It is known that Indians, on an ancient trail from Montana to the Northern Forests, crossed the river at this location. They used a ford when the river was low or cross in round bull boats made from willows and green buffalo hides when it was high. In June 1882, there were about sixty lodges of Cree Indians living along the river at the Landing. They, along with the Métis buffalo hunters, turned their Red River carts upside down and paddled them across like boats.
In May 1883, the first ferry was built and installed at Saskatchewan Landing. Built by Sandy MacDonald in Battleford, it was nine feet wide, eighteen feet long, and large enough to carry two Red River carts. This was hauled by horses from Battleford to the Landing, taking ten days to reach the river. Fraser Tims, a local merchant at the Landing, established and operated this ferry. However, it had been poorly built and ran – when it did at all – upon a cable that was prone to break. When this happened, the ferry had to be laboriously poled across the river.
Unfortunately, it was during this time that the Northwest Rebellion erupted, and the Battleford Trail was being heavily utilized to transport troops and supplies from Swift Current to Battleford. Major-General John W. Laurie was assigned the difficult task of organizing a system of transport for the troops along this route. Trailing the prairies was difficult enough, but crossing the river proved to be the most cumbersome of all. Even if the ferry had been well-built, it would have been inadequate to carry the vast quantity of military supplies. For this reason, steamboats and barges were used to ferry supplies across the river.
In 1885, Colonel Otter traveled to Swift Current by train and marched north to Saskatchewan Landing and on to Battleford. Otter had to wait at the Landing with his 500 men, twenty wagons, and numerous horses for the steamboat “Northcott” to arrive from Medicine Hat and transport them across the river. In the same year, the Northcott, armed with a Gatling machine gun, a small canon, and a rifle-armed crew of thirty-five, took on supplies at Saskatchewan Landing before sailing down the river to provide coordinated naval support for General Middleton’s ground attack on Batoche.
The resumption of regular traffic over the trail, even before the rebellion hostilities had ended in 1885, led the federal government in 1886 to take an interest in improving the trail and the river crossing. R. C. Laurie of Battleford, Dominion Land Surveyor, received instructions officially to locate and survey the Battleford Trail. It was discovered that the original ferry had been launched in the same spot an Indian woman had forded the river while walking from Swift Current to Battleford.
W. E. Russell owned the new ferry and established a store and Inn called the Russel House. A post office, which Russell also operated, was granted by the government. However, by September 1890, traffic to Battleford over the trail had virtually ended. He was able to keep the ferry operating only until 1892, at which time, public ferry transportation ended.
From 1892 to 1901, no public ferry operated at the Landing. However, James Smart, a local rancher, ran a private ferry service for the local settlers and ranchers. He charged a small sum to cross – one fee for horses and another for drivers. This ferry was established by stretching a rope cable across from the top of a tower on each side of the river. This carried a heavy pulley to which the ferry was fastened. The ferry was angled upstream by a large wheel turned by hand, and the force of the river current forced the ferry across.
In 1902, a public ferry was once again established at the Landing. From 1902 to 1905, Isadore LaPlante, a well-known pioneer of the river country, operated the ferry. He was assisted a local rancher, August Huntley. One spring, in high water, the cable snapped under the pressure; and the ferry started downstream. Isadore jumped into a rowboat, caught the ferry, tied a rope on it, and took it ashore. This was now considered to be salvage and had to be repurchased by the government. They towed the ferry upriver where it was soon operating again.
In September 1905, a new provincial government was granted financial assistance to the ferries. In 1906, the government built a larger ferry, thirty feet by sixteen feet, and strung heavier cables across the river. A. G. Mackie was the ferryman, operating by contract and bonus. In 1910, further renovations were made, with the first high towers and cable car being installed. Mackie operated the ferry until 1918. Many mishaps occurred to the ferries. These included: broken cables, chains holding cars on the ferry breaking, and cars and carts falling through thin ice. When the land north of the river was homesteaded, many teams and wagons broke through the ice in the spring and the autumn. Grain from north of the river was then hauled to Success, with many great hardships to the farmers. Fortunately, no human lives were ever lost in the water, although many valuable supplies and horses were.
Automobiles soon came into use, and many of these broke through the ice as well. A tanker truck loaded with hot asphalt tipped the ferry one day, and quick work had to be performed to pump it out before it sat up in the cold water. Another time, the cable snapped with eight cars on the ferry, causing the ferry to driftdown the river the length of the cable. Some people in their cars were waist deep in water.
In the spring and autumn, the ice would be unsafe for two or three weeks; and people would be held up on both sides of the river. The only way to cross the river was in the basket or cage. This was a wooden box, five feet by five feet by four feet, attached to the carrier on the cable and pulled across by horsepower, taking at least thirty minutes one way.
