Northern Alberta Railways
Grand Island Portage
Complete list of associated features:
Previous SectionNext Section

Grand Island Portage

ith the arrival of the S.S. Northcote at Edmonton in 1875 the Hudson’s Bay Company inaugurated a change in the transportation of freight and people to its posts in the north. The decision to place steamboats on the rivers and lakes led to the abandonment of the Company’s fur trade routes.1 Also abandoned was the trail from Edmonton to Fort Assiniboine in favour of a new one to the “elbow” of the Athabasca River, where a new storage depot was established in 1877 and named Athabasca Landing.2

View of the Island in Grand Rapids on the Athabasca River
View of the Island in Grand Rapids on the Athabasca River

Chief Factor Hardisty’s desire for a shorter route to the north from the Landing via Fort McMurray was realized3 when goods were shipped by scow (known locally as sturgeon boats due to the spoon-shape of bow and stern)4 in spite of the many intervening rapids, the most dangerous being the Grand Rapids (Kitchi Pówestik) where an island divided the river into two channels. In order to avoid the risk of loss of both men and cargoes, and the launching of the sternwheeler S.S. Athabasca in 1888,5 the HBC decided to build a tramway across the island for the transfer of goods from the ship to the scows at the lower end.6

Grand Island Tramway
Grand Island Tramway

The 700-yard tramway was constructed in 1889 at a cost of $4, 464, with a 3' 5" gauge, the rails being made of spruce timbers faced with iron strapping.7 At either end of the line a warehouse was built, and freight was transferred by means of wooden flat cars with iron wheels. In order to facilitate the docking of the S.S. Athabasca a channel was blasted out at the upper end of the island.8 The HBC eventually installed a manager to supervise the operation of the tramway and collect tariffs from the free-traders who had, in the past, used the line without permission.9 With the building of railways to the north the need for shipping goods along the Athabasca River ended and with it the Grand Island tramway.

Previous SubsectionNext Subsection
Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. Athabasca Historical Society, Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History (Athabasca: 1986), p. 24.
2. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, D. 25/19, Fo. 297; Athabasca Landing, p. 19.
3. Athabasca Landing, p. 24 ff.
4. Department of the Interior, Annual Report, 1892, Part VII, p. 4.
5. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, D. 25/19, Fo. 219.
6. Edmonton Bulletin, 8 September 1888; Athabasca Landing, p. 28.
7. Edmonton Bulletin, 8 June 1889; Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, D. 25/17, Fo. 305.
8. Edmonton Bulletin, 8 June 1889.
9. Canadian Geographic Journa 4.2 (February 1932): 102. An article by F.J Alcock, a geologist, who made the trip in 1914; Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, D. 25/17, Fo. 316–17; Tramway in need of repair 1893.