Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike creasy
In 1859, American author Mark Twain received his licence as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, and began accumulating the background to stories like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.
Many Americans came to British Columbia to try their hand at steamboating in BC, as the gold rushes drove demand for boats and men to record levels. Some succeeded; others quickly returned to the gentle waters of the American plains. Like most of the businesses which sprang up around the gold, steamboating was a cutthroat game, with big fortunes for the winners and ruin for the rest.
Speed was often the basis for ticket prices – the faster the boat, the shorter the trip and the sooner anxious miners could get to the precious gold. Since many of the boats were owned and operated by the man at the wheel, steamboat races were common.
Nothing raised steam pressure (and speed) faster than a fat side of bacon flung into the firebox and a stout wooden wedge atop the safety valve. Unfortunately, this didn’t always have the desired result. As the Victoria Colonist observed in 1861, “Within the last 18 months, we have had three ...steamboats blown up….” Reason enough to make sure your cabin was nowhere near the boiler!
Today, standing on the Churn Creek bridge over the Fraser near Gang Ranch, watching the big river in full spring freshet, it’s hard to imagine steam-powered boats chuffing their way through the torrent, carrying loads of supplies and hopeful miners to the gold finds of the Cariboo. Hard to imagine, that is, until you cast your eyes upon the near vertical banks, reaching over a thousand feet above the river and cut at regular intervals by equally steep-sided tributary canyons. The road today in a modern 4 wheel drive truck is a breeze compared to the joys of a two-wheel oxcart bouncing over a rock-strewn trail cut from the cliffside.
Getting to Barkerville these days is easy. In 1858, it involved at least two long sternwheeler journeys, plus two equally long treks across the parts the sternwheelers couldn’t manage – due either to lack of a suitable river or lake, or to the presence of impassable rapids. From Victoria, Vancouver and New Westminster, sternwheelers worked to attract business – rate wars were common, as were charges of price fixing and unreasonable profits.
The routes covered were prodigious; up the lower Fraser to Port Douglas at the head of Harrison Lake, then overland to Lillooet and Soda Creek (just north of Williams Lake), or up the Fraser as far as Yale, and then overland to Soda Creek. From there, sternwheeler service reached another 410 miles up the Fraser, past Prince George and through Goat Canyon Rapids all the way to Tete Jaune Cache.
At Prince George, a left turn would take travelers up the Nechako and Stuart Rivers as far as Takla Landing. Or, a right turn at Cache Creek would reach the 25 miles to Savona’s Ferry, from where the entire Shuswap Lake system was served by lake and river steamers.
In the 1860’s trade for the Cariboo went by sternwheeler up the lower Fraser to Yale, or up Harrison Lake to Port Douglas. The distance to the Cariboo gold field was about 400 miles from either port, and various companies fought over the advantages and rates to be charged for either route.
The Yale route placed miners at the southern end of a rough pack trail that went all the way to the gold fields, while the Harrison Lake route required a series of portages and sternwheeler legs across Anderson and Seton Lakes before ending up at Lillooet.
Competition was intense, but once the Cariboo Wagon Road was built (joining Yale with Soda Creek in 1863 and eventually, Prince George), the Harrison Lake route was abandoned.
Some of the boats on BC rivers were state-of-the-art for luxury and passenger amenities. Others, though, were of a more “frontier” style – like the Klondike steamers Nora, and her sister ships Flora and Ora, built at Lake Bennett in 1898. These three gold-rush boats offered a ride to the next stop, period. Meals and sleeping arrangements were up to the passengers – kind of like BC Ferries “mid-coast” route. As one wag noted, they did offer running water, as long as you ran to the railing with a pail!
The Skeena was a riverboat pathway too, as steamers replaced the big freighter canoes operated for the Hudson’s Bay Company to serve outposts at Port Simpson and Masset. These canoes were built from huge cedar logs by Haida and T’simsean carvers, capable of carrying two tons of furs, oolichan grease and other goods. Then, in 1866, the steamer Mumford made her way upriver all the way to Kitselas Canyon, about 110 miles from Port Essington (near what would become Prince Rupert), and so began the steamboat business on the Skeena.
Sternwheelers continued to be a big part of BC’s transportation scene right up until the early ‘60s with the CP Inland fleet in the Kootenays, and the federal government’s snag puller Samson V, a well known sight on the lower Fraser until 1980.
Sternwheel technology was finally defeated by the growing network of roads and railways all around the province. Next time you drive across one of the big rivers in BC, look down and imagine a sternwheeler, steam valves hissing, paddle blades flailing, heading for the next gold field.
Mark Twain never made it to this part of the world, but think how he might have described life on BC’s raging rivers compared to the slow and lazy Mississippi - Huckleberry Finn discovers white water!
Paddlewheels on the Frontier, Art Downs, Evergreen Press, 1967
Paddlewheels on the Frontier Vol 2, Art Downs, Evergreen Press, 1971
Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs, Robert D. Turner, Sono Nis Press, 1998
Steamboat Days on the Skeena River, Wiggs O’Neil, Northern Sentinel Press, 1960