TRIBUTE TO A RIVER
Above all else, life in our valley was shaped by the Columbia River. Provider of a dependable food supply, highway for early exploration, facilitator for transport on the one hand and barrier to it on the other, source of clean water for agriculture and industry, fountainhead of cheap energy, threatening giant : - the river has influenced human activities along its shores from the first tentative explorations of the native people thousands of years ago to our attempts to harness its awesome powers today. It is inspiring to walk along its banks and think of all the activities which transpired here as the millennia passed. The solitude was first broken by the light tread of humanity which left very little impression on the land. Explorers opened the way for the first attempts in massive extraction of wealth from the land through the fur trade. Mineral riches were discovered and the land was silent no more: the throb of the steam engine competed with the squeal of the iron rail. Permanent impressions were left on the landscape. In the blink of an eye, our valley filled with humanity and industrial development started to shape the direction of our growth.
It is intriguing to consider this parade of human traffic along this majestic and strategic waterway. There are so many echoes tumbling amongst the waves. We can also contemplate the endless flow of the water and liken it to the flow of life: - that flow within each one of us, to some distant sea, with unknown rapids out of sight around the next bend to test our vitality.
Living along the shores of this great river, I often think of the ghosts which can be conjured up from the jade-green waves. Well known passers-by like Thompson, Cox, Simpson, deSmet, Edison, and Kane mingle with ghosts of voyageurs and miners unknown. Two ghosts which hold a particular fascination for me are those of two travelers on the river, who - like all of us - journeyed to meet their destiny, passing by our windows to a very tragic journey's end. The first was David Douglas who passed by on his monumental botanical journey of discovery. Depriving himself of normal comforts, pushing himself beyond endurance, Douglas almost seemed to be at war with himself. Thus it is not surprising when we discover the end of his journey in a pit trap in Hawaii, into which he had blindly stumbled, to be mangled beyond recognition by a raging bull that had been caught earlier. The second traveler passed by some 60 years later. Unlike Douglas, he was very attached to the material comforts of life and traveled with all the luxury money could buy. Sailing on the steamer "Columbia" in 1893, Franz Ferdinand was on a world journey. Heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, he could only see a promising future ahead. And yet he was headed for turbulent waters which sank the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and plunged the world into the Great War. His journey ended on June 28, 1914, to an assassin's bullet in a city which tolled the bells of history twice: near the beginning of and near the end of the last century - Sarajevo.
We are fortunate to be located at the junction of two important rivers. The confluence of such major rivers could not be ignored by travelers of these historic highways and thus the Castlegar locality became a reference point in almost every journal. It is interesting and rewarding to compare the first-hand impressions left behind by those early visitors. In the following pages, I have allowed as much as possible for the travelers to relate their perceptions in their own words. I have skipped over subject matter which is covered in "Whispers in the Wind", an original article for Waldie Island Trail, which the reader may wish to peruse as an overview of the fur trade period.
David Thompson was not the first white man to pass by our doorstep. He was preceded by Finan McDonald who had ventured with a small crew upriver from Kettle Falls on a reconnaissance trip while Thompson was returning from the Pacific. He got as far as the main river above Upper Arrow Lake before turning back to meet with the returning party. So when Thompson made his first pass through our area in early September 1811, he had some knowledge of what lay ahead. Thompson is treated in another article of this series "Star-Gazer".
In the summer of 1812 Thompson passed by the site of Castlegar for the third and last time; he was leaving the Columbia District and in so doing, closing perhaps the most important chapter of his adventurous life. There is no doubt that he had felt a great attraction to this splendid isolation; but the responsibility he felt to his ever-growing family tugged heavily at him. By the time he arrived in Montreal, war had broken out between Great Britain and the United States. Astor's isolated post at the mouth of the Columbia was vulnerable and the resident partners prudently sold out to the North West Company before the first British frigate arrived. Some of the men were content with the change; many others, however, decided to leave. So after 1813 there was an exodus of ex-employees who were seeking the easiest route back across a still largely unknown continent. Some kept a journal of their travels.
Gabriel Franchere was one of these men. He had most likely met Thompson in July of 1811 and he would have known about the route Thompson had pioneered that very year. He left Astoria on April 4, 1814 and a month later, he records his impressions of the local area:
"On the morning of the 5th of May we passed the mouth of the river of the Coutonois. This river also flows from the south and is more or less the same width as that of the Flatheads. Soon we entered a lake and made camp at the upper end. This lake might be 15 leagues long and a league and a half wide at its greatest width and is surrounded by high hills rising from the water's edge in a natural amphitheatre which makes a fine sight."
