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Taming the St. Andrews Rapids — after a decade of construction, the dam and locks were finally completed
Jun 24, 2011
by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
While under construction, the St. Andrews dam and locks became a popular destination for excursionists, who paid 45-cents from Winnipeg and return for a two-hour stay to view the progress made on what had earlier been referred to as “Kelly’s Hole.” The nickname arose from Winnipeg contractor Thomas Kelly’s inability to make any discernible progress, forcing the Canadian government to take over the project, which was supervised by engineers A.R. Dufresne, E.A. Forward and H.E. Vantelet. It was the latter who designed the Caméré curtains and operating machinery for the first dam of its type in North America. 
Among the “excursionists” to visit the site were Canadian Governor General Earl Grey, who arrived at St. Andrews aboard a special train. “About an hour was spent examining the great structure,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on October 18, 1909, “from all points of view, crossing the bridge which is, at the same time, the superstructure of the dam, and walking down the massive concrete steps at the west end and along the east wall of the lock.”
The date for the completion of the St. Andrews Rapids dam and locks was slated for the start of the 1910 navigation season. In anticipation of the opening of the locks to navigation, High Sutherland headed a company formed to build freight barges able to ply both the Red River and Lake Winnipeg. 
“An order for the first of these has been placed with the Doty Engine Works Co., Ltd., of Goderich and Toronto,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 21, 1910, “and a site has been secured at the foot of Water street (now William Stephenson Way), which will be used as ship-building yard by the Doty company.”
The barges were designed to pass through the new lock, and were 180 feet (54.864 metres) long with a beam of 40 feet (12.192 metres). The boats were propelled by screws operated by compound engines of 600 horse power (hp), and could carry up to 100 tonnes of freight. Each barge could also be quickly converted into a passenger steamer as they were built with berths and staterooms in addition to a promenade.
A ship-building boom occurred which included the overhauling of old steamers and the construction of new vessels. The expanding fleet included the 57-metre-long Winnitoba (built in 1909 by the Hyland Navigation Company) that could carry 2,000 passengers and 35 carloads of freight, the Bonnitoba (built by the Hyland company in 1910) that could carry 725 passengers and 300 tons of freight, and the Alberta (built in 1904 and sold to the Winnipeg Navigation Company in 1908) with the capacity to carry 725 passengers.
F.W. Drewry, the president of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, said $150,000 was spent on local steamboat construction in 1909.
The first segment of the St. Andrews Rapids project to be completed was the bridge and the 270-metre-long dam. The bridge supported the moveable dam of Caméré curtains that were raised and lowered by electrically-powered cranes. 
The federal government had originally designed the crossing as a “service” bridge, but intense local pressure convinced the public works department to alter the structure.
Federal Public Works Minister  William Pugsley told the House of Commons on March 5, 1909, that it was a result of the urging of the Rural Municipality of St. Andrews that the bridge was widened to accommodate a roadway. While Ottawa was willing to bear the expense of widening the bridge, Pugsley said it was up to the provincial and municipal governments to come to an agreement to build the approaches to the bridge, which he claimed would cost an estimated $75,000. As it turned out, the approaches to the bridge would later be built without federal money.
The nearly 70-metre-long, 13.7-metre-wide lock was filled and drained using gravity. In 20 minutes, the lock could be filled with water to accommodate vessels of up to about 1,600 tonnes.
The project used 55,000 cubic yards of concrete and about 6.5-million pounds (2.9-million kilograms) of steel. The total costs of the project was $1.5 million, an extremely high expenditure for a public works project during that period. The expenditure  also reflected the fact that it took a decade to complete the project.
One effect of the dam completion noted by local fishermen was that fish still congregated below the dam but not above it. Dufresne, the resident federal engineer assigned to the project, said “that for about a month in the spring, during high water, fish would be able to ascend the river, as the dam would be submerged, and at other times they would pass through the lock whenever the gates were opened (Free Press, November 6, 1909). 
“As to the construction of a fish way, this would involve considerable expense; and it does not appear that the importance of the fish industry on the Red River was sufficiently impressed upon the (public works) department to secure its incorporation in the scheme.”
After the completion of the dam and lock, the department would bow to local pressure and a fish ladder would be built at the site.
