A History of Buffalo Narrows


Buffalo. Buffalo.

Transportation and communication have improved dramatically in Northern Saskatchewan since 1900. At first, transportation in the summer was much more convenient than transportation in the winter, as the natural waterways of the north provided the "highways" for the people to travel on. Winter travel offered many hazards and hardships, not the least of which was the cold.

Transportation on land has seen some remarkable changes since 1900 in the Buffalo Narrows region. In the early years many people used dog teams to travel about in the winter, although some people used snowshoes for walking. The dog teams were used to pull sleighs or toboggans.

Dog Team. Dog Team.
Left - Sleigh and dog team (1946) (Courtesy of Edwin and Anne Heal).
Right - John Hansen's dog team (1940s) (Photo courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).

Horses were used by some people, but the use of horses was limited by the amount of hay available. Most settlements like Buffalo Narrows grew hay to feed the horses, but for the long trips into the bush country of the north, dogs were better because they ate fish which could be carried along or obtained by fishing. Some local fishermen used horses to transport fish. Horses were later replaced by snowmobiles (motorized track vehicles) made by Bombardier and snow machines. It was not until 1957 that Buffalo Narrows got a year around highway linking it with the south. That same year, a ferry was brought in to transport vehicles across the channel. The bridge across the narrows is being worked on at the present time and should be in place by the fall of 1980. The early freighters that came from Big River to Buffalo Narrows used horses until about 1940 when "cat trains" began to replace them. The freighters would hitch one team of horses to a plough to clear the road for the long sleighs bringing in the supplies for the stores or hauling fish to the south. By 1946-47 trucks began to replace the "cats" on the winter roads.

The Collie Family.
The Collie Family on a trip (1947) (Photo courtesy of Edwin and Anne Heal).

Transportation by Water

Water transportation was very important to the community of Buffalo Narrows in the past. The Indians of the region had used canoes for many years. The voyagers who had traversed the area on their way north to Athabasca had also used canoes, as did many of the permanent settlers of Buffalo Narrows in the early 1900's. During the 1930's, most of the inhabitants of Buffalo Narrows traveled in large canoes in the summer. Some of these large canoes had outboard motors (kickers) to power them. Other residents such as Tom Pedersen and Eugene Chartier had large boats with inboard motors. A local resident of Buffalo Narrows by the name of Frank Nordstrom had built these boats in Big River.

The Buffalo Narrows Ferry, since replaced by a bridge.

Buffalo Narrows was linked to Big River in the south by connecting waterways. People wishing to come to Buffalo Narrows from Big River would follow Crooked Lake (now called Cowan Lake) north to the site of the present day Cowan Dam, then pass through the floodgate of the dam operated by Bill Mahoney (1930's) and continue down the Crooked (Cowan) River to the Beaver River and on to Ile-a-la-Crosse before taking the Deep River channel to Buffalo Narrows.

Truck. Canoe.
Truck loaded on a scow in 1946 (Photo courtesy of Edwin and Anne Heal).
A large canoe with a "kicker" (Outboard Motor) (Photo courtesy of Rose Ericson).

In Buffalo Narrows the traveler would land at the wharf, completed in 1938, and rebuilt in 1950-51. As early as 1949, there was a barge service from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Buffalo Narrows. In 1950, D.N.R. operated a barge between Buffalo Narrows and Beauval via Fort Black and Ile-a-la-Crosse. Wilfred Gauthier was the captain of one of these barges which came to Buffalo Narrows. The D.N.R. barge ran twice a week during the open water season of 1952. The size and variety of craft that traveled the waters adjacent to Buffalo Narrows varied greatly. There were small canoes, large canoes, with motors, scows, and barges. It was these water craft which made transportation in summer both economical and relatively efficient. The disadvantages of travel on water were related to the dangers of rapids and storms, the relatively short ice free season and the length of time it took to travel any great distance.

Chartier's boat. D.N.R. landing craft.
Eugene Chartiers boat in the late 1940's (Photo courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).
Department of Natural Resources landing craft in 1951 (right) (Courtesy Sask. Archives Board: Star-Phoenix Collection).

