The Coming of Change:

Transportation on the Skeena

by Erin Davies
Erin is a local resident who will graduate from University of Victoria in the Spring of 2000.
She wrote this article while attending Northwest Community College.  She has worked
at the Hertiage Park, the Library, and the Tourist Information Center.  We thank Erin for her story.

Click on Photos for larger view.

The Skeena River has long been a site of wonder and awe for many, with its majestic coast mountains and its rich wildlife. Few would have been able to see the glory of the Skeena, however, had it not been for the development of transportation from functional canoes, to the coming of the railroad. Despite the fact that this is one of the most treacherous rivers, people were willing and ready to conquer it with new and improved transportation methods and reap the bounty of the Skeena.

In spite of the possible riches both monetary and aesthetic, the earliest explorers only touched shores on the fringe of what is now the province of British Columbia. Their main objective was to find the Northwest Passage, but the trade of furs with the Natives changed that mission entirely. Soon the Spanish, the English and the Russians were coming to trade for sea otter pelts to sell to the Orient.

When the Hudson's Bay Company was formed in 1670, they didn't really get into what was then called New Caledonia. The Northwest Company, however, did. They built forts in the northern interior (Fort McLeod in 1805, Fort St. James and Fort Fraser in 1806, Fort George, where Prince George is now, in 1807). Even with these few forts, there wasn't much activity in the area until after the amalgamation of the Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. Even then, though more forts were built on its tributaries, the Skeena itself was left barren (Large 11).

With the trading of furs, the Company needed a way to get them to their main ports of trade. In the early days, it was the sailing ship and the canoe that served this purpose. The first steamship on the coast, the Beaver, was introduced by the Company. Then, the Company moved Fort Nass from its unsuitable location on the Nass River to a site between the Nass and the Skeena: Fort (Port) Simpson in 1834. This new port then became the headquarters for trade in the Pacific Northwest. Notwithstanding the fact that the Company had adequate coastal transport, forts that could not be reached by these ships suffered; since no large amount of supplies or people could be brought in, their growth was not great at all.

The Skeena's time for trade came with the founding of Hazelton in 1880, so named for all of the hazelnut trees in the area. This small settlement was affectionately referred to as "The Forks" because it was situated at the junction of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers. After this settlement was started up, freight traffic on the Skeena developed rapidly. Now that they had Hazelton, the Company had control over the trade of the Queen Charlotte Islands, Southeast Alaska, the Nass Valley and various places at the mouth of the Skeena. The increased amount of traffic also accounted for the development of Port Essington, situated at the mouth of the Skeena.

The simplest form of transport on the river, the canoe, was a smaller version of those used on the ocean. They were built of cottonwood. The Hudson's Bay Company formed canoe brigades. They engaged the help of the Haida who turned out canoes of red cedar that could carry two tons of freight and a crew of five: the helmsman in the stern and four paddlers (O'Neill 6). Since the canoes were not adequate to make the long journeys to other forts in the southern parts of New Caledonia, Port Essington served as the main point of upriver trade and as a go-between, a place to switch from steamship to canoe and vice versa. It is interesting that the Company continued this expensive exchange even though the Skeena, in 1866, proved to be navigable by riverboats up to the canyon. Even so, the distance between Hazelton and the sea is 180 miles and, over this length, the river drops 800 feet. Along this stretch are swift waters, many rapids, canyons and sharp bends, a daunting task indeed for any ship (O'Neill 6).

These canoe brigades would begin a tradition that would last through the riverboat era, the race for time. The crews would often have competitions to see who could make the fastest run. The trip upriver lasted about a week because they had to fight against the current. On the way back to the coast, however, the run took about a day because all they had to do was paddle lightly and the current did the rest (O'Neill 7). This might sound adventurous, but this was not at all a comfortable way to travel. It was slow hazardous and camping along the river bank was often difficult.

The shipments going upriver were always freight and the shipments going back down, though few, were primarily the bundles of furs from the Hudson Bay posts, but there was also some gold brought down from Manson Creek.

After the canoe leg of the journey, pack trains took over. These were trains of horses and/or mules and traders/Company employees who took to the network of pack trails extending outward from Hazelton. The trails were used to pack supplies to the north and east. Since Hazelton was the end of the line for the canoes, and later the riverboats, everything that was left there had to be sent out by pack train (McHarg and Cassidy 2-4).