With the construction coming to a conclusion, all that remained was to test the dam and lock to ensure both operated as planned. The April 28, 1910, Free Press reported: “At present the working staff at the locks is engaged in lowering the steel framework of the dam into position. The huge steel ‘I’ beams extend from the bridge deck to the concrete foot, and on these the curtains will be lowered to-day. There is still a small amount of excavation to be completed at the south end of the canal, and as it is below the water, the government dredge will be sent to clear it away. The machinery and working parts of the bridge and lock have been tested and are found to work perfectly.”
The same article announced that the Victoria, a  federal government steamer that was apparently built years earlier in 1878, was scheduled to become the first vessel to pass through the locks. The “informal” test occurred on Tuesday, May 2 at 2:45 with the Victoria making the first journey through the St. Andrews Locks. The passage was deemed in subsequent newspaper accounts as having been “smoothly” pulled off. While the passing of the vessel through the lock gates, which are each 2.4 metres high, was called an informal opening, several hundred people were on-hand to witness the historic event.
Actually, the locks were not fully operational, making it was necessary to open the leaves of the gates with block and tackle.
The Victoria entered the lock from the downstream side, having made its way up the Red from Selkirk. At each end of the lock were gate sets (locks) made of Douglas fir with a combined dry weight of 200 tonnes. The lower gate set was swung open and the captain of the Victoria blew a short blast of the steamer’s whistle. With a second blast, the vessel moved forward with the crowd lining the adjacent footwalk saw the lower gates close and the lock gradually fill with water by the opening of valve controls, rising the boat 4.3 metres. The upper gate set was then opened and the Victoria floated upstream toward Winnipeg. 
“There was no cheering, no display” according to the May 3, 1910, Free Press, “nothing but a workmanlike try-out of a finished machine to see how it would work. There was deep satisfaction on the faces of the men who have waited for years for its accomplishment.”
The passage of the Victoria proved that the turbulent barrier to water transportation on the Red from Middlechurch to Lister Rapids had been tamed.
Two days later, the steamer Alberta returned to its mooring at the Norwood Bridge with the first-ever cargo to go through the locks. The May 4 Free Press reported that the “most notable incident of the trip was the delays which occurred in getting clear of the city’s bridges. The boat left her moorings shortly after 8 o’clock yesterday morning and met the first delay at the C.P.R. bridge, where she was held for a time, but the limit came when it was discovered that it was impossible to pass the Redwood bridge. The Alberta was run ashore and tied to the bank until exactly 12 o’clock before the bridge was finally opened.”
Apparently, the mechanism to swing the bridge had been damaged a month early, a fact that was not discovered until the Alberta attempted to pass through the barrier. At the time of the mishap, the bridge had been swung closed too rapidly, jamming the swinging mechanism. When the vessel attempted to pass through, the 50-hp gasoline engine operating the mechanism was unable to budge the span. The bridge had to be forced opened using hydraulic jacks and wedges.
“After the Alberta had passed the bridge, it took some time to close the structure for the engine was not operating properly (hose connecting to the radiator had come loose).”
It took the vessel only two hours to reach the locks and once through — a process that took about 20 minutes — residents of Selkirk “turned out strong to greet the new arrival.”
The Alberta was heralded as the being the first ship “of the commercial fleet to attempt the passage though the St. Andrews locks ...”
Among the few passengers aboard the vessel to mark the historic event was Macklyn Arbuckle, (the cousin of silent film star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, who would later be plagued by a scandal), and “leading man with the ‘Round-up’ company; J.M. Walker, W.B. Lawrence, Roy Bullen, A.H. Humphries, Bruce Campbell, Mr. and Mrs. Innes and L.H. Stanton. A. McKenzie, owner of the Alberta, was also with the party.” The guests disembarked from the vessel at Selkirk.
About 100 cords of tamarack wood was loaded aboard the vessel at the mouth of the Brokenhead River and from there the Alberta steamed across Lake Winnipeg to the Red River and Selkirk. On the return trip to Winnipeg, Captain Bellfeuille made the return passage through the locks with no difficulty.
The May 6 Free Press said it was McKenzie’s intention to have the Alberta immediately steam back to the Brokenhead River for another load of wood, and that passengers would be allowed aboard as far as Selkirk. The excursionists were expected to return to Winnipeg using “special electric cars” hired by McKenzie for the occasion. The Winnipeg, Selkirk & Lake Winnipeg Railway line running from Inkster and Main in Winnipeg to Selkirk was originally a steam railway, using two to four cars to carry passengers, baggage and freight, but in 1908 the line was electrified.
