Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/1/2016 (1890 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Paddlewheel Queen once adorned every tourist brochure promoting Winnipeg and half the postcards — the other half featured the Golden Boy.
The sternwheeler with the spinning paddle blades in back — rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river — was the iconic image of Winnipeg. TV commercials about the city were guaranteed to have at least one shot with a cruise ship navigating our winding rivers.
The Red River was (and still is) an otherwise dreary, meandering, muddy, brown river that desperately needed a splash of colour, and the riverboats provided it.
The Paddlewheel Queen and River Rouge still chug through my dreams. Growing up across from Fraser’s Grove Park in East Kildonan where it borders the Red River, you would see them strobe past the riverbank trees, passing three times daily. They’re still there when I picture my childhood home — along with choruses from Rainbow Stage wafting across the river.
At one time, five cruise ships plied the Red River: the Paddlewheel Queen, the Paddlewheel Princess, the River Rouge, the MS Lady Winnipeg and the MS Lord Selkirk II. There almost wasn’t room for them all. They passed each other going up and down the river and checked out how many passengers each boat had. It was a point of pride to have more passengers.
The five ships had the capacity to carry up to 1,500 people daily, and they often did, if you exclude the MS Lord Selkirk II, which travelled the Red to Lake Winnipeg for daily and overnight excursions and bombed as an enterprise from the start. Otherwise, the cruise ships were packed, and competition for business was fierce.
They’re all gone now. The Paddlewheel Princess hasn’t run since 2009. The Paddlewheel Queen last ran in 2013. The River Rouge operated briefly in 2014, transporting fans to parking-starved Investors Group Field for Winnipeg Blue Bombers games. The MS Lady Winnipeg vanished long before that, in 1993. The MS Lord Selkirk II ceased in 1990.
They were always there and then they weren’t anymore.
The only place to see them today is wedged into the muddy banks in sloughs along the Red River just north of Selkirk. One is absent — the MS Lord Selkirk II was demolished this past fall. It was parked in a slough, too, for better than two decades. Taxpayers shelled out $400,000 for the demolition, which seems a harbinger for the other ships.
It’s a sight walking along the river ice north of Selkirk viewing the moored ships. With boarded up windows, and the paint having seen better days, they look like movie stars without their makeup.
You’re more accustomed to seeing boats together in neat rows, like at a marina. Here, they’re separated as if they can’t stand each other anymore. You’d think they would be together reminiscing about the good old days; instead, they don’t talk.
The Paddlewheel Queen, the most stately and elegant of all the cruise ships, is currently being dismantled. It’s almost sacrilege to say, but the decks and stern wheel are to be demolished. It’s being converted into a flatbed barge. It will have a second life transporting goods in northern Manitoba.
So what did a piece of Manitoba history sell for? It didn’t.
"I tried selling. No one’s interested. I had a helluva time just giving it away," said Steve Hawchuk, who has owned the Paddlewheel with his stepbrother Joe Slogan since 1969. Its replacement value would be $2 million today, he said.
The recreation riverboat chapter in this city’s history has dried up. Its disappearance was about as unforeseen as the case of the young woman who, at her high school graduation, leaped over the side of the Paddlewheel Queen and, in full gown, plunged into the murky deep.
The first cruise boat of the modern era was the Paddlewheel Queen. While holidaying in Mexico in 1965, Raymond Senft, owner of Red River Construction, spotted a Mississippistyle river boat for tourists and hatched on the idea to build one for Winnipeg. Senft would be forever dubbed ‘Red River Ray’ thereafter.
The style is called a sternwheeler, which describes the slow, spoked wheel of wooden poles or oars in back of the boat. A steam engine rotates the wheel, the bottom quarter of which sits under water, and the rotating paddle blades push you along by moving away the water.
The first sternwheeler in North America went into commercial service in 1807 between New York City and Albany, N.Y. Shortly after, the first U.S. Mississippi River paddle steamer began operating out of New Orleans. Sternwheelers were eventually replaced by the much more compact and practical screw propeller, like you see on outboard motors today.
People always wondered if the wheel on back really moved the Paddlewheel Queen. It didn’t. It was ornamentation. The ship was run by two diesel engine propellers.