Ross Cox was one member of Astor's company who decided to stay with the new North West Company. In 1817, he was headed eastward along Thompson's route and on May 16th he arrived to the Castlegar area where he would spend the night.
" Encamped late, near M'Gillivray's River, a fine bold stream, which takes its rise in the Rocky Mountains, and running in nearly a north-east direction, through the Cootonais lands, here joins the Columbia. A refreshing breeze from the north sprung up in the evening. . . . About an hour before we encamped we observed a large black bear in the act of swimming across the river, which Mr. M'Gillivray wounded. The enraged animal instantly changed its course downwards, and came in contact with our canoe, into which it attempted to get, by seizing the gunwale with its fore-paws. This nearly upset us; but the foreman aimed a well-directed blow at his head with his pole, which completely stunned it, and we succeeded in hauling it on board. It was in rather good condition, and proved a welcome and unexpected treat."
The party continued upriver, reaching Boat Encampment on May 27. Here a decision was made to send seven ailing men, of which only two were well enough to work, back to Spokane House. As they parted, the returning men appeared dejected, fearing they would never see Canada again. Cox relates their melancholy fate in a postscript. When they arrived at the rapids which were to be named later Les Dalles des Morts (Rapids of the Dead) in memory of the first disaster at this site, the weakened men attempted to line their canoe, which was filled with all the gear and provisions, through the rough water. The line broke and in an instant the unfortunate men were stranded without provisions and means of transport. Dejected, they started the long walk south.
"They were compelled to force their way through an almost impervious forest, the ground of which was covered with a strong growth of prickly underwood. . . . On the third day poor Macon died, and his surviving comrades, though unconscious how soon they might be called on to follow him, determined to keep off that fatal moment as long as possible. They therefore divided his remains in equal parts between them, on which they subsisted for some days. . . . Holmes, the tailor, shortly followed Macon, and they continued for some time longer to sustain life on his emaciated body. It would be a painful repetition to detail the individual death of each man. Suffice it to say that in a little time, of the seven men, two only, named La Pierre and Dubois, remained alive. La Pierre was subsequently found on the borders of the upper lake of the Columbia by two Indians. . . . [At Spokane House] he stated that, after the death of the fifth man of the party, Dubois and he continued for some days at the spot where he had ended his sufferings, and on quitting it they loaded themselves with as much of his flesh as they could carry; that with this they succeeded in reaching the upper lake, round the shores of which they wandered for some time in vain search of Indians; that their horrid food at length became exhausted, and they were again reduced to the prospect of starvation; that on the second night after their last meal, he observed something suspicious in the conduct of Dubois, which induced him to be on his guard; and that shortly after they had lain down for the night, and while he feigned sleep, he observed Dubois cautiously opening his clasp knife, with which he sprung on him, and inflicted on his hand the blow that was evidently intended for his neck. A silent and desperate conflict followed, in which, after severe struggling, La Pierre succeeded in wresting the knife from his antagonist, and having no other resource left, he was obliged in self-defence to cut Dubois's throat; and that afterward he was discovered by the Indians as before mentioned. . . . some other natives subsequently found the remains of two of the party near those of Dubois, mangled in such a manner as to induce them to think that they had been murdered; and as La Pierre's story was by no means consistent in many of its details, the proprietors judged it advisable to transmit him to Canada for trial. Only one Indian attended; but as the testimony against him was merely circumstantial, . . . he was acquitted."
In 1821 the North West Company was swallowed up by the Hudson's Bay Company. George Simpson was appointed Governor of the greatly expanded territory and in 1824 he set out, with a critical eye, on the first of several inspection trips through his domain. He traveled with an elite crew of Iroquois paddlers which set records that the regular brigades found impossible to match. As the flotilla of canoes approached human settlements, flags were unfurled, guns were fired, and his personal piper shattered the usual pervasive silence with the wailing notes of his bag-pipe. Simpson flew by the mouth of the Kootenay River on October 25th and stopped here for a hasty breakfast on his return journey on April 16th 1825.
