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The End of the Sternwheeler Era on the Skeena River

Northern Ships and Shipping

Dateline: December 31, 2020.

The Victoria Daily Times of Saturday, August 10, 1912.

Exit the Skeena Sternwheeler - August 10, 1912.

    Gone are the days of the sternwheeler on the Skeena river. Its death-knell has been sounded by the steel horse, now puffing along the north bank of that great artery which runs from the coast two hundred miles into the fertile interior of northern British Columbia.

    This year is the last the Skeena will see of the river steamer, for when the ice has disappeared by next spring the Grand Trunk Pacific will be operating trains through to Hazelton, and all source of revenue for the sternwheeler will be at an end. Owing to the expense of sending a steamboat up the river and the time consumed in making the voyage the sternwheeler will be unable to compete against the iron horse.

    For a great many years the sternwheeler had a monopoly of the Skeena river trade and the settlers in that section of the province are not sorry that its reign is at an end. The day of high passenger and freight rates on the Skeena is over and the settler can now have his supplies shipped in at a reasonable rate.

A fleet of sternwheelers leaving Prince Rupert for the Skeena. This was a familar sight in the spring of each year, but it is now a thing of the past.

    The advent of the G. T. P., then, has cut short the interesting career of the sternwheeler. For about twenty-one years the steamboats have been running up and down the river and have yielded large profits to their owners.

    The Caledonia was the first to operate on the Skeena and at that time there were very few settlers at the river points and consequently the bulk of the business was done with Hazelton. Following the success of the Caledonia several other vessels were built and when the transportation facilities became good there was an influx of settlers to that section. The last four or five years proved the most lucrative, and the owners drew large profits from the business.

    The Hudson's Bay Company has been operating sternwheelers on the river for many years, the Port Simpson being the last to ply there. After being awarded the contract for building the western division of the G. T. P. railway Messrs. Foley, Welch & Stewart operated a fleet of sternwheelers to convey supplies up the river to their railroad camps. Several other boats owned independently also operated on the river, but since the Grand Trunk Pacific commenced the building of the railway from Prince Rupert inland to Hazelton the river steamers, one by one, were withdrawn. Some were brought south to Victoria and the machinery removed from them and the hulls sold "for a song."

Bucking the Hill.

    It took a river steamer about six days to make the passage from Prince Rupert to Hazelton with the water at an ordinary stage. Coming down the river, however, the voyage can be made in less than a day, as the water rushes down to the mouth of the river at a great rate a considerable distance.

    When the current was running rapidly the sternwheelers had a strenuous time working their way up to Hazelton. At times they would get "stuck," being absolutely unable to make any headway. When they were caught in this manner the skipper would let his vessel drift into a back current and then work close to the shore. Several Indians would then leap from the deck of the sternwheeler to the bank with a heavy steel cable, which they would hitch to a tree. The vessel would swing out into the current and with her big wheel astern revolving at full speed and the winch on her forward deck turning over very slowly the ship would fight her way through the fast running waters.

Kitsumkalum, one of the finest districts on the G. T. P. Railway

    Although to stand on the deck of a sternwheeler and watch the way in which she cuts the water one would think he was really in a speedboat; upon glancing at the bank the craft appears to be scarcely moving. In places where the water is not running extra fast the river steamers, when bucking the stream, could make between three and four miles an hour. In other places where the current is exceedingly strong the boat staggered in mid-stream as though her engines had become tired of the wearisome grind. Watching the bank a person could see the craft moving ahead slowly, then as the patch of swift running water was encountered she would come to a standstill. She would then commence to drift backward and the engines would have to be extended to their limit in order to make headway.

    Coming down the river there is no need of lines on the banks or extra steam pressure In the cylinders, as the water carries the boat down at railroad speed. At some places it was necessary for the engines to go astern so that the bad curves in the river might be successfully made.

Stories of the River.

    Many thrilling stories can be told by the masters who have piloted the sternwheelers up and down the Skeena. Every trip made on the river was more or less hazardous as in the swift-running waters the light-draught boats met with many difficulties not only when bucking up stream, but also when being carried down the river at the rate of a speed boat.

