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Lesson Plans

Paddlewheel Boats

Target Group

  • Grade 5

Main Idea

Paddlewheel boats played a large part in the development and expansion of towns of Northern Central British Columbia.

Subject Areas

  • English Language Arts
  • Visual Arts
  • Social Studies


Students will be able to describe:

  • Routes traveled by paddlewheelers in Northern British Columbia.
  • The importance of paddlewheelers in Northern British Columbia.
  • The basic construction of a paddlewheel

Teacher Notes

A “Teacher Background Information” handout is available for additional teaching notes.


  • “Teacher Background Knowledge” Handout.
  • 7 small prizes. Pencils, erasers etc.
  • “BX Paddlwheeler” handout
  • “Paddlewheeler Construction” handout
  • “Paddlewheeler Construction Answer Key” handout
  • “Paddlewheeler Dangers and Uses” handout
  • “Paddlewheelers in British Columbia” handout
  • “My Paddlewheeler Experience” handout
  • “Paddlewheeler Routes” handout
  • “ Chopping Wood” handout
  • Pencils


a steamboat driven by a single paddlewheel at the stern
the rear end of a boat
the front end of a boat
Steam boiler:
a boiler for producing steam used to drive the paddlewheel
a ridge of sand built up by currents especially in a river or in coastal waters
another name for a paddleboat with the paddlewheel at the back
another name for a paddlewheel boat
The depth of a paddlewheelers floor below the water line, especially when loaded


  1. Brainstorm with class methods used to travel up rivers. Introduce to the class the term “paddlewheeler”: a boat powered by a paddlewheel in the back.
  2. Distribute “BX Paddlewheeler” handout to each student.
  3. Read the “Early Paddlewheels” section in the “Teacher Background Information” sheet to class as they fill out the blanks on the work sheet.
  4. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 and hand out the “Paddlewheeler Construction” handout to each group.
  5. Have the students work together to label the areas of the boat based on the definitions of the terms.
    • Once completed test students on the terms using the “Paddlewheeler Construction Answer Key”. Say a term to the class, the first student to put hand up says the definition of the term. If the student is right, give small prize, if not, choose another student. Continue this until all terms have been used. There are additional photos of the construction of paddlewheels in the “Teacher Background Information” handout for students to look at.
  6. Distribute photocopy of “Paddlewheeler Dangers and Uses” to each student. As a class brainstorm some additional items that may fall under Danger and Uses of the paddlewheels. There are additional photos of rough waters that the paddlewheelers had to navigate through in the “Teacher Background Information” handout for students to look at.
  7. Ask students if they have ever been on a ferry. Explain that a paddlewheel is like a ferry, it carries passengers, cars and packages from one city to the next. Explain to students that passengers had to work on the paddlewheelers while traveling. Jobs included: cutting wood to be thrown in the boiler, pilling wood on the paddlewheel when it would stop at places along the river bank, fighting fires that may start on board and giving up items such as blankets and extra clothes to fill holes when the boat hit rocks. A “Chopping Wood” photo is available in the “Teacher Background Information” for students to look at.
  8. Distribute the hand out “Paddlewheelers in British Columbia” to each student. Have a student read out loud to the class one point on the hand out and discuss why the point they are reading is important. Use the hand out “Teacher Background Information” to help stimulate discussion.
  9. To get the class thinking of what it was like for passengers on paddlewheelers in the early 1900's, read aloud “First Hand Accounts” from the “Teacher Background Information” handout, there are pictures as well that students may look at while reading.
  10. Ask students think of the Fraser River? What do they think it looks like, what are some words that describe the River? Do they see it as a way of travel? Explain to class that Paddlewheelers traveled on the Fraser River and many other rivers in British Columbia. Put the “Routes Traveled” Map on overhead or photocopy and distribute to each student. Have students study the map for a couple of minutes. Ask them what they see on the map, do they recognize any locations on the map? Point out the Prince George Location on the map to get them started. After a brief discussion, point out the paddlewheel routes out labeled on the map by the - - - symbol.
    1. Point out towns that the sternwheelers traveled to.
      1. Soda Creek
      2. Quesnel
      3. Prince George
      4. Vanherhoof
      5. Fort St. James
  11. Distribute the handout “Paddlewheel Seasons” to each student. Discuss all 4 seasons and how the river changes in every season.
    1. Spring: The water level is low as the ice slowly begins to melt.
    2. Summer: The water level is at its highest and fastest. This meant that the river could be dangerous with the paddlewheeler being pushed onto rocks or caught on the ever-changing sandbars.
    3. Fall: The water levels are low, therefore paddlewheelers dock on river banks to let passengers off so there would be less weight on the boat. This would make the boat's draft shallower so it could more easily pass through and over rapids. Passengers would walk along the river bank past the rapids, and then get back on the boat.
    4. Winter: The river is frozen, therefore paddlewheelers are not able to navigate through the waters. They had to be pulled back up on shore for the winter or they would be crushed in the ice.
  12. Explain to class that because paddlewheelers were not able to travel the waters all year round, they are considered to be “seasonal”.
  13. To bring the lesson to an end, distribute a copy of “My Paddlewheeler Experience” to each student. Have them write a short story about their experience on a paddlewheel in the 1900's. Have them touch on topics such as what the river was like, what the boat was like and why they are traveling on it.