Transportation by Air

The history of aviation in the Buffalo Narrows area in the early years is somewhat unclear, as bush pilots stationed in the south visited many of the small isolated communities of the north, leaving no clear records. Local people recall that Cecil MacNeal, Ernie Boffa and "Wop" May were some of the first pilots to visit the community. Art Karras, in his book "North to Cree Lake", confirms that MacNeal was a bush pilot in the north in the 1930"s. Later, Jim Barber and a pilot by the name of George Greening, hauled fish in their planes throughout the area.

Mr. Ledyards plane. Aircraft.
Mr. Ledyards Plane in 1946. (left) (Photo courtesy of Edwin and Anne Heal)
CF-BXG on skies in 1949 (right) (Photo courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).

In 1936, mail was brought to Buffalo Narrows once a month by the Mason and Camway Company. M and C was taken over by the province in 1947. Saskatchewan Government Airways took over the mail contract at this point.

In 1948, the first airstrip was surveyed and plans were made to begin construction. A new airport capable of handling small jets (with cross runways) was open in 1979-80 across Kiezie Channel.

Government dock.
Transportation in the 1940's (right): planes, fish boats, skiff, canoe and lumber barges
(Photo courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).

At the present time, there are three airline companies and a helicopter service operating out of Buffalo Narrows. Athabasca Airways has been in operation since 1959 with Maurice Gran in charge. John Midgett has been flying out of Buffalo Narrows for many years. Buffalo Narrows Airways has been in operation since 1977, although Norcanair (mid 1960's to 1977) and Saskatchewan Government Air Services preceded this company. Western Helicopters, owned by Gary Thompson has been in operation since 1973.

Air transportation in the north was a dangerous business. Ray Gan of S.G.A. disappeared in his plane near Buffalo Narrows and was never heard from again. It was the bush pilot who provided a quick, if somewhat expensive, form of transportation to a land where travel was measured in days, that really opened up the north.


At the present time Buffalo Narrows is well served in terms of communications, but this was not always so. The earliest form of communication in the north was the "moccasin" telegraph, which was not really a telegraph at all. Travelers would simply relay information and pass on messages as they traveled around.

Mail has been coming to Buffalo Narrows on a more or less regular basis since the 1930's when it came by barge in the summer and by horse in the winter. In 1939, M and C Airways started bringing the mail once a month. Later, Saskatchewan Government Airways brought the mail once a week.

Once the road was completed to Buffalo Narrows in 1957, the mail was brought by truck twice a week and by air once a week. Since 1965, the mail has been brought exclusively by truck, with weekday service since 1977. The first post office was located in Tom Pedersen's store in the 1930's. Tom kept the post office until 1944 when Mrs. Collie of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission took over. In 1947, Mrs. Tarry of the N.C.E.M. ran the post office. Shortly thereafter, the Hudson Bay Store ran the post office for a time. Alec Shatilla had the post office in his store for a few years in the 1950's. When Alec gave the post office up, it went back to the H.B.C. for awhile. In the early 1960's, Rose (Pedersen) Ericson ran the post office out of her father's (Tom Pedersen) home. In 1964, Elsie Pedersen took over the post office, running it out of her home until 1971 when the present post office was built.

Buffalo Narrows was connected to the south by a telegraph line constructed in the 1930's. Placid Morin, from Green Lake, constructed the line from Fort Black to Buffalo Narrows. Parts of this line are still standing, although it is no longer used. Bill McLean was one of the early operators.

On March 1, 1939, Buffalo Narrows was connected to Ile-a-la-Crosse by a single telephone line. In 1962, the town got its local system. Long distance was added in 1974.

By 1952, D.N.R. was in regular radio contact with Prince Albert via Lac La Ronge, although the first public radio office was opened in 1956, with Charlie Cusator as the first radio operator.

In 1974-75, television was introduced to the community.


Prior to 1956, the only residents of Buffalo Narrows who had power were those that had their own generating systems. In 1956, the Power Corporation of Saskatchewan constructed a power distribution system in town. The Corporation had a contract with Waite Fisheries to generate and sell power locally. The main power lines were constructed to Buffalo Narrows in 1968.


Transportation, power and communication services have improved tremendously over time, with the greatest changes occurring in the 1950's and 1960's. These improvements have helped to end the sense of isolation that was evident in Buffalo Narrows in the past. People are more aware of what is going on in the world. Life can be made easier with the aid of modern electrical appliances. In addition, the residents of Buffalo Narrows have ready access to the facilities and services of the south.


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: July 12, 2024."

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