WITH a country of continental proportions, the question of cheap and ready transportation is ever one of primary importance. Where water systems with navigable rivers intersect the country, its development ,is greatly facilitated, and the question of economic transportation is largely solved. This question may not be of such vital importance since the advent of railways, and yet it can hardly be said to have diminished in importance in consequence. The presence of large navigable rivers in the United States has certainly contributed very much to the rapid development of that country. In the Far West by this means the heart of the continent could be readily reached, and cheap transportation afforded its products both before and since the development of modern railways. The absence of any great river system in the continent of Australia has certainly been a great detriment to the development of the interior of that great country. Since this question is of so great importance, it is worth while for us to have our thoughts turned in the direction of our own country with a view to learning what nature has done for us in this direction.
Great and advantageous as are the water systems of the United States, it may be said with all modesty that those of the Dominion are far more extensive and more far-reaching; perhaps no country in all the world has been so amply provided with facilities for inland navigation as has Canada. The smallness of the population in the past, and the undeveloped character of the great North-West, has not made it necessary to use, or possible to appreciate, these vast lakes and rivers to the extent that their possibilities imply. With the development of the country there will be a growing demand for cheap transportation for the ever-increasing harvests and rapidly multiplying millions, therefore a new importance must soon attach to these natural highways of commerce.
It must not be inferred, however, that these inland waterways have not already contributed very much to our present development and prosperity. Indeed, the country could not be what it is today if these facilities had not been at hand they have been essential to the prosecution of the lumbering industry, the fur trade and the opening up of the West. Had it not been for access to the far West afforded by this means, It is doubtful if it could have been held as a part of the Canadian Dominion. Up to the present time, we say, we owe almost every-thing to our marvellous system of natural water-ways ; but they are destined to be of much more importance in the future.
In former chapters reference has been made to the presence of these great lakes and rivers, but this has been done chiefly in a local sense. It would be fitting now that we should view the system as a whole, for only in so doing can we understand the immensity of its possibilities.
It will be noted that the great natural water system of the Dominion may be grouped in five divisions, namely : The Pacific, Yukon, Mackenzie, Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence. The presence of the Rocky Mountains entirely separates the Pacific and Yukon systems from the rest of Canada, and perhaps their importance may never be greater than it is at the present time. They have, however, contributed very much to the opening up of the countries through which they pass, and, in their navigable portions, will become more and more made use of as population and general commerce increase. The water systems east of the Rocky Mountains hold a different relation to each other and to the future development of the country. It will be noticed as a peculiarity of the three great systems east of the Rockies that they overlap and interlace each other, and that the distances separating them are comparatively small.
Before contemplating the possibility of uniting these systems we may look at them separately and note their importance independent of each other. The St. Lawrence system is, of course, the best known and the most fully developed, as well as the most important as a highway of commerce. Perhaps, viewed from every standpoint, there is no river system in the world the equal of the St. Lawrence. First, we have a magnificent river with , its broad mouth lying open to the commerce of Europe, at the shortest ocean distance, and extending eight hundred miles into the interior. Then, losing its identity in a wonderful chain of fresh water seas, such as are found in no other part of the world, it extends one thousand miles farther to the westward, into the very heart of the continent.
The commerce that moves upon this great system of lakes and rivers is already stupendous, yet it is only-now in its infancy. More vessel tonnage passes through the Soo canals in the seven months of their operation than make use of the Suez Canal in a whole year.
Of course this great system has not reached its present state of usefulness without the expenditure of vast sums of money by way of improvement. The Canadian Government alone has spent well-nigh one hundred million dollars in perfecting the system, but the money has been well spent, and the value of this great waterway is simply incalculable to the country. It is now possible to load a ship with grain at Fort William, Duluth or Chicago, at the head of Lakes Superior and Michigan, and never break cargo until she reaches Liverpool.
Turning now to the Hudson Bay system, we find it even more extensive, though presenting, perhaps, more barriers to continuous navigation, and demanding lighter draught vessels. Lying in the centre of the continent is the great Lake Winnipeg, some three hundred miles long. Into the north-west angle of this lake flows the mighty Saskatchewan River, navigable in its northern branch for suitable craft to Edmonton, one thousand miles to the west, and on its southern branch to the Alberta boundary, one .thousand miles to the south-west. The grand rapids at the mouth of this river are the only break in the navigation, and these present no serious barrier.
