My friend Tony Cashman created a proposal for Fort Edmonton Park. At 92, he writes exclusively on the 1924 Underwood typewriter his mom got him second-hand when he was a boy. With Tony's permission, I digitized this proposal.
JOHN WALTER'S FERRY
SOME THOUGHTS FOR FORT EDMONTON PARK
BY TONY CASHMAN
The thoughts began long before there was a park, on the day in the 1950's when an old-timer gave me this picture, actual size. Though technically a "still" picture it seemed alive with motion -- the river itself moving Walter's ferry towards the north bank, a half dozen people moving down the slope to the landing.
In 2009, when the picture was chosen for my book When Edmonton Was Young, graphic artists at University of Alberta Press energized the scene by enlarging it four times. One feature which came up bright and white is the home of John Walter, now a museum on the river flat which perpetuates his name. And the expansion brought up many details adding to the impression of the scene in motion.
Study it long enough and you feel drawn into the action, moving down the slope. That was my experience anyway and led to a thought: A re-launch of Walter's Ferry would be a nice addition to Fort Edmonton Park. I felt an obligation to share the idea with the Letters Editor of the Journal but there was too much for a letter, then too much for an Opinion Piece, and when it was too much for Sunday Reader, which runs occasional historical pieces, it kept on growing, out of control, until the picture (which is worth a thousand words according to ancient Chinese wisdom) generated 5,000 words. Over a year-and-a-half the Letter to the Editor evolved to a detailed proposal for the proprietors of Fort Edmonton Park.
To conclude this introduction may we offer a quick advance tour of main ideas.
First of all, it would reconnect Fort Edmonton Park with the river. The river was fact number one in the founding of Edmonton -- the highway and the truck route of the fur trades. The connection was lost when the Park was fenced off from the river to protect the hiking trails.
It would not be a ferry within the meaning of the Public Highway Development Act because it would not cross to the far bank, just to midstream where the current is strong and it can be stopped to be a floating classroom where the kids can learn about the power of the river to move furs to Hudson Bay, and actually feel its power tugging at the ferry cables.
Kids would love the ferry. They like to see how things work -- which I've noted at Fort Edmonton Park and 12 years at VISTA 33, the Alberta Government Telephone Museum. In an age with technology driven by computer chips they don't have much opportunity. They'd be intrigued to see how you can make a cable ferry work by adjusting a couple of angles to harness the force of the river. It would also be a powerful illustration of the term "green" -- using the force of nature while taking nothing away. Obviously it would need safety additions not required of the original. The prospect of 20 subteens loose on a barge open on all four sides is frightening.
The ferry would come to the Park complete with two authentic and compelling personalities for role-playing -- the man who built it and the man who ran it. John Walter was on staff at historic Fort Edmonton, coming from the Scottish Isles at age 21 to build Yorkboats for the fur trade. When that ended he moved with quick success into the commercial life of the Edmonton Settlement, putting his boat-building skills into ferries, and eventually steamboats for his far-flung enterprises.
Johnny McPhaden, who also came here at 21, (from Ontario) was the ferry man for all its career -- 1881 to 1913 -- in addition to farming in Windsor Park and Grandview Heights. Johnny would have heard the tales of the old Hudson's Bay men -- about the trials of using the river to move furs down to the Bay of that name and bringing supplies back up to Edmonton. Johnny McPhaden would be a role-player's dream. He could re-tell the old stories with authority and fun. Whenever the name Johnny McPhaden came up the old-timers of Strathcona would smile.
Through months of mulling Walter's Ferry gradually took on a wider significance. It could represent every boat in the Golden Era of the Cable Ferry in Alberta. It's hard to grasp that there was such an era because it was spread so thin over the years. Unlike the Great Depression, which happened everywhere at the same time in less than ten years, the Golden Era of the Ferry Cable began in 1875 -- with the Mounted Police at Fort Calgary -- and is not completely done yet. It has occurred at some 150 locations around Alberta. In each community it served the same vital purpose, keeping traffic moving as bridge builders lagged years behind the road builders. The provincial government ran a few but most were the work of local handymen, many of them characters, who could handle simple technology.
