During her days of honorable service she burned wood like all other steamers. Besides winter trapping, settlers near the river now had all-year employment — cutting and stacking the immense piles of logs at every place the steamer could berth. They had to be close enough to shore, preferably on a bank, where the Metis crew, and often the passengers, could heave them aboard or slide them down a ramp, while hosing the wood to keep down friction. Going upstream, the white-hot fires beyond her gaping stokehole ate immense numbers of cords of wood. A true cord of wood is a pile four by eight feet of four-foot pieces. The logs were cut six inches in diameter and preferably left to dry for a season. Stoking wood brought the cutter five dollars a cord –no chainsaws then. A crosscut or “Swede” saw and strong arms grubstaked many a trapper.
Probably today’s travelers would remark sourly upon pollution from the smokestack belching thick black smoke when pine and spruce was thrown on the hottest fire to get steam up for a fast trip. Sparks and escaping steam alarmed the deer and beaver along the river. To the settler she was sheer romance, and emancipation from drudgery and loneliness. Many still living here [ca.1973] speak wistfully of a trip in her before she became just a hulk for storing grain near Vermilion Chutes. Her career ended at about the same time as the railway reached Dawson Creek. Her nearest port of call had been Rolla Landing or Taylor Flats.
Besides immaculate staterooms, white linen tablecloths and proper cutlery and crockery in her dining salon, the D.A. Thomas was lauded for good service. The fresh meat provisioning service, said the traveler-author Lewis Freeman, was unique. In hunting season and out, the captain had a rifle ready on the pilothouse table, to pick off any swimming moose or even one pawing the earth ashore in case it should attack the boat. After all, he couldn’t have his hull holed by a horn, could he?
Titled Europeans signed their names on her passenger list. So did surveyors, mining engineers, Mounted Police, government officials, missionaries, novelists, salesmen, trappers (Indians, half-breed, and white-or black), or “remittance men” who might be Sir Somebody or Count so-and-so in their native land! Assorted feminine passengers, mostly settlers’ or trading-post employees wives, or schoolteachers camped in their bedrolls on the decks or in bunks in the staterooms. Some passengers earned their passage heaving freight and firewood, and some washed dishes.
She was laid up from 1922 to 1923. When the Hudson’s Bay Company brought her, Douglas Cadenhead became her pilot. In 1966, fifty years from her launching date, he reminisced for the Alaska Highway News. A seldom-recorded story came out.
In 1926, he and the skipper decided to try to run her up the Canyon past Hudson’s Hope. There was great excitement. The whole town came out to watch — all twenty-five residents. They started the run early in the morning. Twice the boiling waters of the canyon stopped the big white vessel and Cadenhead turned her over to the skipper who, by hugging the rock walls, inched her up. Finally just one mile short of Cust’s Landing (where the W.A.C. Bennett Dam is today) the force of water held her motionless. They brought her slowly- but safely down.
The next spring a new pilot, when the skipper was asleep, struck a rock in the regular channel. Patching the gaping hole in her hull with a tarpaulin did not work. They nosed across the river to a gravel bank where they hoped to beach her. Just short of the bank she went down. All summer they tried to refloat her. John did not think much of his successors — they had to call in the builder to refloat her.
The first time he had ever seen her she was aground on a sand bar near his homestead at the mouth of the Halfway River. That time she lay heeled over, with six feet of gravel pushed up, but the skipper had cables hooked round trees on the bank and on an island dead ahead, and righted her, after which he said “she carried on up river like nothing had happened”.
Afloat again, now she tried to keep up the tradition but they had fired the old skipper. John said, “this new fellow had no idea at all of how to handle her — none whatsoever. That year he grounded her good on the gravel bar near old Fort St. John.” There the pride of the north, no longer with lights blazing, sparks flying, and booming out her long sonorous blast, rested ignominiously all winter, and they had to call in her builder again to protect her from the ice. In the spring flood of 1930, she floated free.
The Bay Co. decided to take her down river beyond Vermilion Chutes, off the river stretch for which she was designed. The railway had come to Dawson Creek and was expected to go on from Hines Creek to Fort St. John. Passengers and freight would have other year round transportation. The steamer was obsolete. In order to get into profitable water, she had to go over the famous –or infamous — Vermilion Chutes. Here the Peace River, two miles wide, drops about thirty feet in one mile. This is not an impossible drop, except that the rapids are boulder-strewn, until the water plunges over a ledge of rocks known as The Chutes. Beneath the almost sheer drop, the river boils up in a huge wave like an ocean breaker — a standing wave.
Skippered by Captain Cowley, and piloted by Louis Bourassa, she took the upper rapids easily. The chutes were just wide enough that the hull completely blocked them, and acted like a dam. The water rose behind her enough to carry her over the ledge, worn smooth by centuries of polishing. Her bow dropped and her stern rose.
