The Enterprise docked at Soda Creek in 1863. B.C. Provincial Archives.

The Enterprise docked at Soda Creek in 1863. B.C. Provincial Archives.

Haphazard History: Paddle-wheelers on the Fraser River/Part 1

On Highway 97, just south of MacAlister, there is a pullout overlooking the Fraser River.

On Highway 97, just south of MacAlister, there is a pullout overlooking the Fraser River.

There you can find one of those large green and gold tourist plaques, placed at that spot many years ago by the Province of B.C.

The words on it read as follows:

“Paddle-wheel North”

Down river lay the perilous and unnavigable canyon. Up river the Fraser was swift and strong, but sternwheelers could travel for 400 miles from Soda Creek.

Men and supplies embarked here in the 1860s for the fabulous Cariboo goldfields. Later, as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was forged across the province, nine paddle-wheelers formed a lifeline to the north.”

Actually, between 1863 and 1921, there were 12 paddle-wheel steamers which operated on the upper Fraser River.

They provided a lifeline to the communities along their routes by delivering mail, hauling freight, bringing in new settlers, and supporting the development of roads and railway lines.

They also provided access to the gold-rich areas in the Cariboo, Stikene, and Omineca regions of B.C.’s interior.

Although the towns of Soda Creek, Quesnel, and Fort George were the main ports of call, some routes went all the way up the Fraser to Tete Jaune Cache, up the Nechako to Vanderhoof and Fort Fraser, and up the Stuart to Fort St. James and Takla Landing.

By 1862, Gustavus Wright, the contractor responsible for the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road, had realized that there was considerable potential for a water route north to Quesnel.

Thus, he planned to make Soda Creek a freight terminus, and he put up the funds to build a small sternwheeler, the Enterprise.

She was constructed between Soda Creek and Alexanadria and launched in the spring of 1863. She plied the Fraser between Soda Creek and Quesnel from 1863 until 1871 when she was taken north to Takla Landing for use in the Omineca gold rush.

The voyage north proved to be so rough on the little vessel that she was abandoned after reaching her destination, since it would have been far too expensive to repair her well enough to be put into reliable service in the new area.

In 1868 a new steam-powered sternwheeler, the Victoria, was built in Quesnel, and the following year, she began service on the Soda Creek to Quesnel route. She served on this route for 17 years, until 1886 when she was retired and berthed at Steamboat Landing near Alexandria.

There, she was allowed to decay and within a few years, nothing remained.

For about 10 years, there was no riverboat service from Soda Creek North.

The Cariboo gold rush was over, and the economy was poor. There was little demand for boat service.

Then, in the mid-1890s, a number of prominent businessmen formed a consortium which they named the North B.C. Navigation Company.

In 1896, they constructed the Charlotte which was launched in Quesnel in August of that year. Her captain was Frank Odin, a well-known and well-respected river man.

He piloted her for three years until he died of a heart attack while at the helm.

He was only 35 years old.

His grave can still be seen at the Soda Creek Cemetery.

The Charlotte was the only steamer on the North Fraser River for some 13 years. In July of 1910, she struck an underwater reef in Fort George Canyon and began to sink.

The captain managed to beach her and there was no loss of life. Later, the vessel was salvaged, but the hull was badly waterlogged, and she was towed to Quesnel, where she was abandoned.

In 1909, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railways announced that their trans Canada rail line would be crossing the Fraser River at Fort George, the building boom began once again.

A pioneer merchant in Quesnel, Telesphore Marion, commissioned another sternwheeler to be built there. She was named the City of Quesnel, and it was launched in the spring of that year.

She proved to be very heavy and sat too low in the water, so it was brought out, lengthened, and re-launched in September under the new name of the Quesnel.