Manitoba's Early Efforts in
Navigation and the St. Andrew's Locks
by George Siamandas
UNIQUENESS OF THE LOCK AT ST. ANDREWS
It is the only facility of its kind in North America. It has a unique system of wooden curtains that were developed and used in France but never on as big a scale as here in Manitoba. Last fall the Locks at St. Andrews were declared a national historic site.
It was all part of Laurier government's vision of Canada's Century. It was felt that Canada's future could be realized by building great public works that were to facilitate economic development. These locks were built of the dream of inland navigation on prairie rivers. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, there was a belief that inland navigation could be viable as far west as Edmonton. And in fact steamboats plied these waters on the north Saskatchewan River right through the 1890s.
A regular steamboat service had been set up in 1862 between St. Paul and Winnipeg. About 30 steamboats operated on lake Winnipeg in this period. But boats had trouble getting past the shallow water at the St. Andrews rapids. The Red River served well enough for navigation until St. Andrews, were the depth of the Red gets very shallow near some limestone channels. The lock overcomes shallow waters just south of the locks by raising the water level 20 feet. A ship lock which is part of the system gently lowers the water level from the south end to the north end.
HOW THE LOCKS WORK
The challenge was to dam up the water to make it 20 feet higher, yet do it in a manner that allowed the river ice in the spring to go through. They found a unique design for a movable dam developed by Frenchman named Camere. A system of treated wooden lath pieces connected by hooks, and looking like a giant curtain, are lowered into the water within gates, to partially block the flow of the Red River.
For the beginning of the season, at the end of May, these movable curtains are brought down to regulate the river level. The shipping season ran through till November when the curtains are once again rolled up. They stay up till the ice has moved through the following spring. The system worked very well. The Victoria was the first ship to go through the locks in May 1910. Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier personally opened the locks in July of 1910. And for the first few years they saw high levels of tonnage moving forest and mineral products.
WHY BOTHER WITH NAVIGATION WHEN RAILWAYS HAD ALREADY COME THROUGH?
They wanted an alternative to the high costs of rail. And they wanted to promote further western settlement and economic development. It was thought that Winnipeg would become a large inland port. By 1914 Winnipeg had become a major rail centre. Business that had lobbied for the Locks quickly lost interest in the vision of inland navigation. Two new transcontinental railways broke the railway monopoly. Ships could not compete with the railway as the freight rates dropped. River freight traffic was reduced to next to nothing by 1920. What had been a prairie dream was cast aside. Within 5 years of its completion the locks were no longer needed. It took too long to promote this idea, have it funded and built. Meanwhile, the modes of transportation moved too fast. St. Andrews Lock has been left to play a more recreational role. The Locks may have a future in pleasure uses of our rivers. The tourism potential of the rivers, and the story of how they have been instrumental in building Manitoba just begs to be told.