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Riverboat exhibit virtual tour

riverboat era

The Riverboat Era of the Skeena River was an important time of growth for the Northwest region of British Columbia, especially from Port Essington on the coast to Hazelton. This is the virtual version of the history we imparted to the people who came to visit us when the physical exhibit was running from July to November 2004.

Many of the community's long-standing members shared with us their stories about the early days of Terrace and the surrounding regions. The Kitselas First Nation lent us a traditional canoe paddle, as well as a topographical map of Kitselas Canyon, the most dangerous spot on the Skeena for the Riverboats.

 

Bill and Helene McRae donated an Edison Phonograph, the top from an organ that sat in one of the Riverboats, and several photographs. Lyle Krumm built a model of the SS Inlander and allowed us to use it as a piece in the exhibit while it was open.

 

It was a great tool to illustrate the parts of a riverboat. We also had a model steam engine, like that used to turn the wheel on a sternwheeler. This, too, was an excellent tool to show patrons of the exhibit the mechanics of a riverboat. We thank those who supported the Riverboat Exhibit.

 
 
the skeena river

The Skeena River runs for 579 km from it's source in the Skeena Mountains all the way down to the coast where it empties into the Pacific Ocean at the 54th parallel with a drainage area of 54400 sqare km. The Skeena has a constant rise and fall level, up to 43 cm (17 feet) in 24 hours. It is the 2nd largest all Canadian river in British Columbia.

There have been many things said of the Skeena with regards to it's swiftness and near impossibility to navigate during the Riverboat Era:

Never gives up its dead.

unknown/anonymous

 

The Indians called her 'K'shian, water of the cloud.' The river boatmen, less poetic, called her an unpredictable wench. By temperament she is nervous and unstable, impatient to leave her birthplace in the storm-shrouded rock spires of the Skeena Mountains, hurrying to tide-water with a determination that made her the West's fastest-flowing major waterway.

Some sternwheeler skippers credited her with being among the toughest of North America's navigable rivers. Others disagreed, saying she wasn't among the toughest; she was the toughest! She could rise 17 feet in a day, fluctuate 60 feet between high and low water, puncture a sternwheeler's planking in a dozen rapid-torn canyons or rock-strewn rapids.

'We don't navigate the river'" one veteran skipper observed, 'we juggle our way down.'

Art Downs

Prelude to the riverboat era

First Nations Peoples


The First Nations Peoples living along the banks of the Skeena River had, for centuries, used the great river as a major travel and trade route. The Haida people built such magnificent cedar canoes that they were much prized and sought after among the various coastal nations and as a result, a major amount of trade was done between these peoples. The usage of canoes for river travel was used for a time even after the arrival of the Europeans, for no one had yet built a boat that could navigate and survive the waters of the Skeena very far upriver.

The Collins Overland Telegraph Company


In late 1864, the Collins Overland Telegraph Company of New York was competing with the company laying the trans-Atlantic Telegraph line to complete a line linking Europe with North America. Collins sent Captain Tom Coffin up to the Northwest regions of BC to see about the logistics of bringing supplies upriver, as opposed to overland, to their workers closer to the interior of BC. Captain Coffin arrived in a steamship called the Union and failed to get any further than Kitsumkalem River. He returned to Victoria in 1865 and immediately reported to his superiors in New York, that they needed a specially built boat to handle the Skeena and its unusual hazards and swiftness.

The Telegraph Company, instead of heeding their Captain's first-hand experiences on the river, ignored them and had a New York ship architect design a steamship and had the plans sent to Coffin in Victoria to have the boat built. Coffin informed the company that the ship they wanted to be built would be a waste of money, as there was no way it would be able to make it upriver. It was not only of sufficient design but wasn't powerful enough to battle the flow of the river. They told him to build it anyway. It was christened the Mumford

In 1866, the Mumford left New Westminster and came up the coast of BC to the mouth of the Skeena River with Captains Coffin and Butler aboard, along with 40 Collins employees. As Tom Coffin Predicted, they didn't make it very far once they attempted the Skeena. They managed to get as far as Kitselas Canyon, but after 3 attempts to get started up the rapids in the canyon, they gave up and headed back downriver to the settlement at Kitsumkalem. From there, they hired First Nations people and their canoes to take them and half of their supplies upriver to the Forks (the site of present-day Hazelton.)