Christensen, Bev. Prince George: Rivers, Railways, and Timber. Canada: Windsor Publications, Ltd., 1989.

Dows, Art. Paddlewheels on the Frontier. Surrey: Foremost Publishing, 1971.

The Exploration Place.

Teacher Background Information

Early Paddlewheel Boats

Between 1863 and 1921 a total number of 12 paddlewheelers traveled the Upper Fraser River between Soda Creek and Tete Jaune Chache, which is a little town where the rive flows out of the Rocky Mountains. The BX was the best paddlewheeler to travel on. Some people were superstitious that this paddlewheeler would not be so good because it was launched into the river on Friday the 13th in May of 1910. Most people were wrong about he BX because it became the best paddlewheeler to travel on. The BX was the best because its structure was built to go through the rapids easier than other paddlewheelers and it was on of the fanciest to eat and sleep in. The BX was nicknamed “Queen of the North” because it was so fancy. A total number of 119 passengers could ride on the BX and it could carry up to 100 tons of freight. The BX carried a lot of passengers and freight up and down the Fraser River until 1919 when it hit a large rock in Fort George Canyon and sank with 2500 bags of cement on board.

Paddlewheel Boat Uses

Before the creation of the railway, paddlewheelers where the quickest and most comfortable way of travel. Paddlewheelers were considered to be the best way of travel because on land there were only a few dirt roads for horse wagons and river canoes and river scows for water transportation. Dirt roads took a long time to get from one destination to another because they were most often muddy, which made it difficult for horses to travel through. Canoes and River Scows where dangerous and often resulted in death at the river rapids. Paddlewheelers opened the north for many people living in remote areas. Paddlewheelers were a link for those living in remote areas, connecting these people to the rest of the province. Paddlewheelers were also a good way of transporting mail, goods and packages. Machinery for sawmills was frequently found onboard for delivery to towns. Gradually trains replaced paddlewheelers because they were cheaper, faster and there was less danger to endure.

Paddlewheel Construction

Strong timbers supported the main structure of the boat. Lightweight planks were used in construction everywhere else, allowing the boat to float in shallow water. The planks and timbers where held together by cables or metal fittings. The steam boiler was on the main deck near the bow. The boiler provided steam to the engines at the stern and were fired by men stacking wood in them. Freight was carried on the main deck around the boiler to weigh the front of the boat down in rough waters. The passenger deck was above the main deck. There were usually 2 lounges, one on either end of the boat. Overnight cabins where along the side of the passenger deck and were complete with 2 bunk beds and a washbasin. In the 1900's the larger boats had the luxury of electric lights in the cabins. Above the passenger deck where cabins for the officers and above that was the wheelhouse. The wheelhouse was a placed high at the front of the boat, so that the captain had a clear view of obstacles in the water.