Senft had the MS Paddlewheel Queen built in 80 days at a cost $200,000, Adrian Ames, a former Paddlewheel boats captain, wrote in a June 2005 essay in Manitoba History magazine. It was launched on July 29, 1965.
Demand for cruises was so great that Senft quickly extended it from 27 metres to 43.5 metres. It weighed over 350 tonnes.
It was so popular, Senft built the Paddlewheel Princess the following year. The Princess initially had only one deck, but again, business was so brisk a second deck was added.
The Queen carried 400 passengers, while the smaller Princess had room for 200. But Senft was from the construction trade and had no clue about restaurant services, so he hooked up with Dan Ritchie, the famously flamboyant and somewhat eccentric local business entrepreneur.
He was raised on a farm near Battleford, Sask., and learned the food-service trade working the kitchens on CN Rail trains. In Winnipeg, he launched a chain of seven Millionaire Drive Inns, the first drive-in restaurants with a canopy and recorded music, and the Snow Cap Drive-Inn. He owned Industrial Catering, with 13 trucks, and Continental Catering, which serviced many Winnipeg cafeterias.
The business relationship between Senft and Ritchie quickly soured. Ritchie quit before the first season was even over. One story goes that a fight between Ritchie and Senft became so heated that Ritchie cut the mooring ropes on the Paddlewheel Queen.
Ritchie had seen the kind of money that rolled in from the cruise ship, and wanted to build his own. He launched the River Rouge — built for $500,000 — in 1967. Like just about every other cruise ship, it would later undergo expansion, from the initial 37.5 metres to 45 metres. Ritchie then built the MS Lady Winnipeg, a smaller ship to compete with the Paddlewheel Princess. Its maiden voyage was in 1972.
The River Rouge and Paddlewheel Queen mostly toured the same stretch of river from the Redwood Bridge north to the Perimeter Highway, although the River Rouge was lower than the Queen and could fit under city bridges to the south, too. Later, there was some travel up the Assiniboine River.
Meanwhile, the Princess and Lady Winnipeg cruised the stretch of river between Lockport and Lower Fort Garry. They both eventually became charter boats.
The MS Lord Selkirk II was a slightly different beast with overnight berths. It was commissioned in 1969 and only used the Red River to reach Lake Winnipeg. It was the largest cruise ship in Western Canada at the time. It was financed by Dr. Kenneth McKenzie of Selkirk. Ames wrote that it sent out a wave so large at its official launch onlookers got soaked.
The MS Lord Selkirk II ran day trips into Lake Winnipeg as well as overnight passages. It carried up to 400 passengers for day trips, with overnight berths for 130. But it required a crew of 30 to 40 to operate, and quickly turned into a money loser. It repeatedly changed hands. Even the provincial government owned it for a while before selling in 1978 for $250,000 to Winnipeg businessmen Leo Cholakis and Harold Einarsson. The tandem of Bill Harris and Jim Gauthier also had a turn, investing over $2 million upgrading the ship.
It was sold again in 1986 after the province refused to grant it a casino licence. It eventually fell into the hands of Joe Slogan of Selkirk in 1990. "It had to be sold out every day" to make a profit, said Hawchuk, Slogan’s stepbrother. Slogan couldn’t make a go of it either and it changed hands a few more times before it ended up in possession of scrap dealers from New York. They gave it up for dead. The Selkirk and provincial governments moved in this fall and had it demolished.
Stepbrothers Steve Hawchuk, 77, and Joe Slogan, 84, grew up on the banks of the Red River, just south of the bridge on Highway 4. Slogan was a dentist in Selkirk and also a former Conservative MP, first elected for the area in 1958. He was 27, and the youngest member of Parliament ever elected.
Hawchuk and Slogan were raised in a log house built in 1886. It was the oldest house still in existence from the original Chief Peguis Reserve, before band members were relocated to the Interlake.
The boys grew up on a small 86-acre farm where the family grew grain and potatoes. It was one of those long, narrow parish lots mapped by the Red River settlers.