Following right behind him was Alexander Ross, another converted Astorian, who was leaving the Columbia Department after over fifteen years of service. He was a bit more observant of the local landscape:
"At the end of that distance, as we rounded a low point of woods, on the east side of the river, we came to the Kootanais, commonly called the M'Gillivray River . . . . The entrance of this river is rendered remarkable by having, on the south side, one of those delightful spots which man, in these wilds, is prone to admire; and on the left, the remains of a deserted Indian camp. It is rendered still more remarkable by a dike of round stones, which runs up obliquely against the main stream, on the west side, for more than one hundred yards in length, resembling the foundation of a wall; it is nearly as high as the surface of the water, and is clearly seen at low water. On the opposite or east side is a similar range, of less extent. These are evidently the work of man, and not destitute of ingenuity; we supposed them to be a contrivance for the purpose of catching fish at low water . . . . On passing this barrier, the river makes a quick and lengthy bend to the west, and opens to more than its ordinary breadth, for a distance of ten miles. At the elbow of this bend, on the north side, is a lofty mountain, opposite to which are a large and a small island, delightfully situated. The banks are low, diversified with clumps of young poplars, birch, and alder, which give to the surrounding scenery a pleasing appearance. . . . At a point of the west side [of Lower Arrow Lake] a number of figures of men and animals have been rudely portrayed on the naked rocks with red ochre; and into a large cavity, at a considerable height above high-water mark, a number of arrows have been shot, which remain as a menace left by some distant tribe who had passed there on a warlike expedition."
The trans-continental highway Thompson had pioneered was followed by the Express brigades twice a year for nearly half a century. The journey from Fort Vancouver to York factory took roughly 150 days. Typically, the spring Express left Fort Vancouver around the first day of spring and reached the Columbia-Kootenay confluence in mid-April. The west-bound Express departed in mid-summer, and passed through our area by mid-October, although this date was quite variable as it was affected by the impediments of the already-long leg of the return journey. Almost always, the Express crew was augmented by Company men and their dependents, either coming or going; or as was often the case, paying passengers, or guests of the Company. Thus we see men which became famous passing by our doorstep.
Accompanying the east-bound brigade in the spring of 1827 was David Douglas who was returning to England with his precious collection which included a live eagle. He was to return to the Columbia District twice and on his last visit he was part way through his planned return trip via Siberia when he died tragically in Hawaii. (See "Whispers in the Wind")
Father Jean de Smet made his westward journey in the spring of 1846 when he was able to accompany the crew from Jasper House who went out to meet and assist the struggling eastbound brigade through Athabasca Pass. He had prepared for the arduous journey by fasting for thirty days to rid himself of his 'heavy mould'. After toiling through the pass on snowshoes, he wrote of his frustration with the journey over mushy snow and freezing creeks in a letter to his superior, while he was waiting for the boats which had delivered the brigade upstream to Boat Encampment, to turn back. The letter is dated May 10th.
"I continually found myself embarrassed by my snowshoes, or entangled in some branch of a tree. When falling, I spread my arms before me, as one naturally would do, to break the violence of the fall; and upon deep snow the danger is not great,- though I was often half buried, when I required the assistance of my companions, which was always tendered with great kindness and good humor. We made thirty miles the first day, and then made preparations to encamp. Some pine trees were cut down and stripped of their branches, and these being laid on the snow, furnished us with a bed, whilst a fire was lighted on a floor of green logs. To sleep thus- under the beautiful canopy of the starry heavens- in the midst of lofty and steep mountains- among sweet murmuring rills and roaring torrents- may appear strange to you, and to all lovers of rooms, rendered comfortable by stoves and feathers; but you may think differently after having come and breathed the pure air of the mountains, where in return, coughs and colds are unknown. . . . At the foot of the mountain an obstacle of a new kind presented itself. [The Great Portage River] meanders so remarkably in this straight valley, down which we travelled for a day and a half, that we were compelled to cross the said river not less than forty times, with the water frequently up to our shoulders. So great is its impetuosity, that we were obliged mutually to support ourselves, to prevent being carried away by the current. We marched in our wet clothes during the rest of our sad route. The long soaking, joined to my great fatigue, swelled my limbs. All the nails of my feet came off, and the blood stained my moccasins or Indian shoes. Four times I found my strength gone, and should certainly have perished in that frightful region, if the courage and strength of my companions had not roused and aided me in my distress. . . . We saw May-poles all along the old encampments of the Portage. . . . A young Canadian, with much kindness, dedicated one to me, which was at least one hundred and twenty feet in height, and which reared its lofty head above all neighboring trees. Did I deserve it ? He stripped it of all its branches, only leaving at the top a little crown: at the bottom my name and the date of transit were written."
