York Boats – The Canadian Inland Fur Trade Fleet

York Boat

The vessels were built from hand–sawn lumber, which was usually cut from green logs and as a result the lumber had a short life span before rot set in. (Photo from MacFarlane collection)

The York boat was an inland boat used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry furs and trade goods along inland waterways in Rupert’s Land and the Columbia District. It was named after York Factory, the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and modeled after Orkney Islands fishing boats (themselves a descendant of the Viking long boat).

York Boats were preferable to the canoes, used by Northwest Company Voyageurs as a cargo carriers, because of its larger size, greater capacity, and improved stability in rough water. The boat’s heavy wood construction also gave it an advantage in travelling through rocks or ice; it was much more immune to tears and punctures. That advantage became a disadvantage, though, when portaging was necessary. The boat was far too heavy to carry, and it was necessary instead to cut a path through the brush, lay down poplar rollers, and laboriously drag the boat overland. Regardless of the circumstances, crewing a York boat was an arduous task, and those who chose this life faced "unending toil broken only by the terror of storms," according to explorer Sir John Franklin.

York Boat

York boat (Photo from th Brabant collection)

The York boat had a length of about 14 metres (46 feet) and the largest could carry over six tonnes (13,000 pounds) of cargo. It had a pointed bow, a flat bottom, and a stern angled upward at 45 degrees, making beaching and launching easier. The boat was propelled both by oars and by a canvas sail, and steered with the use of a long steering pole, or a rudder when under sail. It had a crew of between six and eight men.

The boats were built by Orkney Islanders recruited by the Company specifically for their boat building skills. Many different posts had men assigned to the task of boat building. They used local wood and imported iron forged by the post’s blacksmith as materials. The first boat was built in 1749 and by the late 18th century, boat building stations existed from James Bay to Fort Chipewyan. In the early 20th century York boats were of 3 sizes, ‘60 pieces’ (2700 kg), ‘100 pieces’ (4535 kg) and ‘120 pieces’ (5440 kg). Boats typically lasted about three years before having to be replaced. By the 1920s the York boat had passed from service. The advent of the steamboat at the beginning of the 19th century signaled the end for the York boat.

York Boat

York Boats in a ‘scow’ design – these may have been an adaptation for use on the Athabaska and Mackenzie River systems. (Photo from the Brabant collection)

Each boat was propelled by six or eight oarsmen working oars over 6 metres in length. The oars alone weighed just over 11 kilograms. To balance them the oarsman was seated on the opposite side of the boat from the oar lock. He stood up to push the oar forward and sat down as he pulled his stroke. The men often rowed for up to sixteen hours a day. When the rivers were shallow the boats were poled, when very swift they were ‘tracked’, pulled with two ropes by the crew along the bank. When the wind was from behind, a square sail was used, to the relief of the oarsmen. For open water the York boat was equipped with a mast, about 2.7 metres long which could be dismantled, and large square sail. The sail not only enabled it to sail on large rivers or lakes but also served as a tent at night.

York Boat

York Boat (Photo from the Brabant collection)

Clinker–built of heavy timber, with each plank overlapping the next, the York boats were strong. While they could survive the battering of fast–flowing northern rivers, portaging them was difficult but not impossible. Boats had to be dragged via ropes and rollers along pre–cleared trails. Since the boats usually travelled in brigades there was always sufficient manpower available to accomplish this. Also, there were tramways along the route that could be used to move the boat. Remains of these trails are still visible today. Robinson Portage on the Hayes River in particular has some well–preserved remnants of the old tramway which was used to transport the York boats around the rapids.

York Boat

The York boats were very stable in moving water and capable of allowing the entire crew to stand up. Two styles of rigging the sail (used in a following wind) are shown here, one with a spar (square sail) and one rigged to the masthead (triangular.)) (Photo from Brabant collection)

York boats were well adapted to northern conditions as well: they could travel in bad weather and were not affected by the sharp edges of ice floes. For long voyages from the south, an interesting freighting system developed. Each boat would carry exclusively one item, for example, flour, tobacco or ammunition. The boats would then sail together as one large convoy, an interesting sight to the Dene along the Mackenzie River who were not used to such flotillas.

For over a century the York boat was the main mode of transportation between the inland trading posts and York Factory, the major transshipment point at the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay. The reason for its introduction was its superior payload: the boats could carry more than 3 tons of goods, about three times the capacity payload of the largest ‘canot du nord’.

The last York boat brigade arrived at York Factory in the early 1870s. The coming of the railway to the west and the dwindling importance of York Factory itself saw to their inevitable decline. Today York boats are a thing of the past. But in the aboriginal community of Norway House, Manitoba at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg their heritage is still celebrated each year. York Boat Days is a summer festival that attracts many people to Norway House. The main attraction is the York boat races, for men, women and teens. The purpose of York Boat Days is to commemorate the history of the fur trading days.


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