Prelude to the Riverboat Era
First Nations Peoples
The First Nations Peoples living along the banks of the Skeena River had, for centuries, used the great river as a major travel and trade route. The Haida people built such magnificent cedar canoes that they were much prized and sought after among the various coastal nations and as a result, a major amount of trade was done between these peoples. The usage of canoes for river travel was used for a time even after the arrival of the Europeans, for no one had yet built a boat that could navigate and survive the waters of the Skeena very far upriver.
The Collins Overland Telegraph Company
In late 1864, the Collins Overland Telegraph Company of New York was competing with the company laying the trans-Atlantic Telegraph line to complete a line linking Europe with North America. Collins sent Captain Tom Coffin up to the Northwest regions of BC to see about the logistics of bringing supplies upriver, as opposed to overland, to their workers closer to the interior of BC. Captain Coffin arrived in a steamship called the Union, and failed getting any further than Kitsumkalem River. He returned to Victoria in 1865 and immediately reported to his superiors in New York, that they needed a specially built boat to handle the Skeena and it's unusual hazards and swiftness.
The Telegraph Company, instead of heeding their Captain's first hand experiences on the river, ignored them and had a New York ship architect design a steamship and had the plans sent to Coffin in Victoria to have the boat built. Coffin informed the company that the ship they wanted built would be a waste of money, as there was no way it would be able to make it upriver. It was not only of sufficient design, but wasn't powerful enough to battle the flow of the river. They told him to build it anyway. It was christened the Mumford
In 1866, the Mumford left New Westminster and came up the coast of BC to the mouth of the Skeena river with Captains Coffin and Butler aboard, along with 40 Collins employees. As Tom Coffin Predicted, they didn't make it very far once they attempted the Skeena. They managed to get as far as Kitselas Canyon, but after 3 attempts to get started up the rapids in the canyon, they gave up and headed back downriver to the settlement at Kitsumkalem. From there, they hired First Nations people and their canoes to take them and half of their supplies upriver to the Forks (the site of present-day Hazelton.)
The Collins Overland Telegraph Company brought their supplies upriver to the Forks by canoe until 1868 when the Atlantic cable was completed by steamship. Some of the men who had come upriver during the first ill-fated trek on the Mumford stayed and settled at the Forks. The Hudson's Bay Comapany, that same year, established a trading post there and the community eventually flourished into Hazelton.
The Hudson's Bay Company
The HBC is Canada's oldest corporation, dating back some 300 years. They first dealt in the fur trade along the Great Lakes and in the Arctic. Eventually they moved west, with the trappers, and continued to establish trading posts across the country. In 1868, the Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post at the Forks in the same area that the Collins Overland Telegraph Company men chose to remain. They too hired First Nations peoples and their canoes to haul freight upriver.
This method of moving goods proved to be too costly, in both loss of life and the loss of goods to the river, that in 1889, after 20 years of using it, the HBC hired Captain George Odin to survey the river. He recommended the use of sternwheelers to navigate the Skeena River. Ironically, his suggestion was much the same as the one made by Captain Tom Coffin to the Collins Overland Telegraph Company. Unlike Collins, the Hudson's Bay Company took the advice of the man they hired and had the Caledonia I into service.