The story of steamboating in the Canadian West comes to life in the voices of those aboard the vessels of the waterways of the Prairies. Their captains were seafaring skippers who had migrated inland. Their pilots were indigenous people who could read the shoals, sandbars, and currents of Prairie waterways.Their operators were businessmen hoping to reap the benefits of commercial enterprise along the shores and banks of Canada’s inland lakes and rivers. Their passengers were fur traders, adventure-seekers, and immigrants opening up the West. All of them sought their futures and fortunes aboard Prairie steamboats, decades before the railways arrived and took credit for the breakthrough.
Aboriginal people called the steamboats “fire canoes,” but in the latter half of the nineteenth century, their operators promoted them as Mississippi-type steamship queens delivering speedy transport, along with the latest in technology and comfort. Then, as the twentieth century dawned, steamboats and their operators adapted. They launched smaller, more tailored steamers and focused on a new economy of business and pleasure in the West. By day their steamboats chased freight, fish, lumber, iron ore, real estate, and gold-mining contracts. At night, they brought out the Edwardian finery, lights, and music to tap the pleasure-cruise market.
While not a non-fiction book by an Alberta author or published by an Alberta publisher (generally the criteria for inclusion on this website), by merits of being a book by a journalist that features Alberta, Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited, is included here because it makes for interesting reading by anyone interested in the development of the riverways and the history of Alberta.
Ted Barris has done for the steamboat what Pierre Berton did for the railway …
Globe and Mail
[This book] will surprise Canadians who weren’t aware that on the bald plains, riverboats once turned cities like Winnipeg, Prince Albert, and Edmonton into thriving ports.
Barris’s best subjects are the personalities of the era – those adventurous and eccentric steamboat captains, traders and pioneers …
The book deserves a place in the library of those interested in the history and development of western Canada.
An exciting narrative of the extension of the Canadian frontier across the prairies … with stories of over 100 steamboats that have never appeared in any other book.
Steamboat Bill magazine
Fire Canoe pulls together first-hand accounts from wild characters of the Canadian Frontier, with all the gambling, rebellion and gold-seeking glory that surrounds the western waterways and the shops that sailed them – underscoring how it was steamboats, of all things that allowed massive expansion in a time before the railway arrived in the prairies.
About the Author:
Ted Barris is an award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster. For more than forty years his writing has appeared in the national press, as well as in history, news, and arts magazines, and he has authored seventeen non-fiction books.
In 1968, Barris entered Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s three-year Radio and Television Arts program. He used his newfound skills to land part-time work hosting the weekend all-night show at CJRT FM and occasionally reading news on CBC Radio. He also explored documentary, for the first time, co-writing and co-producing half a dozen radio docs for CBC Radio’s weekend youth program, Action Set.
While residing in Saskatoon writing, directing and editing educational TV for the University of Saskatchewan, Barris discovered data about the earliest days of steam navigation on western Canada’s major waterways; he learned that there were first-hand witnesses, diaries and files in local archives brimming with similar material; so he set about tracking down the sources for a potential manuscript. On receipt of a Canada Council grant in 1974, he began researching, interviewing and writing Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited. The book gained additional attention when the federal government decided to recognize western Canadian steamers with a series of commemorative postage stamps.
In 2014, his book The Great Escape, on which the 1963 movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen is based, received the national Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award (an award he shares with Chris Hadfield for Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth). First published by McClelland & Stewart in 1977, Fire Canoe was re-published as a 3rd edition published by Dundurn Press in September 2015.
Barris is now a professor of journalism at Toronto’s Centennial College and has written a weekly newspaper column – The Barris Beat – for more than 20 years.