The Little Saskatchewan,
A River Interrupted
From its source in Riding Mountain National Park the Little
Saskatchewan River soon enters a deep valley and twists and turns its
way though Elphinstone, into the man-made lake at Minnedosa, past the
scenic site of the old siding at Riverdale, over another dam at Rapid
City, and into Lake Wahtopanah. Up until that point it swings back and
forth across its deep valley, flowing strongly in springtime, down to a
trickle in the fall. For the last twenty kilometres it becomes
(especially in springtime) another river, as it descends to the
Assiniboine in a series of rapids.
In a way it is two rivers. The river that was, and the river today.
Lake Wahtopanah, is just the most recent of our efforts to bend the
river towards our needs.
It was never a transportation route like the Assiniboine, but the
advent of settlement, spurred intensive logging in Riding Mountain and
the river was ideal for transporting logs. First to a sawmill
established by the Hudson’s Bay Company at Elphinstone, next to Rapid
City, and soon all the way to Brandon.
Dams back up a reliable supply of water for the dry seasons. By 1910, a
dam was constructed just south of Rivers to ensure a dependable supply
of water for railway steam engines.
The other reason for building a dam is to provide consistent water
power for gristmills and sawmills. Accessible and more reliable steam
power was soon available for those uses, but rivers were then harnessed
to supply the next revolution in energy – electricity. The first effort
in Manitoba to harness waterpower to produce electricity happened right
here, on the Little Saskatchewan, between Rivers and Brandon.
Generally called the “Ten Mile Dam”, the Brandon Electric Light Company
built it in 1900. The success of the Brandon Power Station may have
prompted a similar effort at Minnedosa, where in 1911 a second hydro
project was constructed on the river.
The dams were left in place after other sources of power became more
efficient, to become swimming and camping sites.
The paths of these two dams crossed in 1948 when the Minnedosa dam was
breached, flooding the downtown and causing such a torrent that it
destroyed the Ten Mile Dam, far downstream, as well. Because the
Minnedosa dam had proven so beneficial as a recreational site, it was
repaired. The Ten Mile Dam was left to disintegrate.
As of 2019 the concrete foundation of the powerhouse remains on the
east side of the river.
But a pattern was set.
The dams that had been built for practical purposes had proven useful
as recreational sites, and for controlling flood water. That led to the
next series of dam building in rural Manitoba, with the Lake Wahtopanah
and Rivers Provincial Parks being the most notable example in the area.
Today, once the water spills over the dam at Rivers, the river has
reverted to its old self between here and Brandon. It has become a
favorite for paddling enthusiasts, providing western Manitoba’s best
stretches of whitewater and scenic, river valleys.