Hudson's Bay Company York Boats at Norway House by Walter J. Phillips, 1928
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. Named after its ultimate destination, early versions of the vessel were operating in 1746 at Fort Albany. In the years following 1821 the York boat grew to replace the canoe for freight. 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.
Based on an old Orkney design that in turn derived from the Viking longship, the boats were built by Orkneymen 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. Long and flat-bottomed, the York boat's pointed bow and stern angled upwards at forty-five degrees, which made it easy to beach or backwater off a sandbar.
York boat, Split Lake, Northern Manitoba, 1928. R.A. Talbot
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. Pure brute strength pulled the men from one post to the next, and they 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, which could be dismantled, about 2.7 metres long 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. A typical boat would measure 12.6 metres in total length, reach 9.1 metres to the keel and have an inside depth of 0.9 metres. Boats typically lasted about three years before having to be replaced.
Clinker-built of heavy timber, with each plank overlapping the next, the 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 established 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 under sail near Norway House, Manitoba, 1913. R.A. Talbot
York boats were well adapted to northern conditions as well: they could travel in bad weather and weren't 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 not used to such flotillas.
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.