There were some steamships travelling the Skeena in the late nineteenth century. The first ever on the mighty river was a small ship called the Union in 1864. She had previously worked on the Fraser River and her captain was one Captain Coffin. She was employed by the Collins Overland Telegraph Company to explore the North Pacific rivers to if they would be useful in hauling construction supplies inland. The Telegraph Company was attempting to build a telegraph line connecting North America to Europe via the Bering Straight and Siberia. They were beaten to it when a transatlantic cable was put in place by Cyrus Field in 1866. The Mumford was the second Telegraph steamer on the Skeena. Its mission was the same as that of the Union, to carry telegraph construction supplies inland. She only remained for the year of 1866 (O'Neill 8).

Sometimes supplies for a greater part of New Caledonia were brought in via the Skeena, but problems with the pack trains that worked the portage route made it necessary to recommend that the Fraser River route be used to supply the Northwest and Northeast (Large 107).

After this recommendation had been made in 1889, a Captain George Odin of New Westminster was commissioned by the Hudson's Bay Company to survey the Skeena. The result of his survey and recommendations was the commissioning of the sternwheeler Caledonia, built in 1891. She made the first successful trip to Hazelton in 1891 (Large 108). She was built in 1890 in Victoria and was one hundred feet in length. On her first trip up the river she lost her original captain, Captain Odin. The river proved too much for him to handle. His son took over for him, but only lasted a year before resigning. Following the short lived stay at the helm of the next skipper, Captain J. W. Troupe, was a Captain J.H. Bonser. It was he who recommended that, since she was too short and stubby to handle well, she should be lengthened to better her handling and carrying capacity. She was taken to Victoria, sawed in half and lengthened by thirty feet (O'Neill 9-10).

In 1898, the Klondike gold rush began and people were abuzz that there was going to be a railroad built from head of navigation on the Stikine to Dawson City, also that a lot of gold seekers would be going up the Skeena and overland to the Yukon. The shipyards went crazy building sternwheelers for the Stikine, Skeena and Yukon Rivers.

From this excitement, the Hudson's Bay Company scrapped the original Caledonia, placing her engines in a bigger, better Caledonia and built a new ship, the Strathcona. The Caledonia was put to work on the Skeena while her sister ship went to work on the Stikine.

Another freight magnate, Robert Cunningham of Robert Cunningham & Son was getting out of canoes and into riverboats after the hysteria of the gold rush. He had a big business in Port Essington and a store at Hazelton. He was also the Hudson's Bay Company's only tough rival, taking business away from the famed fur company. As if to compound this, he stole away the Company's veteran Captain Bonser, bought a small sternwheeler called the Monte Cristo and took to the river in 1900 (O'Neill 13). As a result, the Company hired Captain Stuart B. Johnson, an American to skipper the Caledonia.

The Monte Cristo only made a few runs before the Dominion Government hired her and sent her off to the Stikine. She also worked for the people building the Yukon Telegraph Line as a carrier for all of the construction supplies.

In the cold winter months of winter 1900, Cunningham had the Hazelton built. Captain Bonser was immediately transferred to her and was mighty proud; she was perfectly suited for the Skeena. This challenge put the Company's nose out of joint and they retaliated in 1901 with the Mount Royal with Captain Johnson at the helm.

The captains of these two magnificent boats were not the best of friends and so they challenged each other often. To one-up the other, they would steal each other's wood piles or crowd the other in the rapids. "The climax [of this crowding] was reached one day when the two ships were racing neck and neck up the river. Captain Johnson endeavoured to crowd the Hazelton into shallow water, so Bonser turned his ship, and striking the Mount Royal amidships, pushed her right up on the beach (Large 109)." This last effort taken to the Maritime Law Court, but nothing came of it. Eventually, it came to the pettiness of running the river just for racing's sake. This non-profitable squabbling soon brought the rivals to their senses and a deal was made. In 1903, the Company offered Cunningham twenty-five hundred dollars per year for three years to keep the Hazelton on the river and would carry all of the freight for Cunningham's Hazelton store. Cunningham snatched up the offer right away because he and the Company had been running at a loss. Captain Bonser lost his job and went to work on the Fraser River. The only boat on the river now was the Mount Royal (O'Neill 14).

