The coast of British Columbia has been a maritime highway for millennia.
First Nations have always used our waterways as the most efficient way of traversing the challenging landscape of mountains and fjords that give our province its distinctive beauty.
The Tlingit people of the Alaska panhandle were particularly famous for their far-ranging dugout canoes, which would regularly make the 1,400-kilometre journey to Puget Sound for the sake of trade.
With the coming of European settlers in the 19th century, this coastal highway remained the primary mode of travel, but the boats found in its waters gradually changed.
Steamships, often paddle-wheeled but with two masts to provide the option of sail instead of steam, busily chugged along the straits of Vancouver Island carrying men, equipment and goods. The most famous, and certainly most iconic of these early vessels, was the SS Beaver.
When I was growing up in Victoria the modern, replica Beaver, which sank in Cowichan Bay last year after sitting derelict for some time, could often been seen in the Inner Harbour – an intriguing floating anachronism.
We have a wonderful model of the Beaver in the Maritime Museum of B.C. collection, along with a few objects made from her salvaged material, and visitors often ask me how the original came to be at an outpost as remote as Victoria was in the 1840s.
In 1835, the SS Beaver was built for the Hudson’s Bay Company by Blackwall Yard, a well-known shipbuilder on the London banks of the Thames. Blackwall Yard had only built their first steamship in 1821, but when it closed its doors in 1987 it had been repairing and building ships for more than 350 years.
The Beaver was a brigantine, equipped with two masts for sail as well as steam-propelled paddle wheels. She was even designed to use saltwater in her boilers, though this worked a lot better in theory than in practice, as the salinity corroded the boiler walls. She required a new boiler about every seven years over the course of her lifetime.
Measuring 31 metres in length and 10 metres at her widest point over her paddle boxes, the Beaver was of a middling size and designed to be versatile enough to travel open and sheltered waters, while transporting all manner of cargo and passengers.
She was sailed, not steamed, on a six-month voyage across the Atlantic and around the Horn before she finally arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1836. There her engines and boilers were finally connected, and her paddles were shipped.
Now Vancouver, Washington, at the mouth of the Columbia River, Fort Vancouver was the main Hudson’s Bay trading post in the Pacific Northwest.
She was based there, along with James Douglas and his men, until it became clear that the area would fall into American hands when the Oregon Treaty was finalized (as it was in 1846) and the 49th parallel was established as the border.
So, in 1843, Fort Victoria was established instead as the main Hudson’s Bay post on the west coast, and the Beaver did her duty as a fur trading vessel as far north as Alaska, and as far south as California, but always returned to Victoria as her home port.
During this period she was captained by William McNeill, who owned a large piece of land in what is now Oak Bay. McNeill Avenue is named after him and his home stood near Victoria Avenue and Beach Drive.
He was known to sound the steam horn as he passed by Gonzales and McNeill Bays. Thus prompted, his son would rig up the horse and buggy to go meet him in Victoria’s harbour and provide a lift home.
The Beaver was a familiar presence in coastal communities far and wide, but when the Fraser River Gold Rush arrived in 1858, she was repurposed as a passenger vessel, ferrying miners to the mainland, then known as New Caledonia.
She spent the 1860s and early 1870s as a surveying ship and was finally sold in 1874 to the B.C. Towing and Transportation Co., and worked as a towboat until she came to a rather inglorious end in 1888.
Rumor has it that her crew was drunk the day they ran the Beaver aground at Prospect Point, in what is now Stanley Park. This historic vessel sat rotting on the rocks for four years, a novelty for visitors to Stanley Park, and a sitting duck for salvagers who came and stripped her of her vital pieces as souvenirs.
In 1892 she finally sank beneath the waves. Further salvaging of the wreck was done in the 1960s, including raising a boiler and parts of her paddle wheels. Some of these are on display in the Vancouver Maritime Museum today, and other were made into novelty objects, like the cigarette boxes and canes that we have at MMBC.
The wreck has dramatically disintegrated since then, but her rotting skeleton still lies in Burrard Inlet, the submerged ghost of the most iconic ship in B.C. history.
Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Questions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.