Flowing into the south end of this great lake is the Red River of the North, with its several large tributaries, representing navigable water of not less than one thousand miles in extent. It is true, at the present time, that the St. Andrew’s Rapids, near its mouth, prevent navigation between the lake and river, but they present no engineering difficulties, and it is said for a moderate cost this obstruction could be entirely removed. Doubtless it will receive the attention of the Government in the near future. There is also the ,English River, which receives the waters of Lac Seul and Rainy Lake, flowing into Lake Winnipeg.
The great Nelson River of the north unites all the waters of this system, carrying them to the sea from the north end of Lake Winnipeg, reaching Hudson Bay on its west coast near York Factory. This is a magnificent river in every sense of the word, being four hundred miles in length, and scarcely less than the St. Lawrence in volume. Unfortunately the continuity of its navigation is broken in a number of places by falls and rapids, thus preventing its being used at the present time as a commercial highway. There are, however, stretches of considerable extent entirely free from any obstruction, and it has been estimated that four millions of dollars would overcome every barrier to navigation on this or the Hays River between the city of Winnipeg and Hudson Bay. So comparatively small a sum, it is safe to say, will not long stand in the way of perfecting so important a system of interior navigation. Several thousands of miles of this system is now used, according to the demands of the present population, and even in their present unimproved condition, various great rivers of this system are of vast importance to the country. But what must be their importance if freight could be carried without breaking bulk from the base of the Rocky Mountains and Central Dakota to the salt water of Hudson Bay ! Some day this will be possible.
It still remains to note briefly the possibilities of the great river systems of the Mackenzie Basin. The Mackenzie River itself, emptying into the Arctic Ocean, and having its birth in Great Slave Lake, is about one thousand miles long, and is entirely free from obstructions to navigation for vessels drawing five or six feet of water. With a proper survey of its channel and some dredging of its sandbars, it could quite easily be made to accommodate vessels of much greater draught. Its chief tributary on the west is the Liard, another large river, and navigable for a considerable distance from its mouth. Its chief tributary on the east is the Bear River, emptying the waters of Great Bear Lake. This is a comparatively short river though considerably obstructed; but should necessity ever require it, navigation could be made possible to this, the most northern of Canada’s great lakes.
Reference has already been made to the navigable extent of Great Slave Lake, and uniting it with Athabasca Lake, is the Great Slave River, some two hundred miles in length. This great river has but one obstruction in its entire course, namely, the lines of rapids near Fort Smith, about midway between the two lakes. The Hudson Bay steamer now navigates this system and its tributary waters from Fort Smith to the Arctic Ocean, affording over two thousand miles of navigable lake and river distances. The rapids at Fort Smith could easily be overcome by a canal, and once overcome the navigation of the great Peace River, Athabasca Lake, and Athabasca River to Fort McMurray would be made possible to the ocean, thus adding another one thousand miles free to the sea. With the exception of Vermilion Falls, easily overcome, the Peace River is navigable almost to the Rocky Mountains; and though the Athabasca River has somewhat serious obstructions in its middle course, if these were removed, as doubtless they could be, it would also be navigable considerably west of Athabasca Landing, and into Lesser Slave Lake. This accomplished, navigation would be uninterrupted from Fort St. John and Athabasca Landing to the sea. The future only can determine the importance of these great transportation systems and bring to light their marvellous possibilities.
Whether any attempt will ever be made to. unite these separated systems with each other it is difficult to say. The proposition has already been made for the extension of the St. Lawrence system by way of Rainy River, uniting it with the waters of Lake Winnipeg. This accomplished, it would only remain to unite the Mackenzie valley system with them to complete the whole. This would probably be a smaller task than what has been done on the St. Lawrence.
It will be observed that the Athabasca River comes within ninety miles of the Saskatchewan River, between Athabasca Landing and Edmonton. When we bear in mind what prominence has been given, and what expenditures have been made to perfect inland navigation in both Germany and Russia in recent years, the difficulties in the way of uniting these vast systems seem insignificent. Should they be united it would, of course, be possible to pass up the St. Lawrence River, or Hudson Bay, and reach the Pacific Ocean by way of Mackenzie River without any hindering barrier. This would be, indeed, the discovery of the long sought NorthWest Passage. Who can say that it shall not be accomplished ? It is merely a matter of millions.