Assiniboia – The Ship That “Shot The Rapids”
By James Donahue
Everybody knows that the canal and locks were built at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855 to
allow lake vessels to pass from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. What few people know, however, is that the locks are there to
accommodate an eighteen-foot drop in water levels between Lake Superior and the bottom of the Saint Mary Falls. With that
much of a drop, one can imagine the rush of water that would result if two of the giant lock gates opened at the same time,
allowing a free flow from Superior into the river below.
That is what accidentally happened on June 9, 1909, while the passenger liner Assiniboia was standing in the Canadian lock. She was down bound that day with about
a hundred passengers.
When the traffic was heavy vessels sometimes went through in pairs. The Assiniboia went into the lock first and was waiting for the ore carrier Crescent
City to enter behind her. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, the steamer Perry G. Walker was approaching the locks from below at the same time, jockeying for a position in the upbound
lock. But something went wrong and the Walker rammed the lower lock gate about
The blow broke the gate miter, and the giant steel gate, which was holding back all
of Lake Superior at that moment, broke away, allowing an avalanche of water to roar through the canal.
The force of the water carried both the Assiniboia
and Crescent City through the lock with great speed. Passengers on the Assiniboia were jostled as the big boat suddenly “shot the rapids,” slamming against the side of the
Walker and finally ramming her bow into the side of the steamer Empire City.
The collisions put a hole in the Assiniboia’s
bow and dents in the sides of the Walker and Empire
City. The Crescent City also was damaged. Surprisingly, there were no injuries.
The lock was out of service for twelve days, until June 21.
The Assinibia was a newcomer to the lakes
when the incident happened. She was built in Govan, Scotland, in 1907 and came across the Atlantic Ocean that year under her
The boat’s length of three hundred thirty-six-feet made it too long to squeeze
through the Welland Canal locks, so the owners cut the boat in half and towed the two parts to Buffalo, where they were rejoined.
The Assiniboia served the lakes as a passenger
vessel and later a freight hauler until 1967. She was sold the following year to a Lambton, Ontario businessman who planned
to convert the boat to a floating restaurant.
The sixty-one-year-old boat was towed back down the St. Lawrence River and docked
at West Duptford Township, New Jersey. There it caught fire, burned and sank on November 9, 1969. The gutted wreck was raised
in 1970 and scrapped.