A “Princess” is Launched

by Molly McFadden

Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Winnipeg’s chief business streets, Portage Avenue and Main Street, are among the widest and best lighted in the world. Can you imagine today’s Main Street a sea of mud with two wooden sidewalks down either side and a tall Highlander standing up in an ox-cart in the centre playing his bagpipes furiously? Such strange sights were common in pioneer years. Music was popular and a band was formed in 1873. Such a one performed at the first momentous steamboat launching to take place in Winnipeg on August 2, 1881.

Construction work is fascinating to both old and young at any time. The year 1881 was a boom year for Winnipeg and many a shortcut and playground had been cut up by excavations for new buildings. The excitement of watching the assembling of a passenger steamboat one hundred and fifty-four feet long had been different and fascinating for all. Watching while fishing was an everyday “must.”

On June 27, a horse-drawn truck carrying a giant boiler for the ship broke down in the mud near the site of the present Royal Alexandra Hotel. Three teams of large Clydesdale horses pulled the truck out, but it was soon stuck again. There it stayed, obstructing traffic for three days on Main Street. Then a house mover put it on rollers and moved it down to the shipyard. This was at the foot of Bannatyne Avenue, south of the present Alexander docks. [*]

When word came that the Marquis of Lorne, Governor-General of Canada, would be in Winnipeg in August to christen the new Louise Bridge, after his wife, H.R.H. the Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, work was rapidly pushed forward in order to have him name the new ship, S.S. Princess. This visit of the Marquis of Lorne was also commemorated by the naming of four streets, Argyle, Louise, Lorne, and Princess.

As the day drew near, streets were decorated and arches built. A crowd gathered at the shipyard at supper time on Tuesday, August 2. His Excellency was present with a number of members of the legislature, aldermen, and many prominent citizens and their wives.

During a lull, a man approached the Marquis and introduced himself: “I’se goin to be stoker on the craft,” he said, with a proud swagger to his shoulders. The interview was suddenly terminated by the attending A.D.C., Captain Chater.

The steamer was decorated with flags, English, French, and American, and her paddle boxes were painted with emblems and beavers. Workmen were slow in knocking out the supports under the boat aand the Governor-General had to leave, but a little after six o’clock, the supports finally gave way and the ship moved rapidly and gracefully down the incline to the river. People on the S.S. Princess and in steamers moored close by, as well as those on both banks of the river, cheered lustily.

Suddenly a cable attached to an old landmark tree grew taut, causing the tree to sway forward. A little boy, perched on a limb, was thrown into the cold water. Then another boy, fearing the ship was going to capsize, jumped overboard from the ship to the bank into a pile of lumber twenty feet below. The tree was uprooted by the cable. Women and children screamed. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Finally, the S.S. Princess was drawn back to shore by workmen pulling the cable and singing a boat song while they worked. The ship was left at the dock to be finished later for Lake Winnipeg and Red River trade. Captain William Robinson said she would be capable of carrying between six and seven hundred persons on day-long excursions, and could provide cabin accommodation for seventy-five first-class and two hundred second-class or deck passengers on regular trips. Her speed was to be about seventeen miles an hour. Who was to know she would be wrecked on Lake Winnipeg seven years later?

* The author informs us that she recently examined the site of the 1881 shipyard thoroughly, and states that a 1958 map of Winnipeg, published by Roy T. Pickard, shows “Ship Street” marked at the foot of Bannatyne. This is where the steamboat slip was, and where the S.S. Princess was launched. The tree mentioned in the article marked the division point of the Bannatyne and Ross forms. Old Ross House was on Market Street next to Bannatyne before it was moved to its present site in Sir William Whyte Park.

Page revised: 30 June 2009