Full Steam Ahead

‘Steamboat Bill’ recalls his glory days of working as a sailor on the Saskatchewan River.

Posted July 5, 2023

From the first moment eight-year-old Bill McKenzie saw smoke curling high above the water, he was hooked. The man who grew up to be called “Steamboat Bill” knew that his destiny would be found aboard a sternwheeler.

“I used to see the smokestacks and then the steamboats coming across the lake,” McKenzie recalled in the Winter 1974 issue of The Beaver. “The steamers would blow their whistles and everybody would go down to see the boats. From then on, I didn’t think of anything else but sternwheelers. I wanted to be a sailor.”

In the article “‘Steamboat Bill’ of Cumberland House,” writer Deanna Christensen voyages with McKenzie back to the early 1900s steamboat era along the Saskatchewan River between Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, and The Pas, Manitoba. McKenzie, who lived in Cumberland House, “came from a family of riverboat men,” including his great-uncle and his father, who both worked on Hudson’s Bay Company sternwheelers in the region.

McKenzie regaled the author with tales of his youth working the waters, when “he was young, weighed 128 pounds and could ‘jump like a squirrel.’” Steamships were first introduced to the Saskatchewan River in 1874, and for several decades vessels like the Northcote, Marquis, North West, and Lily hauled supplies and shuttled passengers to remote northern communities throughout the Prairie provinces.

McKenzie, who was seventy-three at the time of the interview, lamented the transition away from steamboats to diesel-powered ships that occurred in the 1920s. “When I see the river, it makes me lonesome thinking about it,” he said. “I’ll never see those days again.”

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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

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