The huge standing wave slapped down on her bow — it was the critical moment. Her bow rose, but the stern slapped down on the reef. Half of her paddle wheel was smashed away. There was no other damage, and she carried on, under her own power, down the Mackenzie River to Fort Fitzgerald. There her superstructure was demolished. For years she was nothing but a hulk for storing grain.
Louis Bourassa, the pilot, was almost as distinguished in his way as the vessel he piloted. He was later awarded the King’s Order of the British Empire for his exploits and contributions to the north. His grandfather, Vital Bourassa, had been apprenticed to the Company at St. Mary’s Fort in 1820. His father, John Bourassa, carried the company’s mail from Fort Dunvegan to Fort Chipewyan by dog-team and canoe. Louis’s son, Flight Lieutenant John Bourassa, who was lost with his Norseman plane in 1950, wore the “Wings” of the Royal Air Force and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar. He won these honors after he quit the mail run from Peace River to Fort Vermilion by horse and sleigh in winter and by boat in summer. The planes had put the old river mail carriers out of business.
Probably thousands of stories have followed the vessels that plied the Peace River to wherever they have disappeared. Among the ships were the “Weenusk”, the “Northland Echo”, the “Northern Light”, the ” Midnight Sun”, the “Ingenika”, the “Athabasca River” and “Grahame” — and the rest. In 1972, many still live who remember them. Next to having worked on the “D.A. Thomas”, to have it said, “He came in” on the “D.A. Thomas” is rather like a salute.
In the summer of 1971, the museum at Peace River Town was looking for any part of a steamer or a derelict of one. They have simply vanished. The latest word is that a replica of the old D.A.Thomas. is to be built by the historical society of Fort St. John and Taylor with government assistance. Do you suppose anyone can find a genuine old steamboat whistle to set the echoes rolling?
Four men (according to the historian of the Peace, Norman Soars), typified the grand days of Peace transportation.
“Old Akernum” lived to be a hundred and eight years old at Peace River in 1928. For ninety-six years, he was on the Bay Company’s payroll, as a voyager with Governor Simpson, and as a freighter, rafting supplies to Fort Vermilion.
The last of the York-boat pilots was Alexander Mackenzie, who claimed descent from the famous explorer of the same name. He was a handsome man, standing over six feet in his moccasins. At seventy-nine, in 1919, he boasted that he could name every portage from Fort Churchill to the Pacific. If his claim to ancestry were true he must have been a grandson, which Godsell says that Peace River people confirmed. The two Bourassas represent the steamer and the aircraft that superseded them. Bourassa was an old name in our country, for Governor George Simpson had assigned Vital Bourassa to Fort d ‘Epinette (the H.B.Co. name for one of the Forts St. John) in December 1821. Whether Rev. Father Bourassa who visited Vermilion in 1846 was a native son does not appear in any chronicles yet found.
Postscript to this article:
In February, 2001, a letter arrived from Blaine Alexander. In the letter he had this to say about the DA Thomas:
“In 1985-1986 I served as Manager of the Peace River Board of Trade. During that time I, along with a man named Randy Bliss, researched the history of the DA Thomas also. It was a labour of love. We were hoping to successfully locate a set of blue prints. In the spring of 1986 we were fortunate to find an original set of blue prints (both mechanical and superstructure). They were located in a residence in Sydney, B.C., — an old friend of the family that had built the boats. He wouldn’t loan them, but he would sell them for $1000. Acting on behalf of the Board of Trade and following an appraisal by an archivist from Alberta Culture, we made the purchase. The blue prints arrived via Time Air at the Peace River, Alberta, airport on April 1, 1986. The set was nearly complete, and it was exciting to review common “river boat” terms used during those times. The blue prints were turned over to the Peace River museum, where hopefully … they are still located. The University of Alberta graciously made working copies of the blue prints so the orginal set could be properly stored.
This initiative had a second chapter. During those days, it was originally held that the DA Thomas had been destroyed on that sandbar near Hudson Hope in 1930. Your article is correct. In June of 1986, Randy and a couple of other residents of Peace River journeyed to Fort Fitzgerald. With a copy of the blue prints, Randy was able to confirm that one of the boilers from the boat was indeed from the DA Thomas, as the serial number on the boiler was identical to that from the blue prints. The wheel shaft was intact as well. After the DA Thomas was taken off the river at Fort Fitzgerald, the other boiler was transported to the Mackenzie River basin where it was used to retrofit a freighter named “The Distributor”. MacMillan Transport of Peace River advised that they would be pleased to bring back remnants of the DA Thomas when one of their trucks would be dead-heading back from the NWT. A loader was secured out of Fort Smith, and the wheel shaft (all 14 tons of it) and the remaining boiler were loaded onto the truck. In mid-July, 1986, this infrastructure arrived in Peace River, where the DA Thomas had been built some 80 or so years earlier. MacMillan Transport offered to decorate their truck and a few days later it was a featured attraction in the ‘River Daze’ parade.”