Paddlewheel Dangers

In most areas the water was unpredictable because the water was always changing and captains did not know where the dangers were such as snags, sandbars, rapid and rocks. All which could damage the bottom of the boat, causing holes and sinking. Fire was another danger because most crews did not have meters to read in regards to steam pressure. The pressure would rise so high that some paddlewheelers would blow up.

Paddlewheeler Successes

The flat bottom of the boat allowed the vessel to bob on top of the water much like a duck. This allowed it to pass over the ever changing sand bars in the river. The wood construction also made the boat buoyant and easy to repair. The paddlewheeler at the back of the boat only needed a couple of inches of water to turn and produce power. The main reasons why they were so successful was because they were an easier and faster way to carry large amounts of people and freight than by horse pack trains.

“First Hand Accounts”

Wiggs O'Neill wrote:

“This was the reason, too, that a sternwheeler bucking current could be heard from miles since the steam exhausted into the stack with a roar. The sound was similar to a steam locomotive leaving a station, except that locomotives used a valve that allowed steam to escape all at once, producing the characteristic of puff-puff- puff. A sternwheeler used a slide valve that allowed steam to escape more gradually, making a long screeching sound, something like a phew-phew-phew.

“On the whole a sternwheeler was a pretty noisy contraption. In addition to the steam screeching from the stack, there was a continuous slap-slap-slap as each bucket on the paddlewheel hit the water. The vessels had a deep-toned, baying type of whistle, which frequently added to the uproar. Then if everything wasn't going right the mate or captain would contribute a lively selection of comments, thus adding a personal touch to the din.

“To me, a sternwheeler slapping her way through the white-water rapids, spray cascading from the bow and paddlewheel, steam and smoke belching skyward in great swirls of black and white was a picture perfect that, once seen, was never forgotten”

Viscount Milton and Dr. W. B. Cheadle became the first tourists to the Cariboo from England. Dr. W. B. Cheadle wrote in his journal:

“Steamer came in about 2 o'clock brining a host of miners two of whom were very drunk and continued to imbibe every five minutes; during the time we stayed in the house they must have had 20 drinks. The swearing was something fearful. After we had been on board a short time, the Captain finding out who we were, gave us the use of his cabin, a dry comfortable little room and supplied us with cigars and a decanter of cocktail, also books and papers. We were fetched out every few minutes to have a drink with someone, the Captain taking the lead by standing champagne all round. We had some dozen to do before supper; no one the least affected, Milton and I shirking in quantity. The 'Cap' told us the boat was built on the river, all the timbers sawn by hand, her shaft in five pieces packed up on mules, cylinders in two, boiler plates brought in the same manner. Boat cost $75,000.”

Harrison River wrote:

“The last part of the river was very narrow and we ran into the sides several times; once a tree caught some boxes of bacon and turned them over on the deck, smashing one of the number.”

Passenger traveling on a gold rush vessel wrote:

“She is not at all a Harbor of comfort...”

Passenger wrote to the Victoria Standard:

“The Hope charged $25 for passage and sleep in one's own blankets, cook for self, pay $1 for inferior grub, and occasionally cut wood...”

A miner recorded:

“One passenger had a bell thrust into his hand, and he was instructed to ring the bell and bawl at the top of his voice the departure of the boat; this he did to perfection, being a powerful man with strong lungs. The work lasted half an hour and he was given $2.50 for his pains”

George V Copley wrote an account of the Isle-de-Pierre Rapids in the Nechako River :

“We finally came to our first difficulty, Isle-de-Pierre Rapids, one-quartermile long and too steep for the steamer to navigate. All hands off to drag a one inch steel cable to the head of the rapids, to be made fast to a sizable spruce tree.

“All went well until the steamer was about one-half way up the rapids, then without warning the spruce tree came out, roots and all. The steamer slewed around crosswise to the stream and down we went, bumpty bump over the rocks. Water poured over the lower deck and into the fire box, so that when we finally arrived at the foot of the rapids into good water, the ship had no power. Luck was with us however, and just as the anchor was through overboard, we landed bow first on a sandbar.