    The navigators who piloted them in the years gone by probably required nerve and the ability to think and act quickly. When his craft is being swished about in the rapids he must keep a cool head to prevent his command from being dashed against a rock, which may be but a few feet submerged, or from being piled up on the shores. The channel is not a straight one, but is tortuous, and every turn must be made with exact precision or the ship would be on the banks.

The Steel Horse, which has replaced the Sternwheeler on the Skeena

    The most dangerous and dreaded of all the narrow parts of the Skeena is Kitselas Canyon. Through this the water rushes at a terrific clip, and as it is not much more than the width of a sternwheeler the task of taking a vessel through either way at certain times of the year is very dangerous. There are two passages, one which is wide, but which at low water cannot be navigated, and the other which is very narrow and deep. Cables are used to get through on the up stream voyage while coming down much skill must be displayed by the skipper in navigating the canyon.

    The sternwheelers did a great work in their day, and although the passenger and freight rates seemed exorbitant, when the expense of operating the boats is considered the figures could not be called high. Considering also the number of years the steamers have been operating on the Skeena, and the difficult nature of navigation, the list of casualties is very small, their limited number reflecting on the men who piloted the vessels.

    Probably the most serious occurrence was the loss of the Mount Royal, which struck in Kitselas Canyon and sank carrying seven persons to their death. The accident to the sternwheeler Operator last fall was peculiar, and shows the dangers to which the boats were exposed. While working up the river an overhanging tree fell and struck the boat on her starboard quarter, disabling one of her engines. It cut through the upperworks, and it was a miracle that no one was injured.

The Old Order Changeth.

    The old order changeth, however, and now the sternwheeler must whistle its valedictory and pass from the limelight of the development of northern British Columbia. The latest transportation facilities have now appeared in the Northland and, while the old timer welcomes the steel horse into that country, it is with a sigh that he bids farewell to the homely little craft that has served his needs so long.

View showing the great height of the Skeena River Crossing Bridge. The sternwheeler Port Simpson is passing beneath the bridge.

    With the Grand Trunk Pacific operating passenger and freight trains on regular schedules the great northern country will develop at an amazing pace. Trains are now operating from Prince Rupert to Skeena River Crossing, a distance of about 165 miles. Three trains are dispatched each way over this line every week, and the number of passengers carried is surprising.

    The fine steel cantilever bridge which spans the Skeena has just been opened, and work trains cross it daily. This bridge is one of the finest steel structures of its kind in British Columbia. The rails are exactly 173 feet above the water. Two massive concrete piers resting on the bottom of the Skeena rear themselves out of the madly rushing waters of the river to the height of little over 100 feet. The river steamers pass under the bridge without any difficulty.

Prince Rupert, the werstern terminus of the G. T. P. Railway, showing the wharves and depot.

    The G. T. P. rail follows the north bank of the Skeena to the Crossing, and from there to Hazelton it runs along the southern bank. The track has been laid through some of the most beautiful scenery in British Columbia. Although the track has not been fully ballasted yet, the G. T. P. maintains a 25-mile an hour schedule on the mountain division, which is faster than a number of the other transcontinental railroads make. To Hazelton the distance is 15 miles, and the track has been laid to within a short distance of Sealey, where a steel bridge is being constructed across a big gulch. The rail will be into Hazelton and trains operating over it before the spring of next year, according to the contractors. It is expected the train service will be increased when the road to Hazelton is passed upon by the railway inspectors.

Kitselas Canyon, the most difficult part of the Skeena River to navigate.

    The trains operating on the western end of the longest transcontinental railway on the North American continent, and the longest in the world with the exception of the Siberian railway, are carrying many new settlers into the Kitsumkalum, Hazelton and other districts along the line, and before many years have passed that section of British Columbia will be looked upon as an agricultural district of importance.

The Skeena River Crossing Bridge, one of the finest structures of its kind in the province.

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