The Collins Overland Telegraph Company brought their supplies upriver to the Forks by canoe until 1868 when the Atlantic cable was completed by steamship. Some of the men who had come upriver during the first ill-fated trek on the Mumford stayed and settled at the Forks. The Hudson's Bay Company, that same year, established a trading post there and the community eventually flourished into Hazelton.

The Hudson's Bay Company


The HBC is Canada's oldest corporation, dating back some 300 years. They first dealt in the fur trade along the Great Lakes and in the Arctic. Eventually, they moved west, with the trappers, and continued to establish trading posts across the country. In 1868, the Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post at the Forks in the same area that the Collins Overland Telegraph Company men chose to remain. They too hired First Nations peoples and their canoes to haul freight upriver.

This method of moving goods proved to be too costly, in both loss of life and the loss of goods to the river, that in 1889, after 20 years of using it, the HBC hired Captain George Odin to survey the river. He recommended the use of sternwheelers to navigate the Skeena River. Ironically, his suggestion was much the same as the one made by Captain Tom Coffin to the Collins Overland Telegraph Company. Unlike Collins, the Hudson's Bay Company took the advice of the man they hired and had the Caledonia I into service.

 
the sternwheelers

The following is a comprehensive list of the 19 sternwheelers that ran the Skeena River between 1864 and 1912. They are listed in order of appearance and have details pertaining to their names, some interesting facts about each, and what happened to them (where such information is available).

 

SS Union

Year: 1864
Owner: Captain Tom Coffin
Captain(s): T. Coffin


Points of Interest:

The Union was a 60-foot sternwheeler that could carry 4 passengers outside of the crew and 20 tons of freight. This boat was chartered by the Collins Overland Telegraph Company to survey the Skeena for the transportation of construction supplies upriver. As she was grossly underpowered, she couldn't make it past the rapids at Kitsumkalum.


Where She Ended Up:

She was accidentally burned on the Frazer River July 29th, 1878.

SS Mumford
Year: 1866
Owner: Collins Overland Telegraph Company
Captain(s): Tom Coffin


Points of Interest:

The Mumford carried supplies and materials upriver as far as "Fort Mumford", which is the present-day southeast corner of Braun's Island in Terrace.


Where She Ended Up:

She went back to Victoria and was later towed to San Francisco where she was sold.

SS Calendonia I
Year: 1891
Owner: Hudson's Bay Company
Captain(s): G. Odin Sr., F. Odin Jr., J.W. Troupe, J.H. Bonser


Points of Interest:

The Caledonia I was designed by Captain G. Odin Sr and ran the river until 1897. She was strictly a commercial vessel, carrying no passengers. She was 100 feet long and her top speed was 16 mph. She took 9 days to reach Hazelton on her first trip. In 1895, 30 feet was added to her middle for better handling and cargo capacity. For the 7 years she ran the Skeena, she made 3 or 4 trips per season to Hazelton.


Where She Ended Up:

Her hull ran aground on some rocks at Port Simpson during a storm and was destroyed. Her engines were put into the Caledonia II.

SS Caledonia II
Year: 1898
Owner: Hudson's Bay Company
Captain(s): J.H. Bonser & S.B. Johnson


Points of Interest:

She ran supplies upriver for most of her time on the Skeena. Her sternwheel and buckets were of the same design as her namesake. In 1908, she was sold to a Prince Rupert syndicate and renamed the "Northwestern".


Where She Ended Up:

She hit a snag and was refloated, then she hit another snag and was abandoned at Coronation Island across from Telegraph Point on the Skeena. Her engines and running gear were put into the Omineca.

