Once Upon a Time: Water Witch – the Saugeen steam queen

Fancy booking a cruise on the Saugeen River? Admittedly, there are no such cruises today, but there certainly were in the 19th century.

The first steamboat used on the rivers and lakes of Bruce County was the Water Witch, on the Saugeen River in 1880. This marked the start of tourism in Bruce County, because cruises on the Saugeen became a sudden hit.

In the village of Paisley hotelkeeper David D. Hanna had spied an opportunity. He would attract travellers to his Cosmopolitan Hotel by offering a riverboat service to Walkerton.

In the summer of 1879 Hanna had a flat-bottomed boat built at Paisley by John Bowers of Hanover. Named Water Witch, she was a side-wheeler, 40 feet long with a beam of 8 feet and just under four registered tons.

The six-horsepower horizontal steam engine was just powerful enough to give the craft some headway against the strong current of the Saugeen. When Water Witch steamed between Paisley and Walkerton, she took 13 hours to go upstream and four hours to return.

Her debut came to great acclaim. The Bruce Herald in Walkerton reported that “Captain Hanna’s dainty little craft, the Water Witch, astonished the citizens of this place by steaming into port on the morning of the 23rd inst. [April 23, 1880] Large numbers met her at the landing.” The captain and crew were whisked off to a dinner at Clark’s Hotel.

The next day, the Herald said, “A few Walkertonians accompanied the visitors downstream to Paisley. A start was effected a few minutes after 10, and Paisley was reached at 2:20, the trip of about 56 miles being accomplished in rather more than four hours.” The Walkerton gentlemen returned home by the afternoon train.

The river trip was not without its hazards. The Paisley Advocate wrote that on one excursion the men were obliged to get out and push at the rapids in Brant.

Mr. Hanna plied between Paisley and Walkerton in 1880 and 1881, charging 10 cents for the passage. During the week of the Fall Exhibition Hanna’s boat was packed with visitors to the fair at the Paisley Palace (built in 1879). Everyone wanted to try the cruise on the first steamboat on the Saugeen.

Courtesy of Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, A2013.093, Box 6 O-R

However David Hanna discovered that, outside the fall fair period, demand for transporting cargo and passengers on the Saugeen was too low for him to break even. Fluctuating water levels were also a problem. With no money to be made on the river Hanna put Water Witch up for sale.

Three lumber kings, the McLean brothers of Sauble Falls, bought the Water Witch. In January, 1883, they loaded the Witch onto two large sleighs and dragged her from the Saugeen River to Boat Lake on the Bruce Peninsula.

There the McLeans introduced the old cruise ship to her new job in the timber industry: towing log booms on Boat and Sky lakes.

From 1879 to 1886, the McLean brothers—Hector, Lachlan and Hugh—ran a sawmill at Sauble Falls. The availability of water power and stands of timber made the falls an excellent mill location. The mill turned out 20,000 feet of lumber a day and employed about 32 men, housed in two large boarding houses.

The McLeans also had a planing mill, a shingle mill and a small grist mill. They used a steam tug, the Sauble Queen, to tow lumber, lath, shingles and telegraph poles on barges to Southampton, Kincardine and Goderich. (The Queen burned in 1882.)

The McLean employees rafted logs down Isaac and Boat lakes and then down the Rankin River to the sawmill.

The newly-acquired Water Witch started towing rafts of sawlogs on Boat Lake, even getting as far as Sky Lake. We have the testimony of the captain himself, thanks to an interview carried out by historian Bruce Krug in 1953. (The manuscript is in the Bruce County Archives in Southampton.)

Krug asked Frank Belmore about the steamer Water Witch, and “he at once began to beam all over and said that he and his brother Lawrence used to tow logs from Boat Lake to the head of the Rankin River and then drive the logs down the river. He said that it was a paddle-wheeler, having a paddle wheel on both sides. The boat drew about two feet of water. There was a smokestack on the boat, with the smokestack hinged so that it could be dropped down when they passed under any bridges.”

The Witch operated through the 1880s, but was no longer used after the McLeans sold the sawmill.

As to what had happened to the sole representative of steam navigation on the county’s inland waters, the captain said that it became old and the boards rotted. The little steamer was stripped of engine and boiler and abandoned in the water at the south end of Boat Lake where the Rankin River empties from the lake. The hulk lies somewhere buried in the mud.


by Robin Hilborn
for the Bruce County Historical Society