The first motorized vessel on the Peace system was the SS Grahame, built by the Hudson Bay Company in Fort Chipewyan in the winter of 1882-83. She carried freight 200 miles up the Peace to Vermilion Chutes, where the company’s goods were portaged around the rapids and reloaded into a flotilla of scows and canoes for the journey onward.
In 1902, under the direction of Bishop Grouard, parts were purchased in Ontario for a steamer. Assembled at Shaftesbury, upstream from Peace River Crossing, the 60 foot long, screw-propelled St. Charles was the first passenger boat on the Peace, making her maiden voyage in May, 1903.
A larger steamboat, the 110 foot stern-wheeler Peace River was launched in 1905 and could accommodate 25 passengers and some 80 tons of freight. Her season on the river usually consisted of three round-trips to Fort St John and back. The SS Grenfell, built in Peace River town in 1912 plied the river for only two years before running aground above Fort St John and subsequently burning. The busy shipyard at Peace River built and launched the 80 foot Northland Call in 1915 to join the growing fleet on the river. Sold and renamed the Hudson’s Hope for the 1920 season, she proved to be badly underpowered and was never a success.
The most famous of all the steamboats on the Peace was the D.A. Thomas, launched in 1916 and the largest and most luxurious of all the vessels to serve on the Peace-Mackenzie river system. She was 162 feet long, with a 37 foot beam and a draft of just over 6 feet. Fully loaded, the D.A. Thomas carried 160 passengers and more than 300 tons of mixed freight. Logically enough, the rate for freight and passenger charges depended on whether the trip involved going upstream or downstream. For example, a passenger could go from Peace River up to Hudson Hope for $25 or $35 for a return ticket. Starting out in Hudson Hope, it would cost $16 down to Peace River or $35 if you were coming back the same way. Freight went for $3 for 100 pounds on the upstream leg, but cost just $1 per hundred on the way down.
Passengers were entitled to a berth with their ticket, or could pay an additional $3 a night for a private stateroom equipped with electricity and both hot and cold running water. Meals were reasonably priced at 75 cents for breakfast and one dollar each for the midday and evening meals. Fresh meat was easily picked up along the way with the crew keeping an eye out for any young moose who might even think about attacking the boat.
The D.A. Thomas steamed proudly up and down the Peace until the late 1920’s, but the expansion of rail into the area finally made her uneconomic and obsolete. In June of 1930 she took the drop over the Vermilion Chutes, suffering some damage on the rocks, and then limped on to Fort Fitzgerald. There, she was dismantled and scrapped with parts being used for other purposes including storing grain – an inglorious end for a fine ship! Smaller boats of various kinds continued to work on the Peace for another 20 years, but the age of steamboats was gone. The final commercial freight run up the Peace was made by the Watson Lake, a steel-hulled vessel, in September of 1952. Her last trip completed, she was hauled out of the water and loaded on a flatcar and shipped by rail to Waterways to continue work up north.