“The fireman and engineer soon got a fire started again under the boiler and in less than 2 hours we were back at the foot of the rapids, ready for another try, the captain as unperturbed as though the whole matter had been routine. The next try we fastened to a larger tree and had no further difficulty.”


The construction of the R.C. Hammond paddlewheeler near Fort George.


Construction of the Robert C. Hammond near the Nechako River

First Hand Accounts of Paddlewheelers

Rough Waters

A paddlewheeler navigates through the Fort George Canyon on the Fraser River

Rough Waters

The B.C Express paddlewheel boat passing through the Grand Canyon on the Fraser River.

The BX Paddlewheel Boat

Fill in the blanks

  1. Between 1863 and 1921 a total number of                      paddlewheel boats traveled the Upper Fraser .
  2. The BX was put into the water on                      in May of 1910.
  3. The BX was nicknamed                      because it was so fancy.
  4.                      passengers could ride on the BX.
  5. The BX hit a large rock and sank in                     .

The BX Paddlewheel Boat

Answer Key

Fill in the blanks

  1. Between 1863 and 1921 a total number of          12          paddlewheel boats traveled the Upper Fraser .
  2. The BX was put into the water on      Friday 13th     in May of 1910.
  3. The BX was nicknamed  Queen of the North  because it was so fancy.
  4.          119         passengers could ride on the BX.
  5. The BX hit a large rock and sank in         1919        .

Paddlewheeler Construction

Match the number with the definition!

Steam BoilerOn the main deck near the front of the boat. Makes steam t run the engine
SternThe back of the boat
BowThe front of the boat
Passenger DeckAbove the main deck. Has rooms for the Passengers to sit and bunk beds for passengers to sleep on.
Cabin for the OfficerAbove the passenger deck where the officer would sleep and eat.
Wheelhouseabove the officer's cabin where the captain could stand to have a good look of the water and what was in the way.
PaddlewheelAt the back of the boat that would turn and pick up water to make steam for the engine to run the boat.

Paddlewheeler Construction

Answer Key

Match the number with the definition!

Steam BoilerOn the main deck near the front of the boat. Makes steam t run the engine
SternThe back of the boat
BowThe front of the boat
Passenger DeckAbove the main deck. Has rooms for the Passengers to sit and bunk beds for passengers to sleep on.
Cabin for the OfficerAbove the passenger deck where the officer would sleep and eat.
Wheelhouseabove the officer's cabin where the captain could stand to have a good look of the water and what was in the way.
PaddlewheelAt the back of the boat that would turn and pick up water to make steam for the engine to run the boat.

Paddlewheeler Dangers and Uses

Name two other Dangers and Uses of paddlewheelers.


  • Rocks in the water
  • Sandbars


  • Before the railway was built, paddlewheelers were the quickest and best way to get to the Northern areas of British Columbia because it took a long time to travel on the few existing dirt roads with horse and wagon.
  • Some people lived along the river banks and the paddlewheelers were the way to travel to see the rest of British Columbia.
  • Carrying equipment and mail to towns.

Chopping Wood

The Charlotte paddlewheel boat with cord wood loaded on the deck at the bow.

Paddlewheelers in British Columbia

  1. The paddlewheelers where an easier way to travel in Northern British Columbia because there where only a few poorly built dirt roads that were difficult to travel with a horse and wagon.
  2. Using BC's river system, paddlewheel boats were able to move settlers and their supplies into many remote areas across the whole province.
  3. Paddlewheelers were so good in the river because they had a flat bottom and shallow draft. The flat bottom let the boat bob on top of the water like a duck.
  4. The way paddlewheelers shallow draft were built made floating in the river easy and they were easy to fix when they hit rocks.
  5. The blades of the paddlewheel only needed to dip into the water a little bit to push the boat forward.

Paddlewheeler Seasons

Paddlewheelers at the foot of the Fort George Canyon on the Fraser River. They stopped here to portage passengers and freight past the rapids.

Paddlewheeler Seasons

Bringing the paddlewheeler aground for the winter

My Paddlewheeler Experience

Pretend that you are a passenger in the 1900's boarding a paddlewheeler. Write a short story of your trip. Include where you are traveling to, why and what the boat was like.


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