SS Strathcona
Year: 1900
Owner: Strathcona
Captain(s): Masters & Smith


Points of Interest:

The Strathcona made only 1 trip up the Skeena.
 

Where She Ended Up:

She was sold to a Vancouver syndicate in 1900 and operated on Owen Sound. When she was eventually retired, she was beached and stripped on one of the Gulf Islands.

SS Monte Cristo
Year: 1900
Owner: R. Cunningham & Son
Captain(s): Bonser


Points of Interest:

Cunningham hired Bonser, and Hudson's Bay Company skipper, to buy a steamer and operate it on the Skeena. The Strathcona only made a couple of trips upriver, after which it was chartered by the Dominion government and used on the Stikine River.


Where She Ended Up:

She was used for a time to freight construction supplies for the Yukon Telegraph line out of Telegraph Creek. She ended up rotting on the ways at Port Essington. Her machinery was sold as junk.

SS Hazelton
Year: 1901
Owner: Cunningham
Captain(s): Bonser


Points of Interest: The Hudson's Bay Company offered Cunningham $2500/year for 3 years to keep the Hazelton on the way to Port Essington in exchange for contracting Cunningham's freight for his store in Hazelton. Bonser left the Skeena for the Upper Fraser at this time.


Where She Ended Up: She was dismantled in 1912. Her machinery was shipped to the Peace River and installed in a new boat and her hull was sold to a Prince Rupert Yacht Club for use as their clubhouse.

SS Mount Royal
Year: 1902
Owner: Hudson's Bay Company
Captain(s): Johnson


Points of Interest:

The Mount Royal was the HBC's answer to Cunningham's Hazelton. The captains of both vessels worked not only for two highly competitive companies but were competitive with one another for supremacy on the Skeena. The rivalry between the two captains eventually worked into races against the clock and they began not only resorting to stealing each other's cordwood along the way but also having no concern for their passengers whatsoever. The Mount Royal wintered in Victoria each year, returning when the river was again passable.
 

Where She Ended Up:

She was wrecked in Kitselas Canyon in 1907 and 6 lives were lost. The captain and crew were absolved of any fault in a Marine Regulations inquiry. As a result, ringbolts were installed in Kitselas Canyon.

SS Casa
Year: 1899
Owner: Mr. P. Hickey
Captain(s): Masters


Points of Interest: This boat made only one trip to Hazelton on the Skeena.


Where She Ended Up: She went back to Vancouver and was bought by the Yukon Navigation Company to run the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. She was wrecked and rebuilt several times and was finally destroyed in a fire in 1974 in Whitehorse.

SS Pheasant
Year: 1905
Owner: Captains Magar & Watson
Captain(s): Magar, Watson & Bonser


Points of Interest:

Her nickname was "Chicken" and she made 14 trips from Port Essington to Hazelton, 2 to Kitselas, and on an excursion trip to Telegraph Point. Despite the trips she made, the Pheasant was underpowered to do freight runs on the Skeena so in 1906 she won a contract to blow out rocks from "Beaver Dam" and the "Hornets Nest". She stayed upriver too long in the fall and wrecked at Redrock Canyon near what is the present-day Skeena Crossing rail bridge. She was a total loss.


Where She Ended Up:

After she wrecked, her boiler was used in a sawmill near Terrace.

SS Craigflower
Year: 1908
Owner: Roy Troupe
Captain(s): Roy Troupe


Points of Interest:

She made it upriver as far as Cedarvale, couldn't get further. She was used after this as a water taxi for the rail construction crews between the Hole-In-The-Wall and Port Essington.


Where She Ended Up:

After her time on the Skeena the Craigflower was sent back to Victoria.

SS Northwest
Year: 1907
Owner: North Carolina Land Company
Captain(s): Bonser


Points of Interest:

The NC Land Company was an American company with a store and hotel at Telkwa. The Northwest was used to ensure a steady supply flow and she carried liquor for hotels in Port Essington and Hazelton.


Where She Ended Up:

She hit a snag in 1907 when she was upriver and was deemed a total loss. She was eventually dynamited out of the water.

