Introduction to Campbell River History
As very eloquently stated in the book “Sayward for Kelsey Bay” by Rene Harding and Frances Duncan
“This was a silent land: the cry of an eagle or trumpeting of an elk rarely broke the stillness enveloping jumbled mountains and forested valleys.
Then came the brown people; small groups pushing slowly south, finding pockets of soil close to the sea – places in which to settle.
The sea; their front door and their back door, provider of food in abundance. They stayed close. Forays into the land beyond were fraught with fears – fears of strange spirits which must be appeased for tolerating the brown people’s presence; who allowed them to take the cedars with which to make canoes, clothing, baskets and many other things needful for daily living; trees with which to build their houses, be they lean-toos or communal lodges.
The Indians, too, were silent people, but given to song and speech on special occasions – comings and goings of a social nature; and they loved to dance, to hold feasts during gray days and long nights of winter.
There were times of fear, of flight from raiding tribes; anger and revenge for injustices and slights. So they lived since time unknown, until the coming of the white man.”
When Captain Cook first stepped on land at Nootka off the west coast of Vancouver Island, he discovered a wealth in sea otter pelts, which were much coveted and sold for large sums of money in China. News of this bonanza traveled fast among the seafaring men and soon trading vessels from all corners of the world set sail for the North West Coast of America.
Barter for those precious furs were highly competitive, bringing many fur traders and unsavory characters to the coast, which resulted in an enduring negative effect on the local First Nation’s population; as a strange sickness’ enveloped the entire population, with whole villages perishing, and numbers of inhabitants dwindling to nothing.
The seas bounty; ailing with over harvesting no longer gave abundantly as the white man arrived in ever increasing numbers to harvest what rewards remained after the pillaging of their predecessors. Although a traumatic and devastating experience for the natives; they did survive, abate in much smaller numbers and what population remained in many of the villages, learned to live and compete with the white man, a lesson hard learned.
The Voyage of the HMCS Discovery
When the HMCS Discovery, captained by George Vancouver partnered with the Chatham, laid to at Cape Mudge on the most southerly shores of Quadra Island, their goal was to find a waterway north-west to Alaska through which big ships could pass. At the position of Campbell River, Captain Vancouver realized that they were not following the mainland coast and were indeed circumnavigating a large island and from there he deduced that there must be a way through. Johnstone with his men in the accompanying cutter, found the pass, thus the strait into which he entered now bears his name.
By this time it had been fourteen years since Cook first set foot on Nootka Island on the east coast of Vancouver Island, thus starting the rush for sea otter pelts. Word had spread throughout the native population that the white man had come and with him the knowledge that by trading furs they could procure alien and wonderful trinkets. It is speculated that some of the more entrepreneurial natives of the time traveled to Nootka overland to trade with Cook before Vancouver anchored in the inside passage. Proof of this was examined with the fact that several of the Tribes members in the Sayward Valley region acquired guns and one chief was sporting a hat which could only have been acquired from the British.
Years passed; then arrived the Hudson’s Bay Company, with their multitude of large ships and men, bringing with them the first steam ship; the Beaver, this little craft could nose into tight bays and fjords where it was too dangerous for sailing vessels to enter, with this added advantage soon the Company seized the bulk of the trade with the natives. The availability of sea-otter skins dramatically dwindled, unable to harvest in abundance the fur trade began to be less than profitable and the great Company withdrew it ships.
With the Hudson’s Bay Company’s abandonment of the fur trade, smaller companies began to move in and with those came the peddlers of “fire water”. The deplorable practices of these unscrupulous men affected the First Nations people in a lethal way, having no knowledge or resistance to its affects; the firewater represented a poison for the indigenous peoples. The men trading the alcohol made sure they were far away from the scene after the substance had changed hands. At these times all hell would break loose, often with tragic results and sometimes death. Thus was the background set for the first relationship the white man had with the local First Nation’s inhabitants.
Campbell River is a coastal municipality located on Discovery Passage, on the central east coast of Vancouver Island. Immediately unfolded off the eastern shores confronting Campbell River are the islands of Quadra, Cortes, Read, Sonora, Thurlow and Mitlenatch, each with their own particular mystic, united they are known as the Discovery Islands.
