1918 Ryan Brothers Transport
In 1918 Mickey and Pat Ryan, Americans who had the contract during the First World War to carry mail north from Fort McMurray, were hired by the Northern Trading Company to haul freight over the Fitz-Smith Portage (map).
Up until the 1940s most everything that came into, and went out of, the Northwest Territories was carried by boat on the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers. This continuous 3000 kilometre water route connecting a point just north of Edmonton with the Arctic Ocean is broken by only two portages, one on the Athabasca at Grand Island and the other around a series of rapids on the Slave River between Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith.
These portages were for many, many years seen simply as inconveniences in the northern transportation system. This changed in the 1880s when the Hudson’s Bay Company began to modernize its northern transportation fleet by building and running steam-driven paddle wheelers on northern rivers.
To facilitate the higher volume of traffic that came with modernizing the system the Hudson’s Bay Company built a sixteen mile long road on the west side of the Slave River bypassing the four major rapids between Smith Landing (later Fort Fitzgerald) and Fort Smith.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and several smaller rival companies hauled freight on this road using either oxen and Red River carts or horses and wagons. When the Ryan brothers set up their freighting business they brought in a fleet of trucks and tractors that were able to haul a lot of freight at a very good price and they soon had the lion's share of business including all trade goods shipped into the north by the Hudson’s Bay Company and all the furs being shipped out.
In 1931 the government contracted the Ryan Brothers to maintain the road and along with this contract also gave them exclusive rights to haul freight over the portage. Police were instructed to stop anyone but Ryan Brothers Transport trucks and tractors from using the road.
Ryan Brothers Transport continued as a very profitable company into the early 1940s when the brothers sold the business and retired south.