In a test run of the viability of passenger travel through the locks, the Winnitoba, which was to later carry dignitaries for the official opening of the locks and dam, made a trip from Winnipeg to Winnipeg Beach and back. Unlike the earlier passage through the rapids by the Alberta, the passengers aboard the Winnitoba didn’t have to get off at Selkirk and take a streetcar back to the city. The trip to the summer resort established by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903 was called a “pioneer weekend excursion.” 
The vessel left St. John’s at 8:45 p.m. on July 9 and “steamed down the winding Red in the dusk with the elegant stateliness and pride of a swan. Middlechurch, with its old world appearance, was passed about 10:15 p.m., and St. Andrews locks were reached at 11. Here the boat — filling the spacious cavern to the last foot, both in breadth and length — was delayed 35 minutes, which was the time it took to pass through. It was with some difficulty that the Winnitoba got out of the lower lock owing to the dredge Winnipeg and a mud barge being right in the way of the bow” (Free Press, July 12, 1910).
The channel leading from the lock system was still being made deeper by the dredge to more easily accommodate vessels.
The steamer docked in Selkirk overnight and set out for Lake Winnipeg and Winnipeg Beach the next morning at 8:30. According to the article, one of the more interesting sights was encountered at the “old” St. Peter’s Reserve, where aboriginal residents had set out stakes with lines to catch fish. The native people were alerted to the presence of a fish on the line by tin cans filled with stones that acted as an alarm.
“Many of the Indians make as much as $3 or $4 a day fishing in this manner. The fish companies send boats around daily to buy the fish, which are sold to them at about 4 cents a pound. It is rather a long cry from the palatial halls of the Winnitoba to the old world relics perpetrated along these banks.”
The St. Peter’s Reserve was termed “old” since it had been surrendered by the Ojibway under extremely controversial circumstances in 1907. After the surrender, white settlers purchased the former reserve land and the original inhabitants were forced to move to what is now Peguis First Nation near Fisher Branch in Manitoba’s Interlake. That a handful of Ojibway were still in the East Selkirk area, following the relocation of hundreds of people, was a marvel to the newspaper, which reported that their “grey huts and tents dot the river bank in a most picturesque manner.”
Selkirk at the time was considered the “fish headquarters” of Manitoba. Commercial catches from Lake Winnipeg were off-loaded at the town for transportation by rail to Winnipeg and eastern markets in Canada and the U.S. At any given time during the navigation season, a flotilla of steamers, tugs and smaller craft were docked at Selkirk that had brought to the community “so much wood, timber, fish, minerals, and farm products ... the lake country is capable of producing” (Daily Nor’Wester supplement about Selkirk, July 14, 1894, written by W.F. Luxton). 
A six-page supplement about Selkirk appeared in the April 21, 1906, Free Press, which said that more than a score of steamers, including freight and passenger boats, and four times that many sailing vessels, docked at the Selkirk wharf. “There is fishing and lumbering from every direction on the lake and all centering in Selkirk. This is the most southerly point — that is the head of navigation (due to the rapids) — this is the only way out. All Lake Winnipeg’s vast wealth of fish and lumber and everything else the vast region of its tributary rivers contains much (sic: should be must) pass through the doors of Selkirk ...”
The Winnitoba took the central channel to the mouth of the Red, where it  was forced to be “made fast,” due to a strong breeze making the water too choppy to enter the lake. Once the waves abated, the vessel proceeded across the lake to Winnipeg Beach, staying for just 40 minutes to pick up 15 passengers for the return trip to Winnipeg. The boat reached the locks at 10:15 in the evening, but was not allowed through until midnight. St. John’s landing was reached in the early morning hours, proving “a new era in the history of navigation from the port of Winnipeg ...”
The locks were officially opened a month later on July 14, 1910, by William Pugsley, the federal minister of public works, with Prime Minister Laurier among the officials gathered to celebrate the construction project that took 10 years to complete. The official party arrived at the locks aboard the Winnitoba, which had left St. John’s Park at 1:30 p.m. Only those receiving special invitations were allowed to board the vessel, but the July 15 Free Press reported that they “numbered several hundred (some accounts claim 3,000 were aboard) and included most of the prominent business and public men of the city.” Alongside the Alberta travelled a flotilla of excursion craft, carrying others to witness the historic ceremony.