When Captain George Vancouver landed on Quadra Island in 1792, there were six seasonal First Nations Villages constructed on the shoreline, Archibald Menzies, a botanist with Captain Vancouver, identified these Native peoples as Salish speaking. Sometime after the British explorers landed here, the Salish abandoned these villages and retreated south. Possession of the rich salmon fishing grounds and the strategic trading position offered by the narrow Discovery Passage was then taken up by the Laichwiltach people, a tribe from the Kwaguilth nation. These First Nations people established their current villages at Campbell River and Quadra Island, making this zone the southernmost territory of the Kwakwala speaking people.
Shortly after the gold rush began in the 1860's, extensive mapping and charting of the coast was carried out by the British Navy, during that time Captain Richards on the HMS Plumper assigned many of the current place names, Campbell River was named for Captain Richards' staff surgeon Dr Samuel Campbell.
The earliest loggers staked a town site just north of Campbell River, on the strength of a proposed trans-continental rail-line crossing Quadra Island and terminating at Bute Inlet. Duluth, as the town site was called was foreseen as to become a great Centre of commerce. But several successive railway proposals failed to materialize leaving local developments to be slowly fostered on the strength of the massive stands of timber and the determinable wealth of the Pacific salmon runs.
In the late 1860’s logging shows sprang up on the islands of Quadra and Read, where the timber could be easily taken from the shoreline. As logging operations grew, large camps were set up in the vicinity of Menzies Bay, Rock Bay and Campbell River from the 1880's onwards.
In a natural progression the loggers paved the way for settlers who took up homesteads, initially along the deep bays of Quadra Island, gold mines, fish canneries, sawmills and a hotel helped to make Quadra Island a thriving community prior to the turn of the century.
Settlers may have initially passed by Campbell River, but world class sportsmen were quick to discover the massive run of "Tyee" salmon migrating annually up the Campbell. Local First Nation’s people guided these sportsmen in dugout canoes to consistent catches in excess of 40lbs. Many old timers still remember the early days when it "seemed as though you could cross the Discovery Passage on foot atop the teeming salmon."
Campbell River was to remain a quiet fishing and logging community until the long foreseen hydro development of the Elk Falls Pulp Mill finally became a reality when the John Hart Dam came into operation in 1948. Then the company Crown Zellerbach, established Elk Falls Pulp & Paper Mill in 1952 on the site of Michael King's undeveloped town site. In the most recent history, the economic downturn of the world economy has been blamed for the recent closure of the Pulp mill in its entirety.
However industries come and go but the Great Outdoors remains, with such a wild, rich and diverse natural history as to be the envy of the entire world.
Hot dry weather and strong winds in the summer of 1938 brought devastation to the sparsely populated settlement around Campbell River, a bustling community engaged in commerce through the logging and commercial fisheries.
Just north of Campbell River, a fire of unknown origin ignited in a pile of slag timber at the sight of camp 5, a logging community owned by the Bloedel Logging Company, it would come to be known as the Great Bloedel Fire. The flames were quickly spotted and brought under control by several employees of the logging company who reacted with swift action. However; as a result of the long term dry conditions, the prevailing winds and the fact that the fire was not completely distinguished; smaller fires were popping up around and under the slag heap, a term used for a huge garbage pile of wood.
Felled and dried timber are highly flammable, at the best of times great care is required to keep the timber away from anything that may cause a spark and in 1938 fire fighting equipment and procedures were still considered primitive, especially in the light of the fact that these logging camps were deep in the woodlands and only access to resources was limited and minimal at best, coupled with the inaccessibility to the burning timber offered a difficult receipt for the fighting of a fire that was to gain such momentum as to become one of the biggest fires Vancouver Island has ever seen.
Everyone Pitches in to Help
Local Loggers arrived to assist the exhausted men who were beating back the smaller fires with vigor for several days, gaining ground one day only to loose it to another flare up the next. It became evident after the first 4 days that things were getting out of control, all the elements and in particular the wind were against the hardened loggers who were fighting the inferno 24 hours a day and the fire was gaining ground faster than they could beat it down. Soon the blaze was out of control. The company shut down all of their north Island operations and sent men from the entire region to fight the burn that was quickly threatening the village of Campbell River, just a few miles to the south.
With hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest surrounding the area, you could imagine the fear that this threat posed for the entire region. Within a week it was clear that outside resources were going to be needed to help fight the fire that was now encompassing several hundred hectares of land. At this time the Provincial Legislating assembly stepped in to assist and thousands of would be fire fighters were lining up in Victoria to help out at a rate of .25 cents an hour. Hero’s were born of the disaster, such as a local telephone operator Jenny Boffy who stayed at her switchboard for 24 hours at a time when the danger from the blaze was at its height.
Loss on a Grand Scale
A disastrous loss of timber resulted. A prolonged heat wave coupled with high winds kept the flames raging for almost 3 months, exhausted and beaten, many of the exhausted men had given up hope, then in mid August it started to rain, and rain it did in a manner only seen on the west coast. Weeks of torrential downpours saved not only the settlement at Campbell River, but Merville and Courtenay also, the only loss of structure was the Forbes Landing Hotel on the banks of McIvor Lake. The devastation had completely passed Campbell River although it burned a swath of timber some 40 miles long and 4 miles wide, about three miles inland, destroying 75,000 acres of timber, enough to build 200,000 homes. The flames abated preserving a small stand of timber at the sight of Elk Falls and being distinguished at what was christened Miracle Beach.
More than the loss of timber the fire gave new credence to safety in the timberlands and was to benchmark the largest reforestation project in the world. With the attention of the provincial Forestry Departments to forest regeneration, intensifying planting strategies to restock not just burnt out; but logged areas also, with many of these programs still in place today.
Early Sunday morning July 1946, out of nowhere and completely unexpectedly the earth violently trembled for the inhabitants of central east Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands. Within 30 seconds solid ground moved in waves, geysers suddenly exploded into the air, gaping fishers split open up in the middle of roadways and earth and rocks poured down hillsides.
Campbell River was the epicenter of an earthquake that was rated a whopping 7.2 on the Richter scale causing damage and devastation to everything. Seventy-five percent of the chimneys in the area were toppled, some falling right through the roofs of the houses, buildings crumbled and houses were ripped from their foundations by earth pouring down banks even after the shaking ceased. Store shelves were emptied, glass broken, and logs jumped crazily around in the log ponds with sand and water encompassed geysers jumping 20 to 30 feet in the air in the estuary sandbar.
Fresh jam set out to cool on the ironing board spilled all over a brand new couch, “I just thought it was the children jumping around”, recalls one mother but the shaking intensified as the astonished family struggled outside, only to witness, dark water and black loam cascade down the hillside into their house, dislodging it from its foundation. The earthquake opened fishers and caused permanent changes to land contours.
Fisherman in boats experienced a bumping and scraping sensation, the fish stopped biting immediately and normal catches did not recur for the next two weeks, this may have been due to the muddying of the waters that also lasted that long.
In nearby Strathcona Park a large measure of one of the most northerly peaks of Mt Colonel Foster severed and plummeted into the lake below. Hundreds of thousands of tons of rock slid down the south east slope of the mountain splashing into what is now called Landslide Lake. The small Lake first swelled then was emptied of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, spilling over the lower most reaches and plunging down the Elk River Valley in a huge fresh water tidal wave, dragging organic material along with rocks and ice, in essence polishing the granite walls of the valley on its path, until it slowed and deposited large rocks at the bottom of the valley.
Evidence of this occurrence is still visible today; the side of the Colonel Foster is now a smooth polished rock in contrast to the jagged steps of the nearby slopes. For a 10 meter rise around the lake the vegetation is new, a striking contrast to the old growth vegetation surrounding the ring.. As the water and debris made up of tones of rock and trees rose up and spilled over the ridge and cascaded down the valley it polished everything in its path. Today much has grown back but you can follow the path of the water to where it deposited the organic debris and rock. This would have been quite the spectacle to watch from Rambler Peak, the Colonel Fosters neighbour to the south.
The 1946 quake triggered the development of seismic studies on Canada’s west coast, now regarded as an earthquake zone of high potential. The Vancouver Island region is the subject of intense earthquake study and seismic monitoring.
At the turn of the 20th Century, while the clamor was being executed over the salmon fishery at the mouth of the Campbell River, there began a hushed first morning light murmur gaining in volume over the trout fishery on McIvor Lake.