Hawchuk was 31 and working for a gravel and concrete company when Senft indicated he wanted to sell the Paddlewheel Queen and Princess. That was 1969. Hawchuk and Slogan had a long fascination with marine traffic from watching ships such as the SS Keenora, which carried passengers and freight between the Redwood docks in Winnipeg and Lake Winnipeg communities, and the MS Red Diamond drift by their farm, and suddenly found themselves owners of the cruise ships. Hawchuk was never even a passenger in one before buying them. Hawchuk obtained his captain’s licence and ran the boats, while Slogan was a mostly silent partner.
The 1970s and ’80s were very good to riverboat owners.
"People were wanting to experience this nostalgia from 100 years ago of the original steamboats," Ames said in an interview.
The very first riverboat, the Anson Northrup, arrived in Winnipeg in 1858. By the late 1800s, there were 23 riverboats navigating the Red from Fargo to Winnipeg, often ferrying new immigrants to Canada.
The Paddlewheel Queen first operated from the Redwood dock, in the shadow of the Redwood Bridge and behind the old Carling Brewery. Senft secured a docking deal with Carling by paying a modest rent and agreeing to sell Carling’s beer on the boat. Meanwhile, the River Rouge operated from a location off Nairn Avenue by the Louise Bridge.
One thing that distinguished the River Rouge is Ritchie maintained a dress code. He often wouldn’t let passengers board if they showed up in jeans.
"He wanted formal dress, dress pants and a tie, and he’d insist on that," Ames said.
The decor in the rival ships was different, too. The Paddlewheel, with its red booth seats, looked like a seafaring Rae and Jerry’s — Winnipeg’s iconic steakhouse.
The River Rouge was decorated with oil paintings, and even statues by legendary artist Leo Mol. Ritchie and Mol would become great friends, and a bust of Ritchie is in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden at Assiniboine Park.
"(Ritchie) had the vision to put on a show. The Paddlewheel was slightly more of a family thing, although the River Rouge was family, too," said Ames.
For the record, Ritchie was never a commodore, or even a captain. He took on the naval officer rank of commodore for show. The Canadian Navy didn’t like it and questioned Ritchie, asking him to provide proof he had served in the navy. To cover himself, Ritchie obtained a dodgy honorary commodore status from some Texas division of the military. Ritchie never got his papers to be a captain either, but that didn’t stop him from dressing like one on the ship.
"He wasn’t really a captain or a commodore, he was the general manager of a company," said Ames. "It was a gimmick. He was all about image."
Even so, the name "Commodore Ritchie" stuck. People called him that until the day he died in 2011, even though he hadn’t owned the River Rouge for 25 years. He sold it in 1986.
The competition between the Paddlewheel and River Rouge in those days bordered on the outrageous.
Both riverboats had pamphlets in all the hotel lobbies. Ritchie was known to slip "incentives" to hotel clerks if they directed tourists to the River Rouge instead of the Paddlewheel. He gave out up to $100 to some staff. Hawchuk never went that far, although he did give out free passes to the bellboys at the front door.
Ritchie also had an antique post box on his ship. If you bought a postcard of the River Rouge on the River Rouge, Ritchie would pay the postage for mailing it anywhere in the world. It amounted to free advertising.
Hawchuk had his own methods. Staff would slap bumper stickers on the out-of-province vehicles. The stickers read: "I was on the Paddlewheel in Winnipeg, Manitoba." Vehicle occupants often wouldn’t realize until they got back to North Dakota or Minnesota that they were being used as free advertising.
They were always seeking publicity. Hawchuk one-upped Ritchie when the Paddlewheel Queen snared a special cruise for Vietnamese boat people, refugees who arrived in the 1970s after the Vietnam War. It was a celebrated event much like the arrival of Syrian refugees today. A riverboat cruise was an odd way to welcome people who had just survived long passages at sea in leaky, open boats, yet riverboats were a signature event in Winnipeg in those days.
Hawchuk may not have been as flamboyant as Ritchie, but he seemed born to be a cruise-ship captain. He has a warm, crinkly eyed smile, and a calm, friendly, reassuring manner perfectly suited to operate the social animal that is a cruise ship.
Both ships courted royalty. In 1968, the Paddlewheel Queen hosted Princess Anne. In 1971, Ritchie invited Princess Margaret onto the River Rouge. Royalty demanded their own quarters, so he built an extension and called it the Princess Margaret State Room.