SS Port Simpson
Year: 1908
Owner: Hudson's Bay Company
Captain(s): Johnson & Jackman


Points of Interest:

She was the finest boat on the river at this time with regard to her speed and luxurious interior. She had hot and cold running water and steam-heated cabins, earning her the nickname, "Queen of the Skeena".


Where She Ended Up:

She left the Skeena in 1912 for a stint on the Stikine river. She sat in Port Simpson from 1917 to 1921 when she was towed to Dodge Cove. Her machinery was put into a new ship on the MacKenzie River and her hull was left to rot in the mud.

SS Distributor
Year: 1908
Owner: Grand Trunk Pacific Railway/Foley, Welch & Stewart
Captain(s): Simpson & Doderick


Points of Interest: Though she was built similar to the Pt. Simpson she was mainly a cargo boat and had no elaborate passenger accommodations.
 

Where She Ended Up:

Afer she left the Skeena, her machinery was put into a new boat, also called the Distributor, on the MacKenzie River. Her superstructure was eventually used as a home in Victoria.

SS Operator & SS Conveyor
Year: 1908
Owner: Grand Trunk Pacific Railway/Foley, Welch & Stewart
Captain(s): Meyers (Operator) & Douglas (Conveyor)


Points of Interest:

These vessels were both freight boats like the Distributor. They were taken to Vancouver and their machinery was sent to Tete Jaune Cache via Edmonton for use in boats of the same names on the Upper Fraser River.


Where They Ended Up:

A flood in the 1940s took both boats downriver from Prince George where they broke up on some rocks. Their machinery was sold to sawmills around Prince George and their hulls were left to rot.

SS Omineca
Year: 1909
Owner: Grand Trunk Pacific Railway/Foley, Welch & Stewart
Captain(s): Shannon


Points of Interest:

The Omineca ran the river from 1909 - 1912 and was powered by the original Caledonia's Engines.
 

Where She Ended Up:

She was taken to Howe Sound for the building of the P.G.E. railway but was back on the way at Dodge Cove in Prince Rupert by 1914.

SS Skeena
Year: 1908
Owner: P. Burns & Co.
Captain(s): Seymour


Points of Interest:

She supplied live meat (beef, hogs, sheep) & vegetables to construction camps mostly on the Lower Skeena. She had iron sheathing on her bow which enabled her to run the river in winter.
 

Where She Ended Up: In 1911 she was sold to Captain Seymour for $22,500. He ran her on the Frazer River until 1926. She was sold twice more after this and eventually became an oil barge.

SS Inlander
Year: 1910
Owner: Inlander Company
Captain(s): Buely & Bonser


Points of Interest:

She was the last boat to arrive on the Skeena and she was the last boat to leave in 1912. She had room for 36 passengers in staterooms and 120 regular passengers. She had hot and cold running water; 3 flush toilets; steam-heated rooms; lightweight dining tables and chairs; separate men's and women's washrooms; thick carpeting and double-decker beds made of brass.


Where She Ended Up:

She rotted on Cunningham's Ways at Port Essington beside the Monte Cristo. Her piano resides at the Terrace Historical Society's Pioneer Museum.
 

sternwheeler stories

With such a thing as travel on a treacherous river, such as the Skeena, there happened some incidents that are above and beyond the regular stories. We read about where they went, how they moved, what they carried, etcetera. But, here we have listed some of the more interesting stories. Personal rivalries, accidents, and treasure stories.

Riverboat black and white photo.jpg

Rivalry: SS Hazelton and the SS Mount Royal
 

One of the more interesting stories is of the rivalry between the HBC's operations and Cunningham's operations. Not only were the companies themselves fierce competitors, but the captains of the Mount Royal (HBC) and the Hazelton (Cunningham) took the concept of rivalry to new levels.

Cunningham had the Hazelton built-in 1901. To compete with the newer and faster design, the Hudson's Bay Company had the Mount Royal built. The captains of each vessel went to great lengths to outdo one another with no thought to passenger safety or fuel consumption. The fuel consumption got to a point where the Hazelton and Mount Royal were burning, for one return trip, the same amount of cordwood for their competitors to make 2 trips from Port Essington to Hazelton and back.