James Forbes was born in Wick, Scotland, a saddler by trade; he lived in Montana and the city of Victoria before coming to the Lower Campbell River Lake area in 1910. Possessing a pioneering spirit, James purchased land from the Cudahy Timber Company who retained holdings in the area. James settled on this insignificant section of land on the shores of Lower Campbell Lake at the outer most reaches of civilization, alongside a trail that was used by local surveyors to access the outer most reaches of an area that would come to be known as Strathcona Park. Over the years these surveyors were joined by miners in search of gold and other precious ore and when it became evident that Strathcona Park was to become a reality these men were joined by potential business men looking to invest in resorts and hotels on the edges of the Strathcona Wilderness.
James began his entrepreneurial relationship with the wilderness by harvesting poles for the Cudahy Timber Company. He tried many different means to keep himself going, all with moderate success. In 1911 he married Elizabeth Sutherland, who proved her pioneering spirit as well as he did. Their life in the wilderness was rough at best with the couple beginning their marriage living on a 10 x 12 foot float house on the lake.
Whenever anyone of these wilderness travelers required a place to lay their head the Forbes family were happy to oblige with an offer of the modest comforts of a woodstove and a clean floor. Soon the couple realized that they were becoming increasingly incapable of accommodating the traffic of men traveling through their modest settlement.Accordingly, and with the assistance of numerous guests and a few friends, they began the construction of a new lodge.
The Lodge was well underway in 1912, built with logs obtained from the International Timber Company. Lumber was brought to the southern shores of Lower Campbell Lake by horse and wagon and from there to the building site by canoe; a slow and arduous progress. Forbes acted as a guide to timber cruisers and surveyors and the old lodge was kept quite busy with those fellows coming and going in the early days.
Help fromthe Sutherland Brothers
The three Sutherland brothers came to the district in 1912 and helped with the building of the new lodge; together they built and operated a group of tourist cabins on Upper Campbell Lake for many years.
The original Forbes Lodge was burned in the forest fire of July 1938 and another was built and opened in the spring of 1939. It was moved to higher ground in 1948 when the level of Lower Campbell Lake was raised about 65 vertical feet by the hydro-electric power dams. In 1972 the Lodge was again sold to a Jack Slade from Haney BC then was again destroyed by fire on September 2, 1974 and yet another historic landmark was lost.
Today the foundations of the old lodge can still be seen, with some of Elizabeth’s original rose bushes still in place. Forbes landing is privately owned and maintains itself as a popular destination for camping, RV-ing, trout fishing and relaxing on the shores of McIvor Lake; surrounded by forest and water on three sides the site has the feeling of an isolated island in the middle of a lake-side oasis.
Originally called Painters Resort, this enterprise was the best known and oldest of local resorts which was built to cater to the growing number of Tyee Fishermen that visited the area at the turn of the 20th century.
The original builders and entrepreneurs Mr. and Mrs. Painter arrived in Campbell River in 1922 from Port Alberni on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, in 1923 when they immediately recognized the need for an establishment to facilitate the fishermen that were venturing to this wilderness area in search of the Tyee fishing. The first encampment they erected was rather primitive, consisting of nothing more than permanent tent structures with wood stoves and outdoor washing facilities. Adjacent to this was a rough cabin structure which eventually became headquarters for the Tyee Club of British Columbia.
As time passed so did the tent structures and the quality of the accommodations improved dramatically, the first additions wash hardwood floored cabins, with outdoor washing facilitates then modern day indoor plumbing and electricity were added.
Today the world renowned Tyee Club has thousands of members world-wide and sports its’ own clubhouse on the Tyee Spit, directly facing the famous Tyee Pool.
The original Painters Lodge Resort, built in the late 1920’s, consisting of cabins, the main lodge accommodation and a dining room, was opened in 1930, however; in subsequent years the undertaking of many additions and renovations with-held the completion of the main lodge until 1940.
In 1948 the Lodge was sold to a syndicate, and operated under their direction until 1968. In the meantime, Miss Joan Painter took over management of the newly built Campbell River Lodge on the banks of the Campbell River which was built in 1945.
Painters Lodge burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1986 at which time the property and ruins of the old lodge were sold to the Oak Bay Marine Group in 1987, the lodge was rebuilt, then reopened again in 1988, with much improved and expanded facilities.