Father de Smet embarked and after an uneventful journey downstream, stopped at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers to stake out a site for a church.
The rigours of the westbound trip in the autumn when early snows threatened to close the high mountain passes are documented by the wandering artist Paul Kane. He was traveling by invitation from Governor Simpson to document a way of life that was disappearing even as he was attempting to preserve it for posterity. The party was delayed by snow and almost perished, as the boat crew which had been waiting for them at Boat Encampment for over a month was just packing to leave when an advance messenger caught them. Kane was fascinated by the Death Rapids tragedy and commented on it in his own unique prose. The story was obviously changing with the passage of time.
"Past the dall de more an rapped of deth thare was 2 men cilled and eatein here from starvation thare cenew haveing ben lost and thare parvishions run out one cilled 2 of his companions and the forth one ascaped."
Kane does not seem to be aware that the same rapids had claimed a much higher toll when 12 members of the Blanchet party perished there in 1838. (See "Tragedy at Death Rapids") He tallied up the total loss of life to the treacherous waters of the Columbia River as 68; as this figure does not seem to include the Blanchet tragedy, it is obviously low.
Unfortunately, Kane did no sketches of the local area when he passed by on November 19th 1846 and again on September 25th of the following year. (For more on Kane, see "Whispers in the Wind")
With all this traffic on the Columbia, the Kootenay River remained relatively unexplored. There were tentative efforts at exploring the country out of Fort Colvile such as the journey along the river in 1826 by William Kitson. In 1854 Archibald McDonald was retiring as Chief Factor at Fort Colvile and was headed upriver on his way out to civilization. As the river was flooding, he decided to bide his time at the Castlegar locality until the flow subsided somewhat. To make use of the time, he ventured up the Kootenay to visit the galena deposit at what was to become thirty years later the Bluebell claim. The side trip involved much portaging and took him four days. But, although the Kootenay River had seen regular visitation by natives for thousands of years, it remained largely untraveled by white men. Even the natives avoided the lower canyon, preferring the much easier route via Pass Creek and Slocan River.
The 1860's saw a transition in traffic on the Columbia River. The glamorous fur trade period was essentially over and the regular Express runs had ceased. Gradually boatloads of venturesome miners could be seen more frequently, working their way along the river as they prospected for potential riches in the ground. The natives, who had accepted the fur traders, as that enterprise had included them in its operation, started to oppose the miners who simply moved in and offered no concessions to the aboriginals who had claimed the land as their territory for ages past. Trouble was precipitated when a skirmish between miners and natives led to the killing of Albert Fry near Marcus, Washington. This in turn lead to a confrontation at the Pend d'Oreille, in Canadian territory. These events alarmed George W. Cox who had recently been appointed Gold Commissioner at Rock Creek, and he journeyed to the site of the troubles to defuse the volatile situation. On October 7th, 1861 he met with an assembled group of 27 miners and several natives near the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, and addressed each group separately. He told the Indians to be tolerant of the newcomers and "do not judge of the many by the few; there are bad characters in all communities, even among yourselves. If wronged or assaulted you will have the same protection as myself." Then he addressed the miners, telling them to be careful in their dealings with the natives, as the Government was in no position to immediately intervene in case of trouble. "You know how all Indian troubles originate - with the white man . . . Should the white man be the cause of any bad feeling between you and the Indians, arrest him and in the absence of Law deal with him as you think proper for the safety of all. If you engage an Indian to work or pilot you about, pay him properly, the Indians will receive in this Colony the same redress for wrongs as the white man . . . ." The next day, in response to a request from Francois of the Lakes nation for a land reserve on their traditional ground at the confluence of the two rivers, Cox placed a notice on the property to the north of the mouth of the Kootenay and the adjacent banks of the Columbia, claiming the posted ground as a native reserve and warning all persons not to camp or trespass on the land.