Fort Edmonton Park could tell their stories. Though it would be beyond the Park resources to gather them all, the good news is its already been done -- by Elizabeth Haestie, an archivist at the Glenbow, and is available for about twenty dollars (secondhand) in the book Ferries and Ferryman of Alberta.
Fort Edmonton Park offers fine reproductions of historic buildings, (the Selkirk Hotel, hangar at Blatchford Field), and notable original structures, (Al Rashid Mosque, McDougall mission church, Streetcar Number One), but the original river runs beside the Park and presents an unused and genuine historical opportunity. The Park could hang a cable across the river and relaunch John Walter's Ferry. This would reclaim a concept of the founders in which each area was to be oriented towards the river, a vision which has blurred as the river has been walled off to protect hiking-biking trails.
John Walter was on staff of the original Fort Edmonton, coming to build Yorkboats when the river was the great highway of the west, the fur trader's best friend. When settlers came, driving wheeled wagons along trails, and the river became an unfriendly obstacle, he saw a business opportunity. He strung a cable from Walterdale to Rossdale and ran a ferry from 1882 till the High Level Bridge opened in 1913.
In summer people and their horses rode the ferry. When winter froze the river they crossed on ice. In fall freezeup and spring breakup they stayed on whichever side they happened to be and the ferry was hauled up on the bank to preserve it. But the cable remained in service, a commercial lifeline for businesses in Edmonton. Mail and parcels were loaded into a cage and reeled across.
The Park's ferry will be ecologically friendly, power solely by the river. It will be economically friendly, a consideration not to be dismissed. And it will be interpreter-friendly. Through its 32 seasons Walter's Ferry had one skipper, a role-player's dream named Johnny McPhaden. (McFadden).
In the 1950s I had the privilege of meeting folks who had been young people of Strathcona at the turn of the century. All were fans of Jonny McPhaden, the good sport who would come to the aid of a party, even when the party was on the other bank and the stream ran with debris of a flood or early ice floes of freezeup.
Walter's Ferry will achieve two objectives of a successful museum display. It will be illustrative. It will also be experiential, imparting knowledge which can't be taught or acquired by reading, only by experience, up close and personal. Schools offer programs in music appreciation. The ferry experience will be a course in river appreciation -- how the rivers work and how the North Saskatchewan worked in the formation of their hometown.
Kids enjoy seeing how things work. In an age of computer-dependant technology, opportunities are few. The enigmatic diesel locomotive gives away no clues to what makes it go. They delight in the arrival of the steam locomotive at the station in Fort Edmonton Park, shaking the platform, all working parts in sight, snorting steam driving connector rods which propel wheels in the motion of galloping horses. They cower and cover their ears but they're all smiles.
A train in the station can pound the eardrums with 95 decibels of sound. When kids come to the ferry landing they'll find that the greenest mode of transport is also the quietest. The restless swush-swush of river on wood barely registers a decibel.
When they're settled aboard to see what makes a cable ferry go they'll see what patrons of the Coaldale Ferry saw 100 years ago, the day the photographer came. They'll guess that the thick twist of metal strands overhead is the cable. They'll groan when Johnny McPhaden tells them it's called a restraining cable because it restrains the boat from wandering off downstream. (Groaners are good for establishing communication).
Next they'll wonder about that bar hanging from the cable by a wheel at each end. Growing up in a world without clotheslines they may not recognize the wheels as pulleys, so Johnny will explain that a pulley is a wheel with a deep groove in the rim, so it can roll along a ferry cable or have a rope pulled through it. Then they'll wonder about the ropes, coming from the ends of the ends of the bar down to the ends of the ferry. Each is looped through a small pulley attached to the bar.
Johnny will illustrate how to make a ferry go: make one rope a little shorter, the other a little longer. The simple adjustment turns the boat to an angle with the current and creates a silent force which moves it out into the stream. The experimental phase begins.
The Walter replica will go almost to the far bank, but not quite. By literally and figuratively stopping short it will be contained within the Park, as the railway and streetcar systems are, and will not be a ferry within the meaning of Section 53 of the Public Highway Development Act. This will spare Park administrators the burden of licensing regulations and extra legal liabilities.