No historical accounting of the Campbell River area would be complete without a report of the events surrounding the elimination of Ripple Rock.
At the doorstep of Campbell River, immediately north is a particularly narrow channel called Seymour Narrows, this channel is a mere 750 meters wide and drains hundreds of millions of gallons of water through a narrow corridor 4 times a day, both north and south as the tide changes, with speeds upwards to 22 knots. Even by today’s standards this channel is considered to be one of the most dangerous sections of water on the entire western seaboard. Supplemental to this fact, is that Seymour Narrows is also considered to be one of the most important and busiest shipping lanes on the inside passage with ships loaded with cargo destined for points as far north as Alaska, and as far south as California.
This constricted channel separates Quadra Island to the east and Vancouver Island to the west, two of the three largest islands off the west coast of British Columbia, to the north is Johnston Straight and to the south is the Discovery Passage. As the tide hastens from this narrow gap the water encounters Race Point, a rocky outpost just south of Menzies Bay and in its effort to reach the broader expanse of Discovery Passage it seethes and boils and creates huge whirlpools and impressive “over falls” that reverse direction with the changing tide.
First Glimpse of Seymour Narrows
Navigation of the pass at other than slack tide was and continues to be extremely dangerous, claiming many lives and countless millions of dollars in shipping costs, culminating in a dark and foreboding history beginning before the rock was blasted into pieces on April 5, 1958. On first encounter a description of the rapids was given by Captain Vancouver in 1792; “The tide, setting to the southward through the confined passage, rushed with such immense impetuosity as to produce the appearance of falls considerably high; though not the least obstruction of either rocks or sands, so far as we had an opportunity of examining it, appeared to exist.”
Captain George Vancouver was thought to be the first to successfully navigate the narrows, however many ships and small craft in the following years have not been so lucky.
The Loss of the USS Saranac
The first white man’s recorded loss of a vessel claimed by this dreaded hazard to coastal navigation occurred in June 1875, when the American Navy Steamer USS Saranac, out of San Francisco, unable to answer her helm in the giant eddies was swept over the main peak, which gutted her hull.
Within minutes, her frightened crew drove the sinking paddle wheeler ashore. When the last longboat left her buckling sides, she slipped to 60 fathoms of water, a total loss. Bound for Alaska, the USS Saranac held a complement of scientists from the Smithsonian Institute in search of curiosities to exhibit at the World Exposition to be held in Philadelphia in 1876, marking the 100th anniversary of the American Independence.
By a miracle of fate, no lives were lost although; the surveyors spent several uncomfortable days in cold rainy weather, without shelter until help arrived from the naval base at Esquimalt, 200 kilometers south in Victoria.
The many Ships that Have been Lost in Seymour Narrows
There has been no complete record of ships losses, however; it is estimated that since 1875, some 15 large ships have been lost or severely damaged and more than 100 smaller vessels, fishing boats, tugs and yachts have been sunk with the accumulated death toll of over 115 passengers.
The CPR Princesses Ena, Maquinna and Mary, the CNR “Princes” George and Rupert, the CCGS William J. Stewart, and most recently the luxury cruise liner the HMCS Sundancer are among the better known ships to have encountered tragedy here.
The cause of all this misfortune; two pinnacles of rock submerged directly beneath the turbulent waters of the channel. One which was only nine feet below the surface of the water at low tide and the other only nineteen feet below the surface. The north peak section was estimated to be 160 feet wide by 360 feet long and the south peak was approximately 150 feet wide by 200 feet long.
The dangers of Ripple Rock were well known to even the earliest mariners. Published by the British Admiralty it was stated in 1886 in the B.C. Pilot “enter at or near slack water and keep the eastern shore aboard in order to avoid Ripple Rock. Vessels steaming at a rate of 12 knots have been unable to make headway and even to be set back, while attempting the Narrows during spring tides.”
Petitions to the Provincial Government for removal began to be filed soon after this first recorded shipwreck, followed by 50 years of debate, study and some considerable objection.
In 1943 a barge was finally anchored with heavy steel cables to huge blocks of concrete sunk on the ocean floor. From this station; holes were to be drilled into the twin peaks, filled with explosives and blown up to eliminate the top of the twin monoliths piece by piece.