And both boasted their share of celebrities. The Paddlewheel welcomed actor Chief Dan George, prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman (but separately back then). Frankie Valli took a cruise, but missed the departure and had to be picked up on shore. The real Colonel Harland Sanders came up for a cruise, too.
In the early 1970s, Hawchuk went to London to purchase double-decker buses. He had them shipped to Canada, then put on trains to Winnipeg. He would end up buying eight by the time he was finished. He used them to transport customers from hotels and campgrounds to his ship, and to combine sightseeing tours with the cruises.
The Paddlewheel was kicking the River Rouge’s marine butt with the double-decker buses, so Ritchie went to England and got his own. And if one of the Paddlewheel tour buses should get lost and show up at the River Rouge dock instead, as happened more than once, Ritchie would allegedly tell them the Paddlewheel was closed but, lucky for them, his ship was available.
The Paddlewheel and River Rouge would also tie boat cruises in with Rainbow Stage productions. They would park at Kildonan Park, lower their gang-planks, and let passengers out to take in a musical. People could either take the boat back to their hotels or ride the double-decker bus home.
Riverboats also offered a place for revellers to clink glasses when the province still prohibited liquor sales on Sundays. The prohibition didn’t apply because waterways were under federal jurisdiction.
The Paddlewheel had live bands playing the last cruise every night. Then they started Rockin’ River Cruises on weekends. Later, they even tried professional wrestling on the open deck on top.
The river cruises were inexpensive and Winnipeg wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at the end, in 2013, Hawchuk charged just $18 for three-hour cruise.
"People would ask if that includes a meal," he said, smiling.
"That was the cheapest rate in North America."
Hawchuk regularly checked the licence plates in the parking lots and found up to 70 per cent were from out of province.
"We used to get people from Fargo and they’d run into their neighbours on the boat," he recalled.
Bus tours were big for the riverboats, too. The Paddlewheel Queen got 75 to 100 bus tours a year, mostly from the United States, but also from Eastern Canada.
"It was a Winnipeg tradition. That was one of the things to do when tourists came to Winnipeg — go on a cruise," Hawchuk said.
But after 9/11, the American tourist traffic virtually dried up, and never came back. The requirement of a passport to cross the border is still a major detriment.
"You’d think with the dollar the way it is (72 cents US) they should be flooding up here. Someone’s not doing their job," Hawchuk said.
Another huge source of revenue for the Paddlewheel Queen was German soldiers stationed at CFB Shilo, just east of Brandon. The soldiers trained in Shilo for three-week stints. After completing training, part of their reward was an evening cruise on the Paddlewheel Queen.
"Every three weeks the charges would change up and 350 of them would come out and get on the boat for a cruise. That was big business," said Hawchuk.
The riverboats would get tens of thousands of students on field trips and for graduations. That traffic had fallen off dramatically, too. The Paddlewheel would regularly host military reunions, such as for the Spitfire Squadron and the Lanchester Bomber Squadron. The veterans eventually got too old.
The first sign of trouble for Hawchuk and Slogan started in 1984. The Paddlewheel had never had a lease at the Redwood dock because they were told they didn’t need one. Then the MS Lord Selkirk II nabbed the site and the Paddlewheel Queen had to move to where the Chief Peguis Bridge is now. That meant significant expenses, including erecting a ticket office and acquainting customers with the new site. They were told not to worry — the Chief Peguis Bridge wouldn’t be built for 20 years. Five years later, the bridge was built and they had to move again.
This time, in 1989, they were told to relocate to The Forks. The problem was the Paddlewheel Queen didn’t fit under the Redwood and Provencher bridges, so the upper deck and the open deck above were removed. Even then, it had only about a half-metre of clearance under normal summer river levels.
The Paddlewheel Queen stayed at The Forks until 2000, then moved to the Alexander Docks. Mayor Sam Katz promised to repair and make it a permanent docking site, but that never happened. Instead, the docks fell into disrepair. Finally, for 2012 and 2013, the Paddlewheel moved back to the Redwood Bridge, where it started before shutting down for good.