Though riverboats were well-suited to the Skeena with their shallow drafts to pass over the myriad sand bars, the river was still troublesome. Sometimes, conditions on the river such as high waters, prevented the ships from making their runs. The normal run time was seven to ten days and was often difficult in some places such as the Hornet's Nest and the Beaver Dam. The Kitselas Canyon was a particular problem because

" the ships [had to be] aided by the crews' hauling with their capstan on a cable fastened to the shore. Captain Bonser devised an ingenious method of slipping this cable at the upper end of the canyon so that the ship could proceed without delaying to put a man on shore. A looped cable was fastened to the deadhead on shore. The looped end of the ship's cable was passed through this first loop and a block of wood inserted to keep it in place. When the ship had reached the upper end of the canyon, the block of was retrieved by a line attached to it, thus releasing the cable (Large 109)."
Kitselas Canyon 1994
The next steamer to ride the Skeena in 1905, was an ill-fated Company ship by the name of Pheasant. She was brought out by Captain George Magar and his brother-in-law. Their wives, daughters of the Head Chief of Port Simpson, Alfred Dudoward, had no doubt told them of the riches they would acquire by running a boat on the Skeena. The Pheasant ran for the summer of 1905 and in 1906 gained the ever-present Captain Bonser as her skipper. In the fall of that year, she was contracted to blow out rocks at the Beaver Dam and the Hornet's Nest to ease the way of the river. The crew took too long trying to finish the task, however, and the Pheasant was wrecked on the rocks she was meant to destroy, never to sail again (O'Neill 15-16).

There were two other short-lived steamers to travel the Skeena in the early twentieth century, the Casca in 1901/2 and the Craigflower in 1908. The Casca had previously been running the Stikine and was heading down to Victoria. The crew wanted to see how she would fare on the mighty Skeena and took her on a run up to Hazelton. It was an excellent run and she could have stayed on, but it was late in the season and the freight was not plentiful, so the Casca moved on to Victoria. The Craigflower was a tiny ship compared to her predecessors who could reach up to one hundred and forty feet in length. She was built by Roy Troupe, son of Captain Troupe, one time captain of the Caledonia and head of the CPR steamship division. She was an excursion ship that went from Victoria to the Gorge. Her captain was led to believe that he could make a killing on the Skeena and he and his ship all but ran to the north coast and made it as far as the Kitseguecla Rapids before turning back, a little wiser (O'Neill 15).

The only disaster to strike the riverboats of the Skeena was the wreck of the Mount Royal in the Kitselas Canyon in 1907.

In drifting into the middle channel at the head of the canyon a strong gust of wind hit her, and being very light she was like a skimming disk on the water. It blew the bow over against Ring Bolt, a rock island, and the strong current caught the stem and she bridged the narrow canyon. Things looked serious so Capt. Johnson ordered the gangplank to be lowered and all passengers and crew members got safely to ashore on Ring Bolt Island. After a while, she seemed to holding though swaying a lot. The captain decided by running a cable through a snatch block at the stern and up to the capstan on the bow he could pull the stern back up and over against Ring Bolt Island. They just got nicely started and it looked promising when her king post jumped off its footing in the hold and went through her bottom. 
Ringbolts at Kitselas

She buckled in the middle, the strong current came over her guard and she rolled over bottom up and broke in the middle, trapping six people, among them the chief engineer and purser. The irony of the thing was to think they all had been safely ashore and now this had to happen. All were drowned but the chief engineer who got trapped in the hull below the engine room while standing at his post of duty. (O'Neill 18)             

The Hazelton, who was now employed by the Hudson's Bay Company and working on the Stikine, was called upon to temporarily take the Mount Royal's place. The Caledonia was also called upon again for a short while. The Company immediately contracted a shipyard in Victoria to build another sternwheeler to replace the Mount Royal. She was named the Port Simpson and came to the Skeena in 1908. She was the best ship to run the Skeena yet; she was best in model, speed and appointments. She worked alongside the Hazelton and, since she was larger than her partner, she was sometimes left doing the run below the Kitselas Canyon and the Hazelton would take the run above. By the time the Port Simpson was put on the Skeena, there was talk of a railroad coming through the area. The Company built the Port Simpson with this in mind so as to make her the top boat in passenger trade and freight. Both the Hazelton and the Port Simpson continued to travel the Skeena until the completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad. At that time, the Port Simpson was sent to the Stikine for a short while and eventually fell apart in Prince Rupert Harbour. The Prince Rupert Yacht Club bought the Hazelton and she too eventually rotted away (Large 115).

The next innovation of transport to be implemented along the Skeena was the railroad. With the building of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railroad, extensive surveying was done throughout British Columbia to decide on a favourable route and Pacific terminus. One of these surveyors, Mr. Charles Horetzky, came across the mountains and through the Skeena and Nass Valleys to Port Simpson in 1873. Though the CPR would eventually take a southern route, Horetzky claimed that a favourable route was also to be found in the area through which he had travelled.

