Tag Archives: Fraser River

Stuck in the frozen Fraser River

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ecember 1858 was so cold a sternwheeler got stuck in the frozen Fraser River.

Many gold rush miners who hadn’t reached pay dirt were stuck where they were at camps and bars. A Fraser River correspondent to the Daily Alta California had this to say:

Many who have been at work here for months, are destitute of means not only to lay in their winter stores, but even to buy their daily food. I have never seen so many “strapped” men in any part of the world as here…

The frozen steamer Enterprise

The steamer Enterprise was stuck in the frozen Fraser River

When the steamer Enterprise became stuck in the ice near the mouth of the Harrison River most of the 125 passengers decided to abandon ship and travel by foot. The Victoria Gazette reported that at least two passengers froze to death:

“There being no provisions or accommodations on board for so large a company for any length of time, about 100 of the passengers and one or two of the officers deserted the steamer, determined to make their way into Langley on foot through the woods. Without food – in many instances poorly clad – with snow and ice on the ground, these desperate men commenced their sad journey. For three days they wandered through the woods, shivering, foot-sore, and almost starving, in the rain and through the sleet and ice. In the meantime, the weather had moderated a little, and the rain had softened the ice in the river.

The Enterprise got free again, and ran up and down the river blowing her whistle and firing her guns to attract the attention of those on shore. Here and there she picked up a straggler, who had wandered to the river banks, perhaps to die. On the third day, when about five miles from Langley, she came upon the great majority of passengers, who, feeling it impossible to proceed further, had camped on the bank to wait assistance from the town for which they had sent by four of their hardiest men.

After taking up her passengers, the Enterprise continued on to Langley, where she arrived in a couple of hours…

For those people fortunate enough to make it to Victoria with gold dust in their pockets, they could enjoy a nice meal. The Yates Street Chop House in Victoria advertised their “Christmas Bill of Fare”:

Soups: Oyster, Chicken, Gambo, Mutton Broth

Fish: Boiled Halibut, Boiled Flounder, with Oyster Sauce

Boiled: Ham, Tongue, Chicken, Turkey with butter sauce

Entries:
Oyster pies, Lamb Cutlets, with green peas, Selmes of Ducks, Venison Pastry, Fricassed Chickens

Roasts: Beef, Pork, Mutton, Venison, Turkey, Geese, Chickens.

Vegetables of the season. Pastry and Desserts. Pies assorted. Cakes assorted.

Plum Pudding, Blanc Mange, and Jelly.

 

Food history of the Fraser Canyon

Before the Fraser River gold rush, the Nlaka’pamux and neighbouring peoples relied on the rivers and mountains for their well-being and economy.

The deep cliffs of the Fraser Canyon were a perfect place to dry prepared salmon. The major salmon runs were in July and August at a time when the Fraser Canyon was hot and dry and warm winds blow through it continuously. In the daytime, as the sun beat down on the rocks, the wood framed drying racks were protected from direct sunlight by fir boughs. The open shape of the drying rack allowed for the south winds to travel through. At night, as the wind blew north, the drying racks captured the heat emanating from the canyon walls.

Fishing stations were inherited and shared with members of an extended family.  While waiting for the salmon—all five types of salmon were caught—people stayed in two-sided, slant-roofed shelters nearby. These summer shelters were left standing all year round and rarely collapsed as the snow slid off the sloped roof. Salmon were caught with dip-nets, conical bags of hemp fibre, held by rings around a wooden hoop that was secured to a long handle. A fisher would hold the net open by means of a hemp cord, and pull it closed when a fish entered the net. Stationary nets were also used.

Steelhead and Dolly Varden were caught and usually eaten fresh. Larger trout were caught with salmon-harpoons; smaller ones by trout harpoons, small-meshed nets, and hooks sometimes made from tying crab-apple thorns together.

