A sternwheeler captain was an important figure in the gold rush. Sternwheelers plied the rivers and lakes throughout BC for nearly a century from the early 1850s.
Sternwheelers were popular because they had a flat bottom which made the craft buoyant and their wooden construction made them easy to repair. During the gold rush, passenger accommodation was the bare minimum. Passengers were sometimes asked to help load wood for the boiler, fight a fire on board, or use their blankets to plug a hole in the hull.
Collisions and explosions weren’t uncommon and many sternwheelers were also holed by dead trees floating in the rivers or became lodged on bars.
Competition amongst sternwheeler companies was fierce and despite the dangers of navigation, captains often raced their sternwheelers against their rivals.
Captain William Moore first came to BC in 1852 when he piloted a sternwheeler to the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) at the time of the gold rush there. He survived several bankruptcies to become one of the longest entrepreneurs in the business. In 1859 he had a sternwheeler built, Henrietta, which was one of the first to arrive at Yale. Later, he built the Alexandra which was intended to be the largest on the coast. It wasn’t profitable, however, and Moore lost the boat to creditors.
He got a government contract to build a pack trail from the Stikine River to the gold bearing creeks and charged two cents a pound toll. Flush with money, he returned to Victoria and ordered a new sternwheeler, Gertrude, to be built which he ran on the Stikine River. He tried several times to return to the Fraser River with other sternwheelers, but each time he lost business to the competition.
Several times, Moore was accused of carrying excessive steam. On one of his sternwheelers, the Western Slope, the steam guage was registered 40 pounds low. In addition, one safety valve was wedged shut and couldn’t release without first blowing out the floor of the cabin above. The second valve hadn’t blown even with 40 percent more pressure added over the limit. Moore and his chief engineer were each fined $200.