Several small railroad companies (a small American company, the Pacific, Northern Omineca Railway) tried to establish themselves in the Skeena area without success. These tried to establish ports at both Port Simpson and Kitimat. At Port Simpson, a town site was planned and those gullible few bought the land. The only real attempt at making a town was made by building a shack meant to be a hotel. Then, in 1905, the Grand Trunk Railroad purchased a charter to build a railway between Kitimat and Hazelton.

The Grand Trunk was a railroad in the southern region of Ontario. Its general manager, Charles Hays, was envious of the monopoly of the west by the CPR. His bold idea to solve this problem was to build another transcontinental railroad. He put his idea through to prime minister Laurier and he liked it; it would be a testimony to the farsightedness of the Liberal party.

To start off the Grand Trunk attempted to join with the Canadian Northern railroad, but were unsuccessful. It was decided that, what would now be called the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Co. (GTP), would start construction in two parts, the one starting from Moncton to Winnipeg and the other from Winnipeg to Port Simpson or another port. The western leg of construction went quickly because the land was flat. When it reached a place called Wolf Creek in 1910, construction continued from both ends at the same time. It was time to choose the western terminus. As an ice-free port, Prince Rupert was the optimal choice and, almost overnight, folks from all walks of life made their way to the newest soon-to-be metropolis (Barman 180). The sites along the route all vied for fame it seems, each proclaiming that they were superior to any other site along the line. Some didn't even come close to their colourful advertising; Smithers was built on swamp with the only thing to complement it was the railroad.

To get the supplies for the construction of the railroad along the Skeena, steamships were used for transportation. These included the Distributor, owned by the GTP management, the Contractor, Operator, Conveyor and Omineca, who were owned by a contracting firm by the name of Foley, Welch and Stewart, and the Skeena, owned by the P. Burns Co. who sold meat to the camps along the line. When these transport mediums had served their purpose, they were disposed of. The close of the steamboat era was the year 1912. The last sternwheeler, the Inlander made the last riverboat runs of the twentieth century, delivering freight to upriver stores and hotels. Captain Bonser returned to be he captain and stayed with her 'till the end. In 1912, she was put up on a beach near Port Essington, the last of her kind (Large 115).

I am not certain when the Grand Trunk Pacific was completed (note:  On April 7, 1914, east and west met near Fraser Lake and the last spike was driven.  The first through train reached Prince Rupert on the 8th of that month.), but it eventually went bankrupt after the death of Charles Hays in the sinking of the Titanic.(note:  He was one of 1635 people who died on the Titanic when it hit an iceberg and sank April 14, 1912) The Canadian Northern also found its fate in bankruptcy in 1922. Finally the Dominion Government took them both over and amalgamated them in 1923, creating the Canadian National Railway. As a result, the main pacific terminal was now located at Vancouver and the former GTP line from Jasper to Prince Rupert was rendered a mere branch of the large railroad (Large 147).

Later on, with the era of the automobile, a highway would be constructed along the Skeena, following the railroad route. Both of these are still in use today; the highway more so than the railroad. (Note:  More than 30 years after the railroad had been put through to Prince Rupert a road link was established between Terrace and Prince Rupert.  On September 4, 1944 the "Skeena River Highway" was officially opened.  Terrace was chosen because of the central location for the opening ceremonies.)

The different forms of transportation brought many different people. The canoes and coastal steamships brought with them the first admirers of the wondrous Skeena Valley, the traders. The sternwheeler riverboats brought the first true convoys of settlers and business men and small camps and small settlements. The railroad brought the largest number of settlers and, with them, towns sprang up all along the line overnight. Some towns have disappeared, such as Van Arsdol where Kitselas is now, but the majority of the railroad towns remain, such as Houston, Terrace, Hazelton and Prince Rupert. If not for the railroad, it would have taken much more time for the area to be settled and many of us would not be here today to admire the beauty of the river called Skeena.


Barman, Jean. The West Beyond the West.

Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Large, Richard Gettes. The Skeena River of Destiny.

Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press Ltd., 1957.

Lindstrom, Emma Bateman. From Riverboats to Railroads.

Terrace, BC: Terrace Regional Museum Society, 1992.

McHarg, Sandra, and Maureen Cassidy. Before Roads and Rails: Pack Trails

and Packing in the Upper Skeena Area. Hazelton, BC: Northwest

Community College, 1980.

O'Neill, Wiggs. Steamboat Days on the Skeena River.

British Columbia.

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