Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by daniel on May 16, 2010 - 5 comments

Part Eight: Coastal vessels

In the mid-nineteenth century, anyone wishing to travel to one of the isolated coastal trading posts could do so only by hitching a ride with an HBC vessel or going along on one of the navy’s irregular patrols. The Beaver (pictured above) was the most famous HBC ship, but it was hardly the only one. Once it established its marine department in 1826, the company acquired and built a long line of vessels to ferry furs, supplies and employees up and down the coast.

The Cadboro was a notable example. Built in England and brought to the coast in 1827, this two-masted sailing schooner, only seventeen metres long, was the first vessel used by the HBC to cruise the coast looking for trade. During its thirty-five-year history, it played a key role in establishing and maintaining the coastal posts. In 1827, it ferried men and supplies up the Fraser River to the site of Fort Langley; in 1830, Captain Aemelius Simpson sailed it north to the Nass River to scout out a location for a post; in 1843, its six cannon provided protection for the men who were building Fort Victoria. Despite its small size--smaller than many Aboriginal canoes--and dependence on wind power, the Cadboro remained in service until 1860 when the HBC finally sold it.

If the Cadboro belonged to the first generation of coastal cruisers, the Otter was a leading member of the second. Equipped with twin steam engines, it was the first vessel on the coast driven by a screw propeller. (Earlier steam vessels, such as the Beaver, used paddlewheels.) The Otter arrived at Fort Victoria from England in 1853 and for most of its career it was the principal supply boat serving the northern posts. At thirty-seven metres, it was twice the size of the Cadboro and capable of navigating the narrow channels and winding fjords with relative ease. It was the Otter that towed the heavily-armed naval vessel Trincomalee from Esquimalt to Cowichan Bay to capture the fugitive Cowichan murderer in 1856. It was the Otter that accompanied the Beaver to Fort Langley with a load of dignitaries in November 1858 to witness the official declaration of the mainland colony of British Columbia. And it was the Otter that ferried Alfred Waddington and one hundred of his workers to the head of Bute Inlet in the summer of 1862 to begin work on the ill-fated wagon road across the Chilcotin Plateau.

The Otter was part of the gold-rush era in British Columbia; its cargo was more likely to be precious gold dust from the Cariboo than fur. On one occasion in the 1870s it steamed up to the Stikine River to pick up a nugget from the Dease Lake area that weighed in at forty-six ounces. When the Otter arrived on the coast, the colony was a sleepy outpost of empire under the thumb of a private trading company; in 1886, when it was taken out of service and converted into a coal barge, BC was part of a transcontinental economy poised to become a leading Pacific Rim port of call.

Aside from the HBC fleet and the British naval vessels, there was a smattering of other boat traffic on the coast at mid-century. The experience of George Mercer Dawson illustrates the frustrations associated with maritime travel. Dawson, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, made a series of expeditions to BC during the 1870s. In May 1878 he arrived in Victoria from eastern Canada to embark on a summer cruise to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Dawson had made arrangements to hire Captain Abel Douglas and his schooner for the trip north but Douglas missed the rendezvous when his vessel went aground near Comox. An impatient Dawson had to wait several days while the only other schooner he could find, the Wanderer, captained by John Sabiston, got ready for the voyage. Finally, on May 27, “after two weeks of preparation and vexatious delays”, the party set off. It was slow going. The vessel was completely dependent on wind and tidal current and whatever progress could be made by launching the boat to tow with oars. Four days later found them beating against a head wind up Johnstone Strait. “Little to do but read, eat, & walk the deck wishing we could get along a little faster,” Dawson wrote in his journal.

Making their way slowly past Alert Bay and around the top of Vancouver Island, they crossed Queen Charlotte Sound and entered Fitzhugh Sound, where the tide seemed to drive them backward and the wind failed completely. On June 6, for example, in a calm, they used the boat to tow the Wanderer some distance up the channel, only to have to drift backwards in the evening to the same anchorage they’d used the night before. Twelve days after leaving Victoria the Wanderer arrived at Bella Bella. “We have had a most provoking series of head winds & Calms ever since embarking, & the delay occasioned has been most annoying,” Dawson wrote to his mother. “We have been drifting about in the passages becalmed, carried by the tides now one way now another.” At length, on June 12, the little expedition arrived off Cape St James, the southern tip of the Queen Charlottes, and Dawson could begin his survey. More than two weeks had passed since he had embarked. “This Northern Coast” he observed, “is so much further off in reality when one comes to travel to it by the slow means which exist, than it appears on the Map.”

Next time: The liquor traffic