Setting the barge up in this manner was met with a serious result, bobbing like a cork in the strong tidal currents the massive steel anchor cables broke continuously. Months latter the effort was abandoned with only 11 holes having been accomplished. Again in 1945 a barge was attached to land by overhead lines and the drilling resumed. A floating platform was incessantly hammered by the formidable currents; nine workmen were drowned when the boat carrying them to the worksite capsized; another abandon attempt.
What ensued was an engineering feat that has stood the test of time; the decision was made to tunnel underneath the rocks and blow them up from within. The project was two and a half years in the preparation, employing hard rock miners for work crews, with the men laboring around the clock, tunneling downwards from Maude Island off the shores of Quadra Island on the eastern shores of Seymour Narrows, then beneath the ocean floor, then up again with one shaft directly in the middle of each pinnacle.
1,400 tones of high grade Nitramex 2h were packed into the tunnels directly under each peak. They were ready for detonation. Residents within three miles of the site were evacuated, bunkers were specially built as observation posts for officials and the media and first-aid stations were placed at the ready.
The blasting of Ripple Rock
After so many years of waiting, when the bar was finally plunged; seven hundred thousand tons of rock and water erupted in a blast that reached a height of over 300 meters. An awe-inspiring spectacle; 25 feet was blown off the tops of the twin pinnacles in the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion ever, a record that stands today. No damage whatever was done to Campbell River a few miles to the south, or for that matter to the immediate surroundings.
Apparently the loss of marine life was also minimal as the blast dissipated and was absorbed by the water so quickly it was only fish in the immediate vicinity that were affected. It was reported by the local Tyee Club that sport fishing in the Campbell River area resumed to its frantic pace just a few short days afterward.
Although the pinnacles are gone, the Narrows at Seymour are still heralded as being one of the most dangerous hazards on the inside passage and every year vessels of all sizes pay respect to the perilous power of sea water that has the capacity to push millions of cubic meters of water a second through this constricted funnel, to create standing waves in an instant and massive whirl pools that are nick named by locals as house swallowers.
The words Willows, Hotel and the name of Campbell River were synonymous for many years, but rarely has such a business endeavor been met with as much tragedy as this historic enterprise. Originally built in 1904 the Willows Hotel was the social Centre of the growing and prospering community of Campbell River.
The original building where the Tidemark Theater now stands served for four years until the second larger more permanent Willows was built in 1908 a few blocks further south. The original then being named the Loggers Annex as the owners made the decision not to mix the rowdy and rough loggers with the more refined cliental of the rich and famous, who frequented the area for the fishing and hunting. In the 1920’s the Annex was converted into suites to provide living quarters for the growing permanent population, this building which was never built to be a permanent structure was used for twenty years before it was necessary to tear it down.
The second Willows Hotel was short lived, it burned to the ground on February 9, 1909 with the loss of one life. Because of the necessity caused by a shortage of accommodation in the area, work was frantically initiated immediately on the third Willows Hotel on the same site; it was completed and opened on July 1st of 1909.
In the years between 1910 and 1920 the hotel enjoyed great popularity both with the loggers, trappers, prospectors, surveyors and fishermen who used Campbell River as their home base in complement to the high profile tourists and sportsmen that arrived for the adventure.
Three Hotels with the same name
In the 54 years of the three phases of the Hotels existence, a number of improvements were made by a variety of succeeding owners and managers in order to keep up with the changing times, including the addition of electrical lighting in 1917, replacing the Moor Light with was a type of gas lamp. A permanent water supply was structured first from a tower built on St Ann’s Road in 1911, later; another was built on a hill above what is now the Municipal Hall, this served until the Village water supply from the John Hart Dam came into operation in 1949. The Willows Hotel was one of the first enterprises in the area to enjoy the convenience of telephone with a switchboard being installed in 1926.
In the early hours of January 19, 1963 yet another tragic fire ignited in the hotel in which four lives were lost. The old wood frame constructed building was completely destroyed in a little more than an hour after the first alarm was sounded. With it went a part of the town, a part of its heart and a part of its history. The hotel was never rebuilt; however today Campbell River sports the Willows Neighbourhood Pub built and operated by the descendants of the Thulin family who originally built the first Willows Hotel.