Some authenticity must be sacrificed for safety. The prospect of twenty sub-teens loose on a vessel open at both ends (and open on the sides except for a railing) is the stuff of nightmares. Plexiglass all around will do minimal damage to the historic appearance, or the experience of being up close and personal with the river. Benches were not a feature of Walter's Ferry but may be excused on grounds of maintaining order. Lifejackets may be required. If not historical they will teach water safety.
By the time they're halfway across kids will have learned a surprising fact about rivers -- they're twice as wide in the middle as they appear from shore. So they'll be primed for an experience when Johnny adjusts the ropes to stop the ferry where the river runs the strongest. With their floating classroom broadside to the current, tugging at the cable, creaking under their feet, they'll be up close and personal with the power that moved furs of Fort Edmonton 2,000 kilometers to Hudson Bay.
Pelts were piled on to a rivercraft called the Yorkboat, a flatbed truck on rivers that were highways. The Yorkboat was awkward, unlovely and unloved but it could transport five tones of fur. Every spring ten or so would marshal below Fort Edmonton and set off downriver.
Johnny will then bring the art of the storyteller to the history lesson with a tale of the fellahs from Fort Edmonton Park who decided they would learn from experience what it was like for those fellahs long ago. Fellahs are ideal for storytellers. Unlike fellows, who can be devious, down-the-nose and obnoxious when they get together, fellahs are sincere, down-home and tolerant of human deficiencies including their own.
They were going to find out they'd need a Yorkboat, so the Park built one. True to history it was 40 feet long, nine feet wide and pointed at the ends, and would float clear of the sandbars in two feet of water. They spent months training at a fitness club. In early summer they trucked their boat to Rocky Mountain House and put it on the water.
There were ten fellahs. Eight of them were to man the sweeps. Sweeps are like oars only longer -- 16 feet. They’re mounted on posts, four on each side. A fellah had to stand up to pull them. And the sweeps weren't for power. They were just to steer the boat, it would go with the flow. The problem was to make it go where you wanted. At the back was a fellah with a rudder. That was supposed to help but the boat ran over a rock and away went the rudder. Up front was a fellah with a pole. His job was to test the water to see how deep it was, or, more to the point, how shallow. A Yorkboat had no brakes. If the pole was touching bottom and the bottom was coming fast he'd urge the fellahs on the sweeps to steer left or right, but a Yorkboat was slow to respond. If it kept on straight and ran up on a sandbar the fellahs would have to get out in knee-deep water and try to pull it off. And it weighed a ton.
There were no sandbars in "the channel," where the river was deepest and the current steady and helpful, but the channel wasn't easy to spot and was always moving about. They learned they could never relax, and had to learn the hard way -- when a fellah's hat blew off.
There are photos available of the fellahs and the Fort Edmonton Park Yorkboat.
The river was quiet, they decided to go after the hat. And before they knew it their boat was being run headlong into the bank, and into the clutches of a big poplar tree which had toppled into the water. Leaves were sopping with overnight rain and the tree was still rooted to the bank, so they had to chop it down to resume the voyage. After eight days of that weren't they glad to come around that bend (points) and see Fort Edmonton Park. And put their boat up on the bank where you can see it today.
They knew everything a Park visitor should know about running Yorkboats 1200 kilometers.... down the Saskatchewan River, across Lake Winnipeg, then down the Nelson River. The boat brigade would leave in early May and be at York Factory by mid-June. There they'd watch the horizon for the sailing ships... coming from England to take their furs, and bringing trade goods for next winter's business.
Telling us about trade goods Johnny can employ a useful tactic of the storyteller's art, and can slip into the present tense. Something that is more compelling than something that was. He'll explain that people of the First Nations are willing to trade furs for what the company offers because they get steel-age improvements on common everyday things they used to make for themselves. (He holds up a stone boning tool and a steel knife, both found in fields around Edmonton). A native fellah can chip away at a hard rock with another hard rock till he has a knife that won't last long or he can trade a pelt for a steel knife he can sharpen many times. Or he can scrape away at a bone till he's made himself a needle which won't hold up long or he can trade for a steel needle. He can spend days making rope out of animal sinew or he can trade for one made out of jute. He can look at a pond to see how handsome he is, or he can trade for a glass mirror, which he can also use for signaling or to start a fire. And the company has glass beads to trade. Beads are important in native art. Glass beads give the artist colours he, or she, won't find in nature. And Hudson Bay blankets, like the ones they sell in the stores today. A buffalo robe is warm but a blanket is lighter, easier to carry around, and that's handy for people who are always on the move.