Moving was incredibly expensive for Hawchuk. The Forks move included building a ticket office and walkway. At the Alexander Docks, he had to rent a building and have large ship-to-shore cables installed underground. As well, customers couldn’t keep track of where they were.
Then, starting in 1993, heavy rains began to fall, and the two feet of clearance under the bridges for the Paddlewheel Queen became a problem. In 14 of their last 16 years in operation, rising summer river levels forced the Paddlewheel Queen to cancel cruises and move to temporary docking sites, including behind St. John’s Park, located at the junction of Main Street and Mountain Avenue.
In 2013, the last year of operation, they couldn’t even begin until July, missing two months of business and having to cancel $250,000 in charters.
The Paddlewheel Queen would get more than 80,000 passengers a year during the 1970s. That fell to 60,000 to 70,000 during the 1980s, and 50,000 to 60,000 in the 1990s. In the last year, when flooding cut the season short, the Paddlewheel Queen had just 15,000 passengers.
Commodore Ritchie bailed out much earlier, in 1986, selling to Jack Neiman of Neiman’s Furs. Neiman ran the River Rouge from 198691. He signed a tentative partnership with the Paddlewheel owners in 1991, tried to buy out the Paddlewheel in 1992, and in 1993, the Paddlewheel bought out the River Rouge on a lease agreement with an option to buy. Hawchuk bought out Slogan and the River Rouge in 2003, and owned both until 2006
Meanwhile, the MS Lady Winnipeg (MS stands for "motor ship," versus SS, which is "steam ship") was dropped from the fleet in 1993 for lack of business. It was parked in a slough by Selkirk, joining the MS Lord Selkirk II, which had been retired in 1990. The boats overwinter in sloughs because the ice doesn’t break up there, but melts in one place. If they moored on the river, they’d be smashed to pieces.
The MS Lady Winnipeg was purchased in 2002 by a Selkirk contractor and moved to a different slough on a privately owned shoreline. You can see the Lady Winnipeg in the tall reeds on the east side of the Red River, just south of the Highway 4 bridge. The owner did not wish to be interviewed by the Free Press.
The riverboats also had to deal with the expense of ever-changing safety regulations. "They treated us like we were on the Great Lakes," said Hawchuk.
The combination of factors took their toll, said Ames. Plus, Winnipeggers had more choices for entertainment. Ultimately, the business needed help from government, particularly the city. It didn’t get it.
"There wasn’t enough interest," said Ames.
Today, the only public boat access to the river still left is Gordon Cartwright’s Splash Dash water-taxi service.
Hawchuk has many stories to tell of the good old days of running Winnipeg’s cruise ships.
The Paddlewheel Queen once hosted a stag for a prominent Winnipeg family and one of the guests missed departure, so he clambered to the top of the North Perimeter Bridge and perfectly timed his jump — about a five-foot drop — as the cruise ship passed underneath.
Another time, the Paddlewheel Queen hosted a war-time reunion for military pilots. The ship’s night watchman — who made sure the vessels weren’t vandalized or had their mooring ropes cut overnight— was a former veteran himself. He wound up having an emotional meeting with the man who saved his life in the Second World War. Their plane had been hit and was spiralling down when the man pulled the night watchman out of the plane so they could parachute to the ground. The night watchman hadn’t seen him since.
Another time, 50 Los Bravos motorcycle gang members chartered the Paddlewheel Queen.
"I was scared and phoned the police. The police said they wouldn’t cause trouble," said Hawchuk.
"They all ordered steak and lobster. One of my girls was serving this guy and she noticed he didn’t have a steak knife. She says, ‘Oh, sorry, sir. I have to bring you a steak knife.’ And he goes ‘No problem. I’ve got my own,’ and pulled out this long blade."
They hosted many wedding receptions. Once a groom became so drunk and antagonistic that Hawchuk threw him off the boat. He dropped the bride off, too, and the wedding reception continued without them.
The cruise ships didn’t put up with people who wanted to fight, and could always stop on any shore, drop the gang-plank and walk them onto dry land.
Some people even jumped off the boats voluntarily.
"We had jumpers jump off the boat. We never lost a person. There were a lot of jumpers, especially on dance cruises," said Hawchuk.