Large and small game were abundant as were vegetables and fruits. In early spring the shoots of thimbleberry and nettles were harvested. Wild potatoes, Saskatoon berries, blueberries, huckleberries, and trailing blackberries could be preserved when harvested in the summer and stored for winter consumption. People carried out controlled burns to increase the quantity and quality of the wild vegetables such as wild carrot, dog-tooth lily root, rice root, nodding onion. Fires were set when people were certain that it would rain in a few days. Cinquefoil and elderberries, currants were found in swampy areas.

The First House of Assembly of Vancouver Island

The first House of Assembly for the British Colony of Vancouver Island met for the first time on August 12, 1856. There were seven elected representatives who had been voted in by slightly more than forty male property holders. The House met in “Bachelors’ Hall” inside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort known as Fort Victoria. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, the first Speaker of the House, described the scene as a room:

“…about twenty feet in length by about a dozen in breadth, lined with upright plank unpainted, unadorned, save perhaps with a few “cedar mats” to cover fissures. On each side were two doors leading to as many dormitories. In the centre stood a large dilapidated rectangular stove its sides made of sheet iron, beautifully and picturesquely bulging. At the end was a wooden table, upon which stood a hundred page ledger, an inkstand, pens, and a small supply of foolscap…Around the Speaker’s table stood half a dozen very ordinary wooden chairs, for the use of the members and at a respectful distance a couple of benches, without backs for the audience.”

At the end of the year the Colony paid the Hudson’s Bay Company (simply known as the ‘Company’) twenty-five dollars for using the room. Their last meeting was held December 7, 1859.

When the House of Assembly first met there was talk of the British Government’s (the Home Government) free trade negotiations with the United States under the Recriprocity Treaty and what that would mean for Vancouver Island. As it was still under the exclusive control of the Company, free trade was considered a good thing.

In the Spring of 1858 as news of the Fraser River gold rush were beginning to spread, discussions turned to the dominant control of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Local Victoria merchants wanted protection from imported goods that were coming north on ships as fast as the flood of miners.  Mr. McKay wanted to introduce a bill which would see imported goods levied by 5 cents but this was countered with 80 signatures on a petition brought forward by Mr. J. D. Pemberton. McKay’s motion was defeated.

Up to this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company had exclusive navigation and trading rights on the Fraser River. James Yates wanted to petition the Home Government in Britain to attach ‘Frazer’s River’ and the surrounding country to ‘Vancouver’s Island’, and remove it from the exclusive control of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Taking a less drastic approach, Mr. Skinner rose to move that a conference with Governor Douglas was needed. Particularly, he wanted to know by whose authority the Company had received exclusive navigation privileges on the Fraser River and by “what right the Hudson’s Bay Co’s. goods only are allowed to be carried up.”

Mr. Yates offered to postpone his motion for a petition to the British Government until after a conference with the Governor was held.

Governor Douglas stalled over the issue, but Yates and several others continued to question his ability to both govern the colony and continue the Company’s exclusive trading rights throughout the mainland.

Derby – the first capital of BC

Derby

Derby

Governor Douglas wanted Derby (now Langley) on the Fraser River to be the first capital of British Columbia. This was the site of the first Hudson’s Bay Fort Langley built in 1827. This decision was made despite going against the recommendations of Colonel Moody of the Royal Engineers. Lots were drawn up and advertised for sale by the time Moody and his regiment of Royal Engineers landed in Victoria. Douglas called for tenders on December 1, 1858, for the erection of a parsonage, church, courthouse and gaol, and these were built by E. L. Fell, under contract. A large barracks was built which housed the Royal Engineers and their families.

As time passed, the town of Queenborough (New Westminster) became more populous compared to Derby and became the capital of the mainland colony.

Explosion of Sternwheeler Fort Yale

During the heady years of the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes, sternwheeler accidents were not uncommon. Between 1860 and 1861 the British Colonist reported that 25 people were killed from steamship explosions and sinkings. The story of the sternwheeler Fort Yale disaster was another reminder how hazardous it could be both as a captain and as a passenger.