On top of the trade goods the ships bring food for the traders. Around Edmonton they hunt fresh meat and catch fish. In the rich black dirt (he can sift some loam) they grow root crops -- potatoes and turnips and the like -- and they grow some barley. But in the growing season there's only the women to work the fields. Most of the men are away with the furs.
And this all must come to Edmonton uphill. A fellah may think he's had a rough ride steering a Yorkboat downstream but on the return trip there are no riders, the current's the wrong direction. The boats must be dragged all the way with the fellahs on one end of a rope and a boat on the other. It was called "tracking." No doubt the fellahs had other names for it. Along the waterways of Britain are nice tow-paths on the banks for the horses that pull barges, but there are no tow-paths on the North Saskatchewan, just soggy, crumbling banks, often blocked by fallen trees.
There are good photographs available of men “tracking” a barge along the Athabasca River about 1900.
The workday starts at three a.m. The chief factor, John Rowand is in charge, and he says: "No man is sick unless he's been dead for three days." If the fellahs leave York Factory the first of August they can be home the end of September and aren't they glad to see Fort Edmonton up there on the cliff.
Johnny will explain that the traders had to keep building boats because only half came back, enough to bring the supplies. Then he'll introduce the last man the company sent to Edmonton to build boats. John Walter was 21. He'd learned the art in the Orkney Islands off Scotland and he arrived in 1870, when the fur trade was almost done and the Hudson's Bay Company was selling its rights to the new Dominion of Canada. So after five years he left the company. All about was land for the first man to claim it. John Walter took the flat across from the Fort, which became Walterdale.
He had a head for business. One of the first things he did was bring in a coal stove, all the way from Winnipeg, to prove that local coal would work in a stove. Company blacksmiths had claimed it wouldn't.
In 1882 the government of Canada sent a party to make a survey of what was known as "The Edmonton Settlement." The Mounted Police counted heads and said the population was 263.
That was enough for John Walter. He decided those folks and the ones outside the settlement could use a ferry, so "he built this one," and the ferryman was (Johnny points to himself).
Johnny can then introduce a game call How-Old-Do-You-Think? How old do you think Johnny McPhaden was when he got the job? When one kid eventually guesses that the right answer is 19, it will make the ferryman an instant "somebody kids can identify with."
John Walter knew that when the settlers came they would need lumber for their homes and coal to heat them. He had a sawmill and a mine in Walterdale and mines and timber stands up and down the river.
So it was natural that he'd go on and build his own steamboats. There were three of them, sternwheelers, the Strathcona, the Scona, and the Edmonton. The Edmonton was the big one, 132 feet long. On weekdays it could go past "this very spot" with a load of lumber or coal. On weekends and holidays it could go past with a picnic crowd of 400 people at a dollar a head, bound for Big Island, 16 miles upstream.
When Johnny took on the ferry the map of western Canada was almost all rivers, highways of the fur trade. Then railroad builders poured on to the prairies, drawing a new map of hatched lines. Eventually they were driving two national lines through Edmonton and pushing local lines out in key directions. Manhandling one-ton rails was exhausting work. Saturday nights brought the builders to Edmonton seeking relaxation and a favourite party spot was Walter's Ferry. When the ferry made its last scheduled run they'd rent it, stop it in midstream and fill the night with song.
Through 33 seasons Johnny McPhaden had a unique vantage point to watch Edmonton grow -- from a population of 263 to 53,611 when the High Level Bridge took over his job in 1913.
Johnny McPhaden's command was not the only ferry in the service of John Walter. He also had the Lower Ferry -- which started out crossing from Cloverdale to Riverdale; then, as traffic built up on Scona Hill Road was moved to the future site of the Low Level Bridge. It had competitors at times -- till 1900, when it gave way to the first bridge anywhere on the North Saskatchewan.
The master of the Lower Ferry was a vivid contrast with the dashing McPhaden. Thomas Durdell (rhymes with Hurdle) was notable for his caution, tiny stature, flowing white beard and a capacity for sleep so deep that when he retired to his home on the bank after the last run nothing could waken him. This led to a river adventure which gave Edmonton one of the biggest laughs of 1892.