Although the ferry service seemed to suffice in the early 1900s, by 1940, both Swift Current and Rosetown had become thriving communities. As businesses began to develop, the merchants felt the need for a stable north-south connection across the South Saskatchewan River. Several promises for a bridge were made, but it was not until 1949 when that contractors arrived that people actually believed that a bridge would indeed be constructed.
Construction of the bridge took approximately one year; and the traffic started to move across in 1951. At the official ribbon cutting ceremony on June 20, 1951, the bridge was dedicated by Premier Tommy Douglas for the use of “our children and our children’s children.” It had six concrete approach spans, three steel spans, and it was 1,214.5 feet from abutment to abutment. There were eight piers and nine arches, the highest pier being fifty-two feet.
Unfortunately, the one million dollar bridge lasted only nine months. On the morning of Friday, April 4, 1952, rumor started spreading from city, town, and hamlet that the Landing Bridge was in danger because of a huge ice jam swelled by an abnormal spring breakup. Men, women, and children rushed to the scene in plush cars, jalopies, and even on horseback to watch the struggle of the bridge against nature. Soon the scene started to resemble an afternoon country picnic rather than a potential disaster.
Although two RCMP officers were present and stopped vehicles at the bridge, men, women, and children left their cars to walk out onto the bridge to take photographs. Some individuals even ventured out onto the ice jam to pose for pictures. Nobody actually thought that the long-awaited bridge would really go out.
However, by late Saturday afternoon, the jam had started to tremble and swell to a frightening state. The RCMP cleared everybody from the bridge as measures to relieve the ice jam were initiated. At 4:45 PM, army engineers blasted hundreds of pounds of dynamite ten miles east of the bridge in an effort to relieve the jam. Two separate detonations were performed, but they did not help. The ice continued to build up. All anyone could do now was to sit back, watch, and pray that the bridge for which people had waited for over half a century would withstand the presssure.
About 2 AM on Sunday morning, April 6, the river began to gain momentum. The ice flow built up for about one hour. Then, in a period of five seconds, to everyone’s horror, the bridge collapsed. The end came with startling suddenness. The ice actually rose up to the bridge, finally lifting it off the piers and dumping the steel structure into the river. To this day, the original Landing Bridge lies at the bottom of Lake Diefenbaker. Words cannot express the devastation felt by the locals at the loss of their bridge. Pete Campbell, a Stewart Valley merchant, was quoted by the Swift Current Sun as saying, “Can’t think of anything worse that could happen to us – and you folks in Swift Current, too.” Another Stewart Valley merchant, Jake Bay lamented, “Who ever wanted to see a ferry again. Now we’ll be tied up here for quite a spell, I guess.” Mr. Bay was quite right. It was just over a year before traffic once again travelled over a bridge at the Saskatchewan Landing.
After the disastrous collapse of the original Landing bridge, people were once again forced to use ferry service. However, the government wasted no time in beginning the reconstruction of a second bridge. The remaining spans (which had not been wiped out by the ice jam) were raised ten feet in a tricky engineering feat before the four center sections (which had been wiped out) were rebuilt.
The people waited and watched anxiously as the bridge slowly began to take shape. By June of 1953, a press release was issued that “the bridge may possibly be open by June 8 or 9, that traffic was being held up because the bridge was being painted and to obviate cars being splattered.” On June 8, 1953, because of the river being so high preventing the ferry from operating, traffic was galloed to go over the bridge.
The official reopening of the Saskatchewan Landing Bridge was not held until July 9, 1953. The ceremonies were held on the north side of the bridge (since the first opening was held on the south side). Approximately 2,000 people were in attendance to witness the rejoining of the north and south. Traffic once again flowed across the bridge, and the amount increased more and more each year until, on June 10, 1964, the second bridge was closed.
The contractors hired by the Saskatchewan Department of Highways and Transportation began revisions on the bridge to allow for more traffic, as well as to increase its height above the water. By this time, the Gardiner Dam and Diefenbaker Lake were in existance. During the period of revisions, it was necessary to have three ferries running, as well as floating bridges in the autumn and spring. During the winter of 1964-1965, a temporary bridge was set into place. The new bridge cost $900,000 and paid for with both federal and provincial funds. Dimensions of the new bridge were as follows: Length: 1,213 feet; roadway width: twenty-eight feet; and sidewalk width: five feet.
On November 11, 1965, the bridge was opened to traffic. It was lacking only paint and finishing touches at this time. Finally, on June 22, 1966, the official ceremony for the bridge took place. “The new high level bridge is a symbol of the accelerating rate of progress of a province, of pride in the past, and of confidence in the future.”
We would like to thank Darcy Cleasby, Conservation Officer, and Darcy Lockman, Park Supervisor, Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, for providing the information for this page.
Return to Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, in the Parks section of this website.