Under the direction of Captain Smith Baird Jamieson, the Fort Yale had a regular run on the Fraser River from New Westminster to Fort Yale – a trip which normally took between 8 and 9 hours. On its initial voyage on November 26, 1860, the ship managed to do the trip in just 7 1/2 hours.

On April 14, 1861 tragedy struck.

“Terrible Catastrophe!

The steamer Fort Yale, while passing Union Bar [2 1/2 miles north of Hope] on her upward trip…was blown up by the explosion of her boiler. Fortunately the passengers had just sat down to dinner, thus removing them from the immediate vicinity of the boiler, otherwise the list of casualties would doubtless have been much larger.”

Four people were killed by the blast including Captain Jamieson. Several more people suffered injuries.

“The boat…was now a sinking mass of ruins from stem to stern- scarcely anything remaining in sight above water, but a small portion of her bow and the after part of her saloon, and those gradually disappearing below water…Five or six human beings…were struggling for life.. After the explosion, several canoes manned by Indians were seen coming from Union Bar and vicinity were soon alongside, receiving the wounded and others who wished to go ashore.”

Standing at the Sluice Box

sluicebox from 1850s

"Andy at Sluice box" (Bancroft Library)

Standing at the sluice box
time seemed insignificant
repetitive movements
shoveling gravel into the narrow chasm
water flowing past, pushing light minerals ahead
leaving gold behind riffle blocks
like the narrow Fraser Canyon: a giant sluicebox
an ocean of ice sat on top of the mountains
grinding the rock beneath,
then retreated
exposing the gold stringers
tumbled forward in winter storms and melting summer snow,
prodded down painted cliffs and streams
held back by bars of gravel

men move forward
like ants carrying loads bigger than they are
resolute and determined
never looking down to the chasm below
men walking with scurvy, eating beans and flour
too weak to pull themselves from the frothing water
“drink this,
boil the branches from the spruce tree and
you’ll be better”
strips of salmon drying in the sun
smell the berries in woven baskets

everyone wanted to know how much gold the other had found
swishing and shaking the gold pan
back and forth
men lay on the ground in shallow comfort like salmon
with some life left in them
full of purpose but
people speculate and await
ready to catch the gullible ones
a man named Billy Ballou
said he was making more money delivering
letters from families to their loved ones
wondering if they had hit pay dirt
a dollar per letter

cache
he had never heard that word before
c a shhh! with a finger to one’s lips
hidden for a future use
hidden from sight
up a tree in a place so obvious
but no one was looking

standing by a sluice box
shoulders sore
one more shovel full of dirt
the sun setting
the brim of a hat pushed back
eyes squeezed shut
judging the reflection of light
is it gold?

________

A sluice box could have been called a tray as it was open on both ends to allow for water to travel its length at a constant rate. Riffles acted as barriers to the water flow, creating eddies that allowed heavier minerals such as gold to drift to the bottom. Riffles were spaced evenly along the length of the sluice, usually every few inches, perpendicular to the length of the sluice.

Note regarding the photograph: this photo was taken in California in the 1850s but it would have been the same type of sluice box used here in British Columbia.

To Fort George on the Cariboo Road

Imbert Orchard recorded an interview with Ivor Guest in 1964. Guest had travelled from his home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Fort George, British Columbia in 1910. Here is an excerpt of that story from “Voices of British Columbia” by Robert Budd.

“We went to Ashcroft, bought a team of horses and a wagon, put our belongings in it and started for Fort George.  We weren’t horsemen, I wasn’t. We got along about ten, twelve miles from town. One horse begin to make a funny noise. So I didn’t know what it was, and we gave him a drink of water and the further we went, the more noise he made.

Jerkline transporting freight on the Cariboo Road near Ashcroft, BC, 1909 (credit: Voices of British Columbia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So a fella came along, McMullin, with a jerkline outfit. Jerklines were three teams and a leader. McMullin came along and I said, “Look, what’s the matter with this horse?”

“Oh,” he said, that’s old Yeller, he’s got the heaves.”

“Well, I said, what do you do for that?”