To quote my from my book When Edmonton Was Young: One night a bunch of the boys from Edmonton arranged to meet a bunch of the boys from Clover Bar at the Strathcona Hotel on Whyte Avenue. They partied well and long, and when they finally headed for home, they arrived at the ferry landing to find Mr. Durdell in a sleep as deep as Snow White's.
The boys discussed their problem and then realized they really didn't have one. Anybody could run a ferry. Nothing to it. They'd watched hundreds of times.
Borrowing a land locked ferry is hardly piracy on the high seas but in the spirit of "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum" they heave-hoed their transportation into the current -- and quickly discovered this was not a good idea. Their swashbuckling maneuvering created a parallelogram of forces so powerful it snapped the connection to the cable and sent the ferry spinning like a leaf among shouts of dismay, recrimination and profanity.
The runaway scow spun around Riverdale bend and the bend after that.... till at blessed last it caught on a sandbar! Hurray! Hurray! .... on the Edmonton side. We'll leave the boys there wading to the friendly shore. They're saved. But in the words of their song: They won't get home until morning.
120 years later this adventure will still have power to roll kids in the aisles, and will lead to a broad question: If John Walter had two ferries there must have been others in Alberta. How many were there? 150 as a matter of fact. The Era of the Ferryboat on Rivers of Alberta is hard to grasp. Unlike the Big Band Era, which occurred everywhere at the same time in the concise frame of a few years, the Era of the Ferryboat occurred here, there and almost everywhere over a century-and-a-half. And it's not quite done yet. There are still three. Each in its time provided a vital service in the development of its community. Roadbuilders were always years ahead of bridgebuilders. Ferries kept traffic moving to the other side. A ferry at Fort Edmonton Park could represent them all.
Collecting histories of all these vital links, or even establishing the number, would be beyond the resources or the mandate of Fort Edmonton Park, so the good news is: It's already been done. The information is available, neatly indexed, illustrated by 46 photographers in the book Ferries and Ferrymen In Alberta, produced by Elizabeth Haestie, an archivist at the Glenbow Museum from 1978 to 1985 and published by the Glenbow.
How it came about is the first of many interesting stories in the book. Ms. Haestie was examining a vintage clock donated to the museum by the widow of William Levette, a rural postmaster at a dot on the map called Riverbow, near Brooks. Tucked into the back of the clock was a photograph of the ferry her husband had operated in the 1920s and '30s. The boat had all the appearance of being home-made. A team of horses was on board with a loaded haywagon behind. She wrote: "Something about it... awakened my interest in ferries. (It made) one wonder why nobody had ever compiled a history of them." So she volunteered for the responsibility.
This is the photograph which started it all. When the author saw this view of the Riverbow ferry she was launched into an exhausting study of ferries in Alberta.
[The Glenbow has the mentioned image, NA-3687-2]
The North-west Mounted Police led the way, with connections to posts like Fort Calgary. The government of the Northwest Territories provided ferries at difficult crossings on major trails. Later, the government of Alberta had some but most originated with a local enterpriser who would look at the wire and wheels of another operation and say: "Heck, I can do that." His ferry might have only a few years but they would be critical years in forming a viable community. Many were farmers. Some were characters, like "Buck" Smith, a hotel man at High River. When people asked why he had a ferry he would explain: "Well, when I was crossing the river one spring during a flood I was carried off downstream and out into the Bow River. Then into the Saskatchewan River and at last I floated ashore and met Sir John A. Macdonald. Hearing of my experience Sir John gave me the materials to build a ferry so people could get safely across at High River."
In the introduction to her book Elizabeth Haestie wrote: "It is of course the ferrymen themselves who (worked) in fair weather and foul, and sometimes with great difficulty and in hazardous conditions, who really merit recognition....." Kids will love the difficulty in which Alec La Tromboise, skipper of the Pancras ferry, found himself the day he took a crowd to the picnic on the other side. A ferryman on the Red Deer would hardly be expected to understand the principle of displacement -- which measures the weight of water displaced by the boat. It would have kept him out of a lot of trouble when three ladies bound for the picnic showed up late. Alec decided it would be simpler to row them across.