Why some people wanted to test the waters of the Red River is a mystery.
"They have a few drinks, someone dares someone, and they jump off. They would swim to shore most of the time," he said.
In the 1970s, there was the gowned woman who went overboard at her high-school graduation. She went under the boat and had to be rescued. It would be interesting to know where the woman is today and her motive was. Was it drunken revelry or teenage despair?
If you did get trapped under the river boat, the twin turbo propellers underneath would chop you up fast. The river can be treacherous, too. The current can be overpowering when the water is high in spring or after a heavy rain. It’s less dangerous during the summer doldrums when locks at Lockport control the flow.
Having a handful of jumpers out of the 3.5 million passengers Hawchuk transported in 45 years isn’t bad though. None were lost.
Then there were jumpers off city bridges trying to commit suicide. The cruise ships rescued several individuals who tried to kill themselves. In one instance, a woman landed right on top of the River Rouge as it was passing under the Louise Bridge.
If you jump off a bridge intending to kill yourself, and happen to land on the very front of a ship passing underneath, you’ve got to believe there’s an angel looking out for you. She broke her leg, but survived.
One of the most memorable cruises for Hawchuk was after long-distance canoeist Don Starkell died in 2012. Starkell’s family held a memorial on the Paddlewheel that summer to celebrate his life. They invited friends and family, and loaded up Starkell’s old sixmetre yellow canoe that he paddled all the way to Brazil. The Paddlewheel followed the route their father paddled daily on the Red.
Hawchuk would often see Starkell on the river and they became friends. Starkell loved the riverboats, Hawchuk said, and he would sometimes wave or pull alongside for a coffee. Hawchuk remembers the Paddlewheel Queen passing Starkell in his canoe on June 1, 1980. That was the day Starkell and his two sons, Jeff and Dana, set out on their epic journey to paddle over 19,000 kilometres to the Amazon.
The boats, moored on private property, are hard to sell because they’re old, and too large and expensive to operate for personal use. As well, they almost have to sold to someone along the Red River or Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, they have to be cut into pieces to move and welded back together — a very costly proposition.
There are two ships with a chance of getting back on the river. One is the River Rouge.
But it hasn’t operated a regular service for a couple years and the owner, Kyriakos Vogiatzakis, is not exactly a favourite at city hall.
Vogiatzakis also has numerous statement of claims against him, alleging he owes various people money. The majority are from former employees whose claims have been taken up by the Employment Standards Division of the province’s department of labour and immigration.
Vogiatzakis said he wouldn’t comment on the future of the River Rouge until later in 2016. But when it was put to him that people in the industry don’t think he will get the boat operating again, he sounded defiant.
Whether it can even get permission to operate again is questionable.
The River Rouge will have several difficulties to face before it is operating again: it has to get into compliance with new safety standards and is in dire need of new drive engines.
And there is this logistical problem.
The Harper government transferred ownership of the only federal dry dock on the Red River, located in Selkirk, to Peguis First Nation. The First Nation stopped running the dry dock. Now there’s nowhere for boats like the River Rouge to have a dryland inspection. And the River Rouge is overdue for a dryland inspection, which is supposed to be conducted every five years by Transport Canada.
You can build a temporary dry dock privately, but that involves hoisting the boat onto tubes, then inflating the tubes so an inspector can look underneath. The balloons cost $100,000 alone. But you also need an environmental assessment to make sure raising the boat doesn’t destabilize the river bank.
The other ship with a chance to operate again is the Paddlewheel Princess. It’s smaller, doesn’t cost as much to run and Hawchuk has sunk a lot of money into upgrades. Even though it hasn’t been used commercially since 2009, he put $150,000 into upgrades and used it for his ticket office in 2012-13. It’s in good shape and is ready to sail because it obtained a dryland inspection from Transport Canada before the dry dock was closed.
"I’ll be putting an ad (for the Princess) in your paper in the new year," said Hawchuk.
But a new owner will need some commitment from the city. As Ames sees it, no serious entrepreneur is going to try to start a riverboat service unless the city gives it a long-term docking lease.
"It’s sad for all of us, and sad for the province, that were losing these Winnipeg icons," Ames said.