When Waterways Were Our Highways

This summer, the Campbell River Museum is offering historic guided boat tours to the Discovery Islands, whose fascinating history has been the subject of such books as Tidal Passages by local historian Jeanette Taylor.  Long before Campbell River became a settlement, there were three thriving centres of importance in the islands area: Rock Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Shoal Bay on East Thurlow Island, (see map) and Thurston Bay on Sonora Island. Such was the importance of these settlements, that even before WW1, there was a telephone line connecting Rock Bay, Shoal Bay and Thurston Bay, several years before Campbell River had telephone service.

SS Cardena Union Steamship

In an era when waterways were the highways, and settlement was moving west from Vancouver, these centres had natural good harbours and the natural resources that expanding companies and settlers were looking for.  The easily accessible timber and mineral finds lured loggers and prospectors to the area, and after WW1, the government was granting 160 acre parcels of homesteading land  to entice settlers as well.  Soon afterward, the Union Steamships made their way up the coast from Vancouver and stopped at all the important settlements.

As early as 1880, logging operations like Hastings Saw Mill out of Langley, BC were looking to expand west of the mainland.  They first made Bickley Bay on East Thurlow Island their regional headquarters, then moved their operation to Rock Bay, on the east Vancouver Island, about 40km north of Campbell River.  In ‘Upcoast’ , Richard Rajala explains how “Rock Bay became the first upcoast site of mass production logging – tugboats moved logs from this site to Lower Mainland mills. [Rock Bay offered] accessibility, high-quality timber, efficient logging with oxen and horse teams.”

Horse and oxen were soon replaced with railroads starting about 1910.  These rail lines were never used to connect Rock Bay with other communities on the island however, and even today, the only way to get to Rock Bay by land is to follow a rough logging road from Highway 19.  At one period, Rock Bay had more loggers employed than at any other location on the coast, (about 1500).  A hospital was built there in 1904, further increasing its importance, but was closed in the early 1940’s when logging activity ceased.

Shoal Bay on nearby East Thurlow Island was a boom town in its own right, owing its growth to mineral finds.  The first stake was claimed 1884 and the gold rush followed in 1890. (Jeanette Taylor, Tidal Passages).

Old store at Shoal Bay, now torn down

This caused a great deal of excitement and drew large numbers of prospectors there.  By 1897, there were two stores and two hotels, and Shoal Bay was the distribution point for other mines in the area.  That same year Shoal Bay became incorporated as a town and the Union Steamships were stopping by four times a week.

The steamships were a vital link to people and supplies, in an era when it was rare for individuals to have their own motorized boat. When it was time to go to civilization, loggers with their paycheques and settlers would take the Union Steamship to Vancouver, enduring the 30 hour trip there and back.

Even as recently as the 1940’s, people in the islands used row boats for getting around in.  In fact, they rowed astonishing distances – from as far away as Cortes and Quadra Islands to reach destinations like Shoal Bay.  In ’Guide to Blind Channel’, Phil Richter tells us how a mother who lived at the Green Points settlement on the mainland would row from there to Blind Channel (on West Thurlow Island), a distance of about one mile, to get her children to school.   Len Crawford, who wrote ‘The Way It Was’,  remembers rowing as being the main means of getting around.  It could be dangerous, as most people didn’t wear life jackets—the only available style was too bulky.  Len himself never learned to swim, even though he spent his whole life on the water.  The water was too cold to enjoy, and as he says “the main thing was to stay out of the water.”

Thurston Bay

Thurston Bay on Sonora Island was unique from other coastal communities.  Instead of developing as a result of pioneering or exploitation of its natural resources, it was established in 1914 as a BC Forest Marine Service station and according to John Parminter, who for many years was editor of the Forest Marine Service newsletter, it was also a ship building centre for the Marine Service starting in 1917.    During its busy years, Thurston Bay had several boat building sheds, floats and bunkhouses and its own electricity, created by a Peltham wheel, and homes were built to house the families that came with the Forest Service Rangers, engineers and boat builders.  While rangers were out on patrol or fighting fires, their wives would man the station and keep up radio contact, and homeschool the children. As many families homesteaded in the area, eventually they had a school in Thurston Bay.  The community thrived until1941, and kept its status as a Ranger District until 1969, when that was transferred to Campbell River.

By the 1950’s, times were changing drastically in the islands.  The Union Steamship Company went out of business, and new provincial legislation meant that small logging concerns could no longer get forest licences. Schools were closing due to lack of enrolment and families moved to where the work and amenities were. The era of waterways