“The trip down the river, in spite of the heat, was delightful and passed without hitch or incident except that at several points along the bank parties had gathered to cheer Sir Wilfrid. On each occasion he stood up and waved his hat in response, even when the cheering came from a lone man or woman on the bank waving a handkerchief.”
The ceremony took place within the lock, which had been lowered to the level of the downstream segment of the Red.
“I have the testimony of engineers that this is one of the finest works of its character to be found on the American continent,” said Laurier in his address to the several thousand people gathered both on the Alberta and alongside the lock, “not to speak of the old world ... It has taken a long to come, and it is perhaps a pardonable pride for me to say that it has come under the Laurier government.”
Laurier told the people that while passing St. Andrews and Kildonan churches along the Red, “I asked myself what would be the astonishment and wonder of the old fur traders of the past ... if they were to come here and see this wonderful achievement.”
Laurier said the dam and lock was only the beginning, as Pugsley had engineers then surveying the Saskatchewan River in anticipation of a plan to open up navigation to Edmonton from Winnipeg.
“Do not tell me that this is impossible, it is not impossible ... the word impossible is not to be found in the dictionary of the west.”
On May 26, 1910, while speaking to the Ontario Club in Toronto, Pugsley outlined the scheme: “We are considering a waterway system from the Red River, and Lake Winnipeg, to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, and then across the prairies to the foothills of the Rockies, 110 miles west of Edmonton, which will have a direct system of navigation for 1,500 miles to Winnipeg. This system will have two locks, which would make it possible to generate from 60,000 to 80,000 horse power, which could be utilized for grinding grain and the manufacture of raw lumber.”
In addition, Pugsley said the government was considering a navigation system “from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, whence vessels can go to England.”
It may have not been impossible given enough money, but such projects were impractical, especially as other less costly transportation methods emerged such as expanded rail transportation, long-haul trucking and aircraft to open up the territory to commercial development. But in the euphoria of the moment, Laurier and other boosters of the water route to the Rockies and Hudson Bay could be forgiven for giving expression to such flights of fancy. The fact that the linchpin of the proposed waterway — the St. Andrews dam and lock — had been completed caused federal authorities to believe such a massive public works project could be built.
The federal government did eventually come to realize the futility of such a deep water transportation schemes in Western Canada and cancelled the project.
In the end, Hudson Bay would be reached by rail, not by water, although the line wasn’t completed to Churchill until 1929.
In the Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1966, published by the Manitoba Historical Society, historian Hart Bowsfield wrote: “This is what the locks meant to shipowners, farmers, builders, and manufacturers. The Red River would be navigated down to Lake Winnipeg and a great industrial development would take place all along the river from St. Norbert to the Lake. The river would provide boating and cruising pleasures seldom enjoyed by a city so far inland.”
Within two months, the locks had proved their value, as in May and June, 57 commercial vessels passed through as well as some 40 pleasure boats (Free Press, July 12, 1910). In total, 3,221 passengers had been transported through the locks.
The newspaper reported the federal government was also beautifying the grounds around the dam and locks. “This will soon be one of the beauty spots of Manitoba.”
With the initial success of the project, the article ended with the comment: “The pessimists will no longer find room for his ‘never be built’ or of ‘no use when built’ ideas. He will have to hunt fields anew and pastures green.”
By 1912, the federal government was reporting a heavy increase in boat traffic through the locks. On August 20, Ottawa reported volume had risen from 11,241 (Imperial) tons the previous year to 50,063 (Imperial) tons in 1912.  
While there was an initial burst of optimism, and the lock and dam did perform the stated objective of easing freight traffic between Lake Winnipeg and the city, the project never really achieved the results promised by those who promoted its construction. Today, the pleasure and excursion craft mentioned by Bowsfield are the only vessels now using the locks. Commercial freight traffic hung on for decades, but by the 1960s had vanished as an acronym of a bygone era.
But there is one practical benefit that the dam still provides — a stable water level for the river all the way up to Winnipeg. 
And for recreational anglers, the churning waters below the dam are one of the best fishing areas to be found along the Red River.