Conceived as a make- work project for unemployed men, built to help tame the raging waters of the South Saskatchewan River, the weir has been a gathering place for people in Saskatoon since construction began 84 years ago.
Like the Broadway Bridge, the weir, which dams the river just upstream of the CP Rail bridge at 33rd Street, was a child of the Dirty Thirties, when governments across the country looked for ways to cope with the problem of catastrophic unemployment and drought. In those days, unemployment was largely a municipal responsibility and by 1932, with one family in five in Saskatoon on relief, the ability of the civic government to manage the crisis was quickly unraveling.
Paid work was the preferred way of providing relief.
In Summer 2013 issue of Saskatoon HOME (back issues available online at www.saskatoon-home.com. read-online, or on our App available in the App Store) we talked about the city’s biggest relief project, the Broadway Bridge. But unemployed men in Saskatoon also did everything from shovelling snow to sweeping streets to building revetment walls along the river banks. Still, it wasn’t enough.
In 1936, the city proposed the building of a dam or weir as a possible relief work project. In those days, the South Saskatchewan River was a capricious beast. Water levels fluctuated with the seasons, with flows rising sharply during the April and June flood seasons then dropping to a trickle during the dry days of late summer. The weir would tame the river, creating a deep, slower-moving basin all the way past Yorath Island. This was to have several beneficial effects.
Recreational use of the river — problematic and even downright dangerous due to the swift current through much of the year — would be improved, with a resulting boost in related industries such as boat building. The Mayor spoke glowingly of fleets of boaters taking to the water, with «hundreds of craft» plying up and down the river, and the city becoming an important tourist destination as a result.
More realistically, perhaps, the weir would protect the city’s water supply, ensuring that the river would never drop low enough to uncover the water intakes at the power station and water treatment plant, as had almost happened in 1936. Higher river levels also meant less work would be needed to pump water up to the plants, with a projected savings of several thousand dollars annually.
There was also an aesthetic issue. In those days, Saskatoon poured its sewage straight into the river. Low water often left the rocks along the uncovered shoreline festooned with the more distasteful detritus of society. By controlling the water levels, the weir would help keep the city’s eyesores covered.
Finally, the basin could act as a landing strip for floatplanes flying into the city. Today, this seems like an odd justification. Floatplanes do, on occasion, land on the river here, but they are a rare bird. But large-scale commercial aviation was the newest big thing in the 1930s, and the federal government was keen on developing coast- to-coast airways. Float planes were the only way in and out of Saskatchewan’s north country. If they could land on the river in Prince Albert, why not Saskatoon?
Privately, the Saskatchewan representative of the federal Civil Aviation Branch admitted that he thought it unlikely the city would ever see much floatplane traffic. Nevertheless, he said, the plan was feasible, and he promised to recommend it for licensing, if and when.
Most importantly, Saskatoon’s city engineer estimated the cost of the dam at $335,000, of which $200,000 would go to wages, with nearly all the work able to be done by unskilled labour. This made it ideal as a relief work project for the city’s unemployed.
Finding the Money
The hard part was getting the money. The city’s original plan was to split the cost three ways, much as had been done for the Broadway Bridge, only this time with the feds also providing Saskatoon’s share as a long-term loan. The request was turned down. There was a federal/provincial funding program, but apparently Saskatchewan had already spent its allocation. Undeterred, Saskatoon embarked on a round of lobbying, letter writing and public meetings, and in 1938, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) announced that it would build — and pay for — Saskatoon’s dam. The hard part was getting the money.
This raised some eyebrows. The PFRA was part of the Department of Agriculture, and while its mandate included the building of water storage reservoirs, its purpose was to support agriculture and mitigate the ravages done by the long drought on prairie farmers. There were those in the farming community who wondered quite loudly why the PFRA was suddenly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit city folks instead.
Paul Van Pul, in an excellent article in the 2012 issue of the Saskatoon History Review, suggests that perhaps the weir was sort of a dry run — a pilot project — for a much larger, future construction job — the Gardiner and Qu’Appelle Dams, which were built in the 1960s. But it is worth noting that the Minister of Agriculture in 1938 was James G. Gardiner, ex-Saskatchewan Premier and staunch advocate of Saskatoon’s weir. The answer might simply be that Saskatoon’s relentless politicking had paid off.
Finishing the Job
Construction started in March of 1939, and one year, 260,000 pounds of reinforcing steel, 12,000 cubic yards of concrete and 16,500 barrels of cement later, the weir was complete. Ironically, by the time work began, the Depression was beginning to ease, and with Canada’s entry into the Second World War later that year, much of the need for relief work evaporated.
The weir has been attracting people since the first shovel hit the ground. Construction photos invariably show spectators standing or sitting along the riverbank, watching the show. Anglers quickly discovered that it was a great place to fish. Young couples sat together on the aprons or along the banks on either side, people leaned along the fences or played on the apron itself. Since the 1970s, the weir has also been a favourite spot for pelicans, who wait patiently just downstream waiting for their next meal to come swimming by.
The area around the weir has changed remarkably since 1940. The Meewasin Trail now runs along the riverbank there, and a parking lot has been added. A significant facelift in 2001 replaced the rickety old stairs up to the top of the railway bridge and added a beautiful promenade, winding back from the parking lot to a lookout above the weir, as well as benches and other amenities. Still, in 2013 as in 1940, it’s a beautiful place to lounge on a warm summer evening, watching the river drift by.