WINNIPEG — It cruised down the Red River for more than five decades, carrying more than 3.5 million passengers over the years. The Paddlewheel Queen, which was once a popular Winnipeg tourist attraction, is now docked on dry land.
Steve Hawchuk is the owner and captain of the Paddlewheel Queen and its sister ship, the Paddlewheel Princess. He’s spent a big part of his life on Winnipeg’s waters.
“Many, many lovely memories over the years…the people we carried and the parties we had and the enjoyment for families and kids…it was really something,” Hawchuk said.
Many people who grew up in Winnipeg have taken at least one ride on the Paddlewheel ships or the MS River Rouge. It was a business that was once booming. Even celebrities wanted to get it on the action. From former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau to fried chicken restaurant owner, Colonol Sanders, Hawchuk has no shortage of photos to show off of people who once rode his ship.
But the excitement and the business slowly started to decline, especially after the flooding in the late 1990s, Hawchuk said,
There were once five large cruise ships running down the Red River: Paddlewheel Queen, the Paddlewheel Princess, the River Rouge, the MS Lady Winnipeg and the MS Lord Selkirk II. Now there are none.
“In the 1970’s we were hauling anywhere between 75,000 to 90,000 people a summer, and slowly when we got into the late 1980’s, it started to decline,” he said.
A ship of the past
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Ships such as the Paddlewheel Queen, MS Lord Selkirk II and the MS Lady Winnipeg have since been dismantled and either sold for parts or turned into a different boat.
For 17 years, MS Lord Selkirk II carried 130 passengers and 40 crew up and down the Red River and to Lake Winnipeg. After a drop in passengers and the ship being sold to different businessmen, it made its final voyage in 1990 and was parked in the slough in Selkirk ever since, rusting and leaking toxic waste into the river.
In September 2015, crews started tearing apart the ship. A Saskatoon company, SaskSteel, cut the ship up and sent the metal to the mill in Selkirk, Man.
WATCH: Exclusive tour of the MS Lord Selkirk II as it’s being dismantled
Far from over
Jon Barnsley has rowed on the Red River hundreds of times over the past 45 years. While his love for paddling on Winnipeg’s rivers hasn’t changed, the traffic he’s encountered on the waters has.
“There was the Paddlewheel, and I think the Lady Selkirk,” he said. “I normally rode at noon and we would see them out every day and we would race them. They were popular, we would see them out on the rail. We don’t see them anymore.”
WATCH: Archive footage of the Paddlewheen Queen and MS River Rouge
While the leisurely use of the river might be changing, it’s far from over. Cross country skiers are using it to get to work in the winter and the rowing club has been going strong for 135 years. There are also paddle boarders, kayakers and canoers who enjoy the tranquility of the water.
READ MORE: Water bus hits Winnipeg rivers this weekend
The Splash Dash is also a way tourists and locals can cruise along Winnipeg’s riverways. The boat has been around since 1992, and the captain offers passengers commentary and historical insights about the city.
In 2013, Hawchuk sold both of his cruise ships. Even though it was a difficult decision, he said he will always look back at those days fondly and believes there is still hope that tourism on the river can turn around.
“I still think there’s potential now with the Human Rights Museum and the zoo and lots of expansion going on in Winnipeg,” Hawchuk said.