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Canada Shipwreck from 1908 found in South Saskatchewan River

Wreck of the steamboat City of Medicine Hat at Traffic Bridge, Saskatoon, on June 7, 1908.

Local History Room/Saskatoon Public Library

Archeologists say they have found what they believe is the wreck of a steamship that sank in the South Saskatchewan River more than a century ago.

The SS City of Medicine Hat hit telegraph wires that had been submerged by spring runoff on June 7, 1908. That disabled the ship's steering and it drifted into one of the columns holding up what was then called the Victoria Bridge in Saskatoon.

No one was killed. Passengers had already disembarked and the captain and crew remaining on board scrambled from the sinking ship onto the bridge. The engineer jumped overboard and swam ashore.

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At the time, it was called the "greatest nautical disaster in Prairie history." The City of Medicine Hat was the last steamship ever to embark upon the waters of the South Saskatchewan River.

Archeologist Butch Amundson says it was thrilling to discover 1,000 artifacts including ceramics, metal parts, tableware and clothing last August during work on the bridge, now called the Traffic Bridge.

"One of the great things about this particular discovery is that it was a prediction that we had made that if any remains of the ship still [existed], that's where they [would be]," Mr. Amundson said.

"And when we put the drill holes down and started to bring up lumber painted white – that's the colour of the ship – we were very excited about that."

Mr. Amundson said the artifacts – found about eight metres down in the sandy layer of river bottom – were from the Edwardian era and not things that had been tossed into the river in more modern times.

He said there are no other good explanations for how the artifacts got there – especially after the discovery of one of the ship's anchors by firefighters in 2006 and more wreck debris in 2008.

"I had a pretty good hunch the hull of the City of Medicine Hat was underneath the bridge. We just didn't have any real evidence until now."

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The luxurious ship, a steam-powered sternwheeler with a single paddle at the rear, had been designed by a Scottish nobleman who established a steam-shipping empire in Western Canada.

Horatio Hamilton Ross built the 40-metre-long vessel for $28,000 and is said to have spared no expense in its design and construction. When it was completed, he decided to take his friends and family from Medicine Hat, Alta., to Winnipeg.

"It's a remarkable find," said Randy Grauer, Saskatoon's community services general manager.

"This exciting discovery will add to the cultural and educational well-being of Saskatoon."

Mr. Amundson said it is ironic that the ship sank after hitting a bridge built in part to allow trains to cross the South Saskatchewan River.

"The steamship became obsolete because of the railway, so it's an interesting historical bookend that the railway … literally did in the steamship."

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A report requesting funding from the city to conserve the artifacts is being prepared.

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