Unfortunately they were large ladies. Alec was well underway when he realized their combined weight was greater than the displacement and was sinking the boat. He rowed frantically as the picnic crowd watched in fascination. 50 feet from shore the boat went under and he and his passengers scrambled on to a rock. Spectators heaped abuse on the ferryman. It was all his fault. There were cries of "He should be hung!" Alec's wife was so upset that when rescuers came with a rope to throw to the rock, rescue was delayed while Madam La Tromboise fought for possession of the rope.
It could only have happened in the era of the local ferry, an era scattered over 150 locations and nearly 150 years.
Walter's Ferry can represent them all though the process of re-floating will have to run an obstacle course of fussbudgets, anxious lawyers and minor bureaucracies asserting a measure of jurisdiction, afflictions which never troubled John Walter.
Tempers could fray when lines of cars grew at both landings. This is the Provincial Government Ferry at Brosseau, near St. Paul. On a busy day in 1928 Premier Brownlee thought he was entitled to jump the queue because his government owned the ferry. Popular ferryman Basil Theroux told him he couldn’t. The popular ferryman was fired. (The Glenbow has an image of this).
When the obstacles have been cleared a significant, and opportune date to start the action would be April the fourth, anniversary of that day in 1900 when the Lower Ferry came to the end of its public service with the advent of the Low Level Bridge. Park visitors can watch the ferry take shape and ride it all in one season. Park storytellers will have a classic to spin about the events of that historic April fourth, about the citizens who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more -- when the town council decided there would be no official ceremony to open the bridge for which the citizens had waited so long.
The citizens, of whom there may have been 25 hundred, ruled otherwise. Enthusiastic crowds had been watching final stages of the work. When it became obvious that the last rivet would be drawn sometime after noon on April fourth civil unrest turned to action, led by Donald Ross, laird of Rossdale, owner of Edmonton's first hotel, market garden and other opportunities for profit. Organizing "The Unofficial Opening of the Low Level Bridge" they began by hiring a band, that was essential. The Queen's Hotel offered its four-in-hand horse bus to parade the band around town trumpeting a call to the unofficial opening, and then joining hundreds of citizens on the bridge.
“The programme was of an extemporary character," a reporter wrote. The band played on, and on. As four o'clock passed the crowd could see that "the moment" was coming fast. Mr. Stryker, the bridge engineer, announced that Donald Ross would have the honour of the last rivet. Donald then went into his speech, or rather a preamble on how he'd decided what kind of speech to give. At the last moment he was about to deliver it the last bolt was handed up, red-hot from the furnace.
"(That) put a pause to the oratory and with lusty blows of a sledgehammer Mr. Ross clinched the last rivet. Kodaks were out in force and the scene was freely snap-shotted." The brief, witty speech was given. There were hearty cheers for Donald Ross, for employees of the Dominion Bridge Company, and for the Queen.
That would have put an end to an official ceremony but this party was just warming up. The band played on. There were songs, recitations and dances. The unofficial opening closed with an exhibition of native dancing from two Slavey Indians who had arrived a few days before from Fort Good Hope and the Arctic Ocean.
That was Wednesday. On Friday the Edmonton Bulletin reported: "Traffic across the bridge has been enormous and its usefulness has been already proved, most conclusively. The structure was finished not a day too soon. But for it all traffic across the river would have been suspended as the ice is in its impassible condition."
In its impassible condition... a chronic condition which paralyzed traffic twice a year... not enough ice for a wagon, too much ice for a ferry. In spring 1900 Edmonton's newest civic wonder had a dramatic opportunity to prove a bridge for all seasons.
The Lower Ferry was relegated to the bank, but John Walter's "original," with Johnny McPhaden at the "green" controls had fourteen years of service left. In the final summer it worked on behalf of contractors building its replacement, on which traffic would cross the river 157 feet above it.... piling on more history to bring to Fort Edmonton Park.
A river adventure story for kids... all fact, no fiction. In the summers of 1909, 1910 and 1911 a teen-age lad provided ferry service where the Dawson Bridge crosses today. Fred Marshall was the name. Fred and his rowboat carried people across the river for a nickel.
I interviewed Fred Marshall in September 1960. The result was broadcast #696 of the Edmonton Story on CJCA.