Our archaeologists found treasures greater than gold on this shipwreck

November 15, 2012 Butch Amundson

Archaeologist Butch Amundson recounts the discovery of a shipwreck on the prairies, lost beneath the South Saskatchewan River.


On that fateful morning, the South Saskatchewan River ran high from the spring runoff out of the Rocky Mountains. Captain Ross ordered the smoke stack to be removed so the ship could pass under the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railway bridges upstream of the Traffic Bridge. The ship’s rudders ran afoul of the telegraph wire strung on the CNR Bridge, which was submerged by the high waters. Unable to steer, Ross could not avoid the Traffic Bridge.

There was no loss of life in this wreck, though a stampede of dairy cattle crossing the bridge at the time did cause a scramble among the on-lookers standing on the Traffic Bridge. The Saskatoon Star described the wreck of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat as “the greatest marine disaster in the history of Saskatoon.” Ross abandoned the wreck, leaving it to the city to break it up to take the pressure off of the pier. While some of the wreckage was salvaged by townsfolk—including the boiler, a door, and the music box, which all now reside in regional museums—most of what was left ended up buried in river sands. In the 1960s, the entire wreck area was buried in landfill as the city sought to stabilize the river bank and improve green space for the city.



The discovery
But in August 2006, two Saskatoon fire fighters discovered a large anchor while diving in the South Saskatchewan River as a part of their dive rescue training. Puzzled as to where the anchor had come from, they brought it to Stantec’s conservation lab for stabilization. Our investigation determined that it was part of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat, and a plan to find more wreckage was hatched. In September 2008, in cooperation with Saskatoon Fire and Protective Services, the Meewasin Valley Authority, Shearwater Tours, and the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, we spent five days searching the river bottom for debris from the wreck. The search was the subject of a feature-length documentary entitled “The Last Steamship: The Search for the S.S. City of Medicine Hat,” which premiered in September 2010. We found a firebox brick from the boiler and a mariner’s tool called a marlinspike, likely from the wreck, but concluded that if any significant wreckage remained, it was buried in the landfill at the pier where the wreck occurred.

This August, while the city was drilling to load test the pier of the Traffic Bridge, we resumed the search for the wreck, under an archaeological permit issued by the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport. Our archaeologists searched through the river sediments brought up from beneath the landfill, discovering a substantial wooden structure and a variety of artifacts. The wood structure was broken up by the auger, but we uncovered sawed and ax hewn lumber in spruce, fir and oak, some with paint and others with nails still intact. According to the driller, the wooden structure was quite solid and difficult to drill through, suggesting that it is of a significant size and integrity. Artifacts include various metal items such as a brass object bearing a patent date of 1900. We also discovered ceramic tableware, silverware and personal items such as a boot and buttons.  All of the items are dated to the turn of the 20th century.



The outcome
This week the city unveiled the body of our findings, after we spent the last few months studying the artifacts to determine whether they indeed were part of the wreckage of the S.S. City of Medicine Hat. Some of our evidence:

  • The location of the wreck at the base of the south pier of the Traffic Bridge is well-documented in contemporary photographs, eye-witness accounts, news reports and scholarly works.
  • The discovery of the anchor suggests that some remains of the ship are still on the riverbed.
  • Significant remains from an apparently large wooden structure were recovered from the historically documented site of the wreck.  Some of these items are painted white, the colour of the ship.
  • Along with wood remains, we recovered ceramic tableware, silverware, food containers and personal items that are consistent with an early 20th century event.
  • We recovered iron and brass objects that may be structural elements of the ship and parts of the engine.  One object bears a patent date of 1900.
  • The artifact collection is buried under 3 m of river sand below the landfill layers that were deposited in the 1960s.
  • The artifact collection appears to be from a brief span of time, not an extended period of generalized garbage tossed from the bridge in the 53 years between the wreck and the land fill events. The collection is something similar to that from a hotel or household from the turn of the 20th century, and the ship was essentially a floating hotel. 
Read more about the S.S. City of Medicine Hat in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix or view the trailer for "The Last Steamship."

About the Author

Butch Amundson

Butch is an archaeologist, anthropologist and geologist with 36 years of experience in all phases of archaeological impact assessment and mitigation, paleontological assessment, traditional knowledge studies, Aboriginal and public engagement, environmental site assessments, and environmental geology.

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