Divers searching for steamboat artifacts
SASKATOON—A Saskatoon dive team is searching for a sunken treasure of old champagne bottles, fine china, and giant sternwheel spokes from the last steamboat to sail through the city on the South Saskatchewan River.
The fire department’s water rescue team, with help from an archeologist, is diving each day this week to try to recover lost century-old artifacts from the S.S. City of Medicine Hat.
“This is an archeological reconnaissance, not an excavation,” said Butch Amundson, a senior archeologist with Stantec Consulting Ltd.
“I’ll feel like the project is a success if we find one artifact that we can undeniably say is from the S.S. City of Medicine Hat,” he added.
The divers, using metal detectors designed to work underwater, have only about a half-metre visibility.
Yesterday morning, they found a large piece of metal buried still under the river bed, but Amundson doesn’t know yet what it might be.
Two years ago, the city’s water rescue team found one of the boat’s anchors during a training exercise about 300 metres from the bridge. The anchor is now on display in a riverfront park.
Amundson said the S.S. City of Medicine Hat was the last of about a dozen steamships to pass through Saskatoon in a time when the Prairies had yet to get roads and the railway still was under construction.
Capt. Horatio Ross, a wealthy Scottish nobleman, built the 40-metre flat-bottomed sternwheeler—decorated in oak and brass—for pleasure and business trips from Medicine Hat, Alta.
On May 9, 1908, with its crew and five businessmen on board, the ship set sail for the new bustling town of Saskatoon. Its cargo hold was full of bagged flour bound for Winnipeg, and it towed behind it a barge loaded with coal for fuel.
A month later on June 7, when the ship reached Saskatoon, the passengers were let off to explore the city while the captain and his crew planned to navigate three city bridges.
By lowering its smokestack, the ship managed to sail under the first two bridges. But before Ross had a chance to measure clearance for the Traffic Bridge, the ship’s rudder became tangled in old telegraph wires that were hanging underneath the third bridge.
The boat hit a bridge girder, and the river’s fast current turned it on its side.
No one was injured. Ross and his crew climbed onto the bridge while the ship’s engineer swam to shore.
Amundson said the only real danger was to the spectators who had gathered on the bridge to see the ship at the same time a small herd of dairy cattle was crossing on its way to the local stockyard.
“When the ship hit the bridge, the noise scared the cattle, the cattle stampeded,” he noted. “The only [shipping] disaster in Saskatoon’s history and the near injuries were caused by cattle stampeding and not by falling into the water.”
City workers later pried the boat free from the bridge and, as it floated downstream, it further filled with water and sank.