Looking back at the era of sternwheelers on the Skeena

There are two scratch-built models of sternwheelers in the Museum of Northern BC, one of the Port Simpson, the other the Caledonia.

There are two lovely little scratch-built models of sternwheelers in the Museum of Northern BC, one of the Port Simpson, and the other the Caledonia. They represent an exciting part of Prince Rupert history.

The first exploratory steamboat trips on the Skeena were by the Union and then the Mumford in 1864-1866, but the sternwheeler era really started with the 1891 launch of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s first Caledonia. Robert Cunningham at Port Essington then brought in the Monte Cristo and thus launched a brief but intense period of competition with the HBC.

The Company added the Strathcona, but when Cunningham commissioned the Hazelton the HBC countered with the Mount Royal. The competition grew out of hand. In the race to be the first up the Skeena in the spring of 1904 Captain John Bonser on the Hazelton had a lead start, but Captain S.B. Johnson on the Mount Royal caught up while the Hazelton was wooding-up. They ran neck-and-neck, the Mount Royal gradually taking the lead until Bonser rammed her with the Hazelton. Johnson lost control and the Mount Royal was carried downstream. Johnson abandoned the wheelhouse, grabbed a rifle, and fired after the Hazelton as the Cunningham boat gave a blast of the whistle and waggled her stern. A subsequent inquiry found both captains at fault.

The incident did, however, make both parties come to their senses concerning the rivalry, and the HBC soon came to an arrangement with Cunningham to remove his boats from the river. Bonser, left without a vessel, brought in the tiny and ineffective Pheasant, which was followed by the Northwest.

July 1907 brought one of the most notorious marine disasters in BC history. Johnson was steaming down from Hazelton with the Mount Royal when the wind tossed the vessel against Ringbolt Island and then wedged her across Kitselas Canyon. The passengers were able to step ashore, but Johnson and ten crew went back aboard to save the vessel. In trying to winch the Mount Royal back over Ringbolt Island the king post of the capstan drove through the hull. The Mount Royal buckled, flipped and broke apart. Six died in the wreck. One of the more notable aspects of the story came when future Terrace founder George Little rowed to the inverted hull and chopped through to rescue engineer Ben Maddigan.

The following year brought the second and final surge of steamboat traffic on the Skeena. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway contractors Foley, Welch and Stewart were driving line east from Prince Rupert. They introduced the Distributor, Skeena and Omineca, in 1908. The Omineca was wrecked at Essington before the end of the year, but a second of the same name, as well as the new Operator and Conveyor, were added in 1909.

The last sternwheeler was the Inlander, launched in 1910 by a local consortium, but she ran for just two seasons. In August 1912 the Grand Trunk Pacific was completed as far as head of navigation at Hazelton and the steamers were finished. On September 13, 1912, the Inlander became the last sternwheeler to steam downriver from Hazelton.

Most of the boats were sold or dismantled for use elsewhere. The Hazelton was brought around to Prince Rupert to become the first clubhouse of the Prince Rupert Rowing & Yacht Club, and was eventually bulldozed. The Inlander was left to rot on Cunningham’s ways in Essington until Jack Mussallem spearheaded the removal of her last bones to become a memorial at Hazelton.

Although there are few visible memories of the sternwheeler era here in Prince Rupert, their memory plays a role in telling the Prince Rupert story. Travelers seek out the unique. They want to know what makes one place different than another, what defines its character. In Prince Rupert we are lucky that there are many things that set us apart. Ever since the days of Mark Twain the steamboat has been seen through a filter of romanticism and nostalgia, and for visitors the sternwheelers of the Skeena offer just that.

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