The discovery of placer gold on several tributary streams of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers led to a rush of newcomers to the promising sites, starting in 1856 when the lower Pend d'Oreille River attracted attention to the north of the border. Miners worked their way further upriver, eventually setting off the Big Bend gold rush of 1865. In December of that year, the relative solitude of the valley was shattered by the first steam engine as Captain Leonard White piloted the brand-new steamer "Forty-Nine" up the river to the Big Bend goldfields. He was stopped by ice in the Narrows, but next year he managed to make it all the way to the foot of Death Rapids. Toward the close of the decade, the gold rush had subsided and the pioneer steamer was taken out of service until she was revived to haul supplies for Walter Moberly's survey parties in 1871. Some local creeks also proved promising, the most productive being Forty-nine Creek (named after the venerable steamer) which sustained considerable activity from 1867 to 1869. The 1870's, however, was by comparison a quiet decade.
All this changed dramatically when the Hall brothers discovered the Silver King deposit on Toad Mountain late in 1886. Suddenly the Kootenay became a convenient pathway to the rich deposit and promising other prospects. In 1888 scheduled river service commenced from the recently-completed transcontinental railway at Revelstoke. (See "Steamships on the Columbia") The next one and a half decades saw a pace of exploration and development which has not been seen in this valley and which is likely never to be matched in the future. Within that short period a booming steamer service was established on the Columbia and Kootenay waterways, the first link of the southern trans-provincial railway was built, the Canadian railway barons locked horns with the American ones, and the existing steamship and railway routes became trump cards for the C.P.R. (See "A Railway From Nowhere to Nowhere") By 1898, C.P.R. held the upper hand: they had completed lines through the Crowsnest, up the Slocan and down the Columbia to Arrowhead. Boldly, they pushed into the Boundary country by extending the recently-acquired Columbia and Western Railway to Midway. And fleets of state-of-the-art steamers were plying both waterways, moving passengers as well as ore concentrates and coal. Sproat's Landing came and went (See "Sproat's Landing"), Robson shone in its own spotlight for a decade, and Castlegar was born. Water spilling over the falls of the Kootenay River was harnessed and records were broken with the first transmission of high voltage (20,000 volt) alternating current over a distance of 32 miles to Rossland.
The role of the waterways changed. Once the primary highways across the landscape, they came to be seen more and more as barriers to land-based forms of transportation. In 1889 Albert McCleary started the first ferry service across the Columbia River on what was then the Colvile trail. In 1902 the railway bridge was completed. McCleary's ferry was replaced by a ferry further downstream operated by the Doukhobor community near the abandoned town-site of Waterloo. In 1917 the Castlegar-Robson ferry started operating, commencing a tradition of service it was to provide for over seventy years. A suspension bridge across the Kootenay River at Brilliant was built by the Doukhobor community in 1913 and served highway traffic until the new bridge replaced it in the 1960's.
Local industry surged ahead with the relocation of the Edgewood Lumber Company mill to the abandoned Sproat's Landing site in 1909. For half a century, the Waldie Sawmill employed a good portion of the local population and saw the growing community through good and bad times. (See "Growth of Local Industry") In 1952 the tired old mill was bought out by the Canadian Cellanese Corporation and with the construction of a new sawmill and pulp mill the tradition of a resource-based economy made possible by the river continued.
Both rivers now are greatly changed. West Kootenay Power and Light Company boldly forged ahead with complete development of the lower Kootenay River for power production. The signing of the Columbia River Treaty in 1964 made possible the intensive hydroelectric development which harnessed the Columbia's vast potential and tamed its unpredictable waters. These developments produced far-ranging changes, not all foreseen at the time the projects were launched. We still are fortunate enough to live along one of the last stretches of a free-running Columbia which easily conjures up visions of a time when it was all like that.
The echoes are louder now. Photographers have captured the developments of the last century and we can now see how things were, at times with perfect clarity. We live in a highly complex and competitive age which is driven by technological advance. Satellites allow us to communicate instantly with any place in the world, and enable us to calculate our position on the globe within a few metres. What would Thompson have thought? Would he have been saddened by the knowledge that all his meticulous and hard-won data is now so easily achievable? And yet, in spite of all the power we have won to manipulate the environment we are slowly reconciling to the thought that perhaps we are presumptuous in thinking we can improve on nature: that short-term gain has a long-term cost. And so, as we sit in the comforts of our super-efficient homes, we tend to cast reflective glances at simpler times and wonder at the resourcefulness and sheer determination of the men who were confronted by the relatively unaltered world and rose up to meet the challenge.
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