“You can’t do anything for it. Just take it easy and he’ll do alright.”

So we went along with the heave-y horse all the way through to Fort George, but all along the way there were many of these jerkline outfits. All the freight went in with horses then. We didn’t see a car, of course, no trucks, all the time we were on the way.

They had some wonderful big roadhouses on the Cariboo Road: the Hundred Mile, Ninety-Five and Hundred and Fifty, and so on. We tented out but we did stop a time or two and the teamsters they all stopped at these roadhouses and sleep and eat there. The horses were put up and fed.

We got to Quesnel, and at Quesnel they had a ferry and a fellow was running the ferry across the river; he took us over. And we started for Fort George. The road was a very, very poor road. After we crossed the Blackwater River [West Road River], the road was just slashed out through the timber. No road at all. It was pretty hard going and no feed and no place to buy any.

It was a nice spring, nice weather, and there was a little grass, but we’d have to take the horses way down someplace where we could find grass. And we finally got into South Fort George on the Fraser River; the first day of May, 1911.

Well, we had quite a time to feed the horses. I went to get oats, and oats was twelve cents a pound, and I got fifty cents worth in a little sack and gave each of the horses a feed, all there was in that. And of course, I made up my mind right then, we had to get rid of these horses.

The next day a man named Paulette came along and he said, “I’d like to trade a canoe for this horse,” he said pointing to old Yeller.

I said, “sure!”

So he brought over a canoe. “Look, nice new canoe.”

It looked good to me. And he put the canoe up on the beach and a couple of paddles and two traps.  So I said, “the horse, you know where he is.” He got the horse.

I went uptown and met a fella, Ernie Livingstone from back in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  I told him how I traded the horse.

He said, “you traded for canoe?”

I said, “yes, looks good, brand new and nice shape, everything.”

So we went down and looked. He looked at it, and the first thing he said, “I knew it was no good.”

“Well,” I said, “what’s wrong with it?”

“Well,” he said, “see that split in the bow and the split in the stern?” He said, “it’s gonna have two halves, that’ll just break right in two.”

“By golly,” I said, “I’ll fix that up. I’ll put tin on it.”

He said, “you can’t put enough tin on there to hold it. It’s gonna split.”

Sure enough, I put the canoe in the water. It came out and it just broke in two. That was about a week after I traded, it broke right in two, two pieces.

Paulette came back and he said, “that horse died.”

“Well,” I said, “you can have the canoe back.”

He said, “both stung!” and laughed.

(note: I named the horse and omitted a few paragraphs)

Mount Robson: Fraser River Headwaters

In 1865, on their way through the Yellowhead Pass area, adventurers Milton and Cheadle wrote,

“On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak.”

From this peak, a tiny trickle appears.  This is the start of the Fraser River and the beginning of its journey of almost 1400 km, growing ever larger as it collects water from its tributaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Robson was named after Colin Robertson, an official for the Hudson’s Bay Company who sent a group led by Ignace Giasson in command and the blonde multilingual Iroquois, Pierre Bostonais nicknamed Tête Jaune, as their guide.  Tête Jaune means Yellow Head in French and both the pass and the current highway bear his name.

‘Yuh-hai-has-kun’ or ‘The Mountain of the Spiral Road’ was the name given Mount Robson by the Texqakallt First Nation, referring to the layered appearance of the mountain.

Mount Robson from Northeast by Lawren Harris 1929

At 3,954 meters, Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies is quite a sight. At its base lies the brilliant blue Berg Lake, fed by chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier above.  The glacier has shrunk considerably since Lawren Harris made his famous painting.

John M. Sellar, one of the Overland party of gold seekers, bound for the Cariboo, who passed the peak on August 26, 1862 wrote these words in his diary:

“At 4 p.m., we passed Snow or Cloud Cap Mountain which is the highest and finest on the whole Leather Pass. It is 9000 feet above the level of the valley at its base, and the guide told us that out of twenty-nine times that he had passed it he had only seen the top once before.”