The York Boats were used from the 18th to 20th centuries on the waterways to Northern Manitoba. Their purpose was to carry Hudson Bay Company furs and freight to and from the remote trading posts to tide-waters or railways. The name of the boat comes from York Factory, which was the middle point of the boat’s round trip from Hudson Bay to interior Canada.
The York boat was operating as early as 1746, with the first official boat being built in 1745. A modification of the fishing boats on the Orkney Islands, which itself was derived from the design of Viking longships, the York boat was constructed to be able to carry large loads of freight, while being small enough to navigate narrower waterways.
Soon after 1821, the York boat replaced the canoe, or “canot du nord”, for freight transport, since it was able to carry more than three times the weight (roughly 3 tons), while still only requiring a crew of eight men. The typical York boat crew consisted of four to six men who were rowers, a helmsman, who called out the rowing instructions, and the steerer.
York boats were well suited for the northern waters, avoiding the damage a canoe or smaller vessel would suffer when encountering large packs of floating ice. Originally, the boats were 13 metres long (almost 43 ft) but the size evolved to include three sizes based on the amount of cargo they could hold. The original “60 pieces” (2,700 kg), “100 pieces” (4,535 kg), and a staggering “120 pieces” (5,440 kg). For long voyages from the south, each boat would carry exclusively one item: flour, tobacco or ammunition, for example. The boats would then sail together as one large convoy as they made their way back to the Red River Settlement.
By the 1880’s steamboats had replaced the York Boats on most large rivers and lakes and they were finally abolished in the 1920’s with the invention of an engine suitable for canoes.
Watch the construction of a York boat here on YouTube:
More information on York boats: