
3. McConnell, 54.
9. Beer and Bread
1. Meaghan Craig, "Saskatchewan's Gardiner Dam turns 50 and it's still pretty spectacular," Global News, July 14, 2017, online.
Anderson, Alan B. Settling Saskatchewan, Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.
Craig, Meaghan, "Saskatchewan's Gardiner Dam turns 50 and it's still pretty spectacular," Global News, July 14, 2017. https://globalnews.ca/news/3600416/saskatchewan-gardiner-dam-50/
Delainey, William P., John D. Duerkop, and William A. S. Sarjeant, Saskatoon: A Century in Pictures, Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982.
McConnell, Gail A. Saskatoon: Hub City of the West, Saskatoon: Windsor Publications (Canada) Ltd., 1983.
Waiser, Bill. "Trains collided on Saskatoon's west side during second world war," Bill Waiser. Website. January 3, 2018. https://billwaiser.com/trains-collided-saskatoon-second-world-war/
Wilson, Jacqueline. "Inside HMCS Unicorn, Saskatoon's navy recruiting base," Global News, April 23, 2016. Online. https://globalnews.ca/news/2657609/inside-the-hmcs-unicorn-saskatoons-navy-recruiting-base/
"From streetcars to hybrids: the history of Saskatoon transit," CTV News Saskatoon, July 24, 2013. Online.
"Shipwreck from 1908 found in South Saskatchewan River," The Globe and Mail, Nov. 15, 2012. Online