Until 1952, the history of the Peace River country was intimately associated with the boats, and the boats with the history. One of the most infamous of the boats was the D.A. Thomas. Following is just one of the many stories of the largest steamboat to ply the Mackenzie River system. She was also one of the most elegant to travel the Peace, bringing settlers to this country in style. So when it was time for her to retire it was with great sorrow for many people.
Most everyone in the North Peace in 1972 had seen the scaled down, 55-foot replica of the famous riverboat, the D.A. Thomas, built to celebrate B.C.’s Centennial Year. If they hadn’t seen the model they eventually got a chance to as it was set up as a photo museum and tourist attraction in Fort St. John’s Centennial Park.
Everyone, at least, was familiar with the history of the “Thomas”. Many pioneers remembered how in 1930, when she had served her usefulness, she was taken down the Vermillion Chutes into the Slave River to Fort Fitzgerald and dismantled. There was, however, a sequel to that event that maybe some history buffs were not aware of.
When transportation came to a halt for the fall and winter of 1930, a scow that had been used by the Hudson’s Bay Company, for many years up and down the river, was abandoned at Fort Vermillion, for it had outlived its usefulness. It hadn’t, however, been pulled up on the bank very far and during high water the following summer, the old barge floated off.
By some strange coincidence, it passed down the Peace, over the Chutes, into the Slave River and down that river to Fort Fitzgerald, finally coming to rest not a thousand feet from where the D.A. Thomas lay abandoned. Amazingly, the scow somehow navigated the tricky Vermillion Chutes, avoided being hung up on literally thousands of sand and gravel bars, backwaters and eddies.
Somehow, she kept on course as though guided by radar over 400 miles of river until she finally came to rest beside her old river companion.
What made the journey even more incredible was the peculiar action of the Rocher River, which joined the Slave River at the same point as the Peace. The Rocher, which flowed out of Lake Athabasca, didn’t always do so. Sound confusing? Well, the explanation was when Lake Athabasca was low, it had no outlet. All rivers, including the Rocher, flowed into it. When the lake was full, however, the Rocher reversed itself and flowed out of the lake into the Slave River. In other words, when Lake Athabasca was low, the waters from the Peace forked and flowed two ways, half flowing up the Slave and half flowing down the Rocher River.
So, since the lake at that time was low and the Rocher consequently flowed south, how did a lowly scow know enough to keep to the north bank of the Peace and thus continue north up the Slave River? There seemed only one answer, however implausible: Would you believe that little scow was lonesome?
Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.