The Busy Beaver

HBC steamship Beaver Courtesy of Vancouver History

HBC steamship Beaver Courtesy of Vancouver History

The first steamer into the Pacific, the tiny Spanish sidewheeler Telicia plied the waters between Mexico and Cen­tral America in 1825. He sank when her captain com­mitted suicide when he torched her powder locker.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) gunboat Beaver, 109 tons, 100’9” x 20’ x 11’, was the first steamboat to enter the Northern Pacific and was a part of the HBC’s Pacific Fleet. Constructed by Green, Wigrams, and Green in Blackwall, England, she rounded Cape Horn under sail with her side-paddles shipped. She arrived at HBC’s Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River April 10, 1836. Each of her two side-lever Boulton-Watt engines generated 36 horsepower, giving her a top speed of seven knots. She was not efficient in her operation though, requiring a two-day layover for her First Nation and Kanaka crewmen to cut wood for each day she travelled. Evidence of the strength of her oak, elm, teak and teredo-resistant greenheart hull of came to light during an 1867 refit when a 10-pound rock was found imbedded below her waterline.

George Simpson, Governor in Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had urged the construction and assignment of the Beaver. He predicted the entry of an armed British steamboat in the North Pacific would “afford us incalculable advantages over the Americans…and bring the contest to a close very soon by making us master of the trade.” The Beaver dampened American fur-trading ambitions from Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Nisqually in southern Puget Sound to the Russian Alaska. It was not until 26 years later, with the Oregon Treaty of 1846, that the Americans were able to re-establish a maritime trading presence in the Pacific Northwest.

Beaver had but one recorded confrontation with the region’s First Nations who, for the most part, welcomed her arrival off their coastal villages to trade beaver, mink, and otter pelts for tobacco, Hudson’s Bay blankets, trade rifles, tin ware, cloth and other trading staples. She also dispensed jugs of rum, a practice officially deplored.

In I860 the first steamer built in Puget Sound (Port Gamble), the Julia, challenged the Beaver to the region’s first, but by no means last, steam boat race. The Beaver crossed the Strait of Georgia 35 minutes ahead of the Julia who subsequently steamed south to work Californian waters.

All factors considered, the Beaver proved to have been a wise investment. During her 53 years, she drove American and Russian fur trading com­petition out of the region for 21 years; helped established far-flung trading posts, including Fort Victoria; helped regulate the opening of the area’s gold and coal fields; served as a floating courtroom; surveyed the hazardous inlets of the Inside Passage; and in the words of Canadian maritime historian Derek Pethick, earned her rank as “the most Important ship in the history of Canada’s west coast.”

Sold in 1874 to Henry Saunders, she survived a fire and multiple groundings and was still going strong, towing log booms of up to 800 feet long when ,on July 26.1888, a careless crew piled her on the rocks at Prospect Point in Burrard Inlet near Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge. There she lay derelict for four years until the bow wave of another ill-fated steamer, the Yosemite dislodged her, sending her to her final resting place, 20 fathoms below the surface.

Steamer’s Wake Jim Faber ISBN: 0-9615811-0-7