The captains were obsessed with speed. The Hazelton made its run in 2 days, 7 hours, and 55 minutes. Two days later the Mount Royal did it in 2 days, 6 hours, and 15 minutes. Four days after that the Hazelton, not to be outdone and once and for all winning the time race between the two, did the return trip in 47 hours.

Later this same year, the Mount Royal's captain tried to crowd the Hazelton into shallow water. The Hazelton then did a turn and ran the Mount Royal aground. It was said that Captain Johnson of the Mount Royal was so angry that he shot at the captain of the Hazelton. There was a marine enquiry, at Captain Johnson's request, and this put an end to the dangerous aspects of the rivalry between the two boats.

The Wreck of the Mount Royal


July 6, 1907

The Mount Royal was pushed by the wind into what became known later as Ringbolt Island in Kitselas Canyon. Captain Johnson and his officers made the decision to abandon ship and all of the passengers and crew managed to walk ashore except for 8 people. With water pouring over the decks, the boat listed and fell over on her downriver side. The rushing waters of Kitselas Canyon ripped her deck housings and wheel off. Somehow, 2 of those 8 people that didn't make it ashore, the Chief Engineer and his assistant, managed to survive inside the tumbling hull until it ran aground, upside down on a sand bar across from Kitselas. They were later discovered, banging on the inside when rescuers were searching the debris for people.

The first that was known of the accident was when wreckage and debris (which was visible for several hours afterward all the way downriver to Little Canyon) began to be seen by residents of Kitselas. Captain Johnson and his officers were absolved of any wrongdoing in the ensuing marine enquiry. As a result of this accident, ringbolts were installed at Kitselas Canyon to give the boats some measure of stability coming up through the rapids.

Treasure in Kitselas Canyon!


It was said that when the Mount Royal rolled in the water at Kitselas Canyon, her safe went flying through the air and landed somewhere in the water. The safe was missing, and it has never been recovered. For years there were stories of all the riches, including gold and jewelry, that were, even now, lying at the bottom of the Skeena for anyone to find.

 

Fairly recent searching in archival records has shown that no money was being transported and none of the passengers were using the safe to store any of their personal belongings. In all likelihood, the safe actually contained very little.

Conclusion: The Coming of the Railroad 

From Pioneer Legacy, Vol. II: Chronicles of the Lower Skeena River, pages 172 & 176:

B.C. was linked with the rest of Canada by railroad on April 7, 1914, after seven years of negotiations, quarrels, contracts, much hard work and millions of dollars.

At this point (Finmoore) midway between Prince Rupert and Wolf Creek, many excited pioneers and railway workers gathered in the snow and mud to watch the track-laying crews race toward each other, with the east line beating the west by 20 minutes. And so the nation's 2nd transcontinental railway was completed with no fanfare or speeches, but with great expectations and plans to open up a great country to thousands of new settlers and immigrants.

Pioneer Legacy, Vol. II

So, why did the Sternwheelers cease running the Skeena in 1912 two years before the line was completed connecting east and west? The answer lies in the construction route of the railway and in the route of the riverboats. Once the line was completed between Prince Rupert and Hazelton, there was no reason the transportation of people and goods by riverboat, at a much higher cost, needed to continue.

A train could carry more, at a lower cost, were faster, and could run 12 months of the year. And with this new development in transportation, the exciting period of the Riverboat Era was ended.

Thanks to


The McRae's - For all the pictures, stories and artifacts. Your knowledge has been priceless.
 

Lyle Krumm - For the wonderful model of a riverboat. It has been most useful for instruction.
 

Web Bennett - For the usage of a ceremonial paddle and the topographical map of Kitselas Canyon.
 

K'san Museum - For putting together the original exhibit and visualizing a piece of history so well.


Heritage Park - For all of the artifacts and historical documents and text.