Former Ferry Crossings in Kalyna Country

The evolution of travel within the Kalyna Country region provides a microcosm of the history of transportation in Alberta. While early Aboriginal peoples roamed the prairies on foot before the introduction of horses revolutionized the culture of the Plains Indians, trailblazing European explorers typically canoed and hiked across the Canadian Interior during their epic journeys of discovery. Afterwards, York boats and carts became the chief forms of transport employed by the rapidly expanding fur trade, which required that ever-larger quantities of materials and provisions be moved expeditiously between scattered outposts in the wilderness. The Orkneymen, Canadiens, and Metis traders who worked as haulers in the Western frontier routinely endured many hardships, among which forging rivers was an unpleasant and sometimes dangerous task that for much of the year was impossible to avoid.

However, as soon as agricultural settlement began in earnest, improving transportation became a major priority. Although colonists initially had no choice but to submit to the rigours of trekking to and from their homesteads over primitive trails, the creation of an agricultural economy required better communication with the emerging urban centres that provided markets for farm products and necessary supplies. This was the impetus behind the establishment of ferry crossings throughout the river- and stream-laced Canadian North-West, a total of eighteen of which have been documented on the territory of Kalyna Country.

A strong case can be made that the historic Victoria Settlement, south of the modern-day town of Smoky Lake, was the first community in Alberta to offer a rudimentary ferry service. Evidence for this can be found in a letter written to Ottawa in 1863 by the Rev. George McDougall, most likely from his mission on the North Saskatchewan River: “In old times, crossing the rivers with a large camp was a tedious affair. A leather tent or large piece of oilcloth was spread on the ground and the traveling kit placed in the center. The cloth was then gathered up and tied at the top giving the appearance of a huge pudding bag. This was then shoved into the water and attached by a line to a horse’s tail. The traveller then mounted the horse and guided it to the opposite shore. In this way, many times, I have crossed rivers. We now have a good scow and the novel scenes of yore have passed away.” Although not specifically identified as a ferry, the scow nevertheless offered a more efficient and comfortable means of crossing the fast-flowing river than fording. It is also worth noting that the term “scow” itself is derived from the Dutch word schouw, meaning “ferry-boat”.

With the mid-1870s arrival of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in Alberta, references to ferry services began to appear in police correspondence about life in the Interior. Such operations frequently consisted of rope-drawn rafts, and typically sprang up on well-travelled routes that crossed waterways near burgeoning population centres. Significantly, by 1883 the Mounties were already beginning to call for bridges to be built across many small rivers and streams, at the same time decrying the extortionary prices that were being charged by some of the more opportunistic and as yet unlicenced ferrymen.

In the late 1880s the NWMP started reporting annually on ferry crossings, providing the first comprehensive overview of Alberta’s increasingly sophisticated transportation network. The North-West Territorial Government – which had passed a ferry ordinance as far back as 1877 – gradually asserted greater control over the developing industry in an effort to promote safety and a set of common standards. In 1898 the responsibility for ferries was assigned to the Territorial Government’s new Department of Public Works, which subsequently attempted to sell ferry licences by tender. However, as this practise often prohibitively inflated the prices that successful bidders had to charge for their services, the government instead resorted to a system of paying ferrymen a small monthly salary while imposing a low schedule of tolls. In this way, ferries came to be regarded as a public service that needed to be kept affordable and consistent in the interests of economic development, especially for rural communities.

The map of former ferry crossings in Kalyna Country presents a graphic summary of how the road system in rural east central Alberta evolved over the span of a century. It is interesting to note, that all but one of the ferries (Beaver Creek) in the region operated at points along the North Saskatchewan, attesting to both the size and the significance of the river. The location and distribution of crossings seems to have been largely determined by a combination of geographic, demographic and economic factors. Finally, the dates when many of the crossings went out of existence point to the time when bridges were constructed which made the ferries redundant. Thus, it is obvious from the map that there was a flurry of bridge-building on the North Saskatchewan River east of Edmonton between 1962 and 1972.

For many years the ferry crossings played a critical role in establishing and maintaining links between farming communities on opposite sides of the North Saskatchewan River. Of course, these ties were greatly strengthened by the bridges that eventually displaced all of the ferries on Kalyna Country’s major roadways. Notwithstanding the greater fluidity of cross-river traffic since the 1960s, it is worth noting that the Saskatchewan valley continues to serve as both a symbolic and physical boundary demarcating and in some ways defining the counties that share its winding banks. Thus, residents who live in the north shore settlements have a strong sense of identity that distinguishes them from their counterparts to the south. While social, familial, cultural and economic ties – not to mention the ease of modern communications – have helped to transcend the barrier once created by the North Saskatchewan, these have failed to entirely erase the influence of the river on the make-up of riverfront municipalities. Those differences, while subtle, are part of what makes east central Alberta such a colourful quilt of local identities – which the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum is committed to both preserving and celebrating as part of East Central Alberta’s unique heritage.

(For more information on Alberta’s ferry crossings, see: Haestie, Elizabeth. Ferries and Ferrymen in Alberta. Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 1986. Pp. 187.

Researched and written by Jars Balan for the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum