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The first European to see Lesser Slave Lake was renowned explorer and Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader David Thompson.

In 1799, Thompson established a trading post at the junction of the Lesser Slave and Athabasca rivers. In 1802 it was moved to the mouth of Lesser Slave River and given the name Sawridge after the saw-toothed appearance of the sand ridges along the north shoreline of the lake.

This settlement capitalized on the fur trade boom that continued well into the 1960s.

Navigating the Waterways

For more than a century, Lesser Slave River was an important destination for trappers, traders, missionaries, Klondikers and settlers alike.

York boats and paddle wheelers regularly disembarked from Athabasca Landing (now Athabasca) carrying passengers and supplies up to Mirror Landing at the junction of the Athabasca and Lesser Slave Rivers.

Due to rapids and frequent lack of river depth, the shallow-hulled York boats were tracked upstream by onshore handlers, while paddle wheel passengers had to be portaged sixteen miles to Saulteaux Landing.

Due to rapids and frequent lack of river depth, the shallow-hulled York boats were tracked upstream by onshore handlers, while paddle wheel passengers had to be portaged sixteen miles to Saulteaux Landing.

These craft unloaded cargo and customers at the mouth of Lesser Slave River — which is the boat launch where you now stand. They continued their voyage across the lake to Grouard; the largest settlement in the region at that time.

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S.S. Slave River pulling upstream at Salteaux Landing
(1913, Provincial Archives of Alberta / A4576)

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Lesser Slave dog train
(ca. 1903, University of Calgary Archives / CU1106803)

In the winter, dog teams often were used to transport passengers and supplies.

With the opening of the railway line from Edmonton to Slave Lake in 1914, boat transportation and dog trains steadily declined — and eventually disappeared altogether.

Explore Some More

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Interpretive plaques are located near historic sites across the MD. They each feature a unique QR code that, if scanned with a mobile device, will take you to an informational page like this one!

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HBC boat S.S. Slave River on Lesser Slave River
(n.d., University of Calgary Archives / CU196522)

Hudson's Bay Sternwheeler

Launched in May of 1912, the S.S. Slave River made three trips per week from Saulteaux Landing to Grouard. She had sleeping quarters for 45 passengers and crew — but could carry 110, plus an additional 120 tons of freight.

Sternwheelers (also known as steamboats) had a limited season, often making just three or four river passages per year. These trips would take several weeks, depending on weather conditions and sand bars. Boats did not travel at night due to limited visibility.

Wood was the traditional fuel, and a sternwheeler could burn as much as four cords of wood per hour.

These vessels often burned wood in such quantities that passengers would be called into service and set ashore with crosscuts and axes to replenish the wood supply.

The season was short due to winter and ice up, and the boats had to be pulled from the water in winter to avoid destruction by the ice.

Sawridge Settlement

Seasonal flooding at the original Sawridge Settlement precipitated the decision to physically move an entire town and all of its buildings three kilometers (2 miles).

By 1906, David Thompson’s original trading post at the mouth of Lesser Slave River had grown into the settlement of Sawridge. It then evolved into the Village of Slave Lake in 1923.

Most of this settlement was situated on the river’s southern banks, and the rising river levels had become a recurring challenge.

Following a particularly disastrous flood in the spring of 1935, displaced settlers began to move their entire community from the riverbanks to present-day Slave Lake. When the winter freeze came, some of the larger buildings were transported via the thick ice of Lesser Slave Lake over to the new townsite. A cemetery is the only remaining landmark from the original Sawridge settlement on the banks of Lesser Slave River.

Historic floods have happened in 1882, 1935, 1988 and 1996. Thanks to the Government of Alberta’s river straightening work during the 1970s, plus the addition of a weir in 1983, overland flooding has been significantly reduced.

Nowadays, our history-rich shores welcome campers, beach-goers and recreational boaters, while the area just below the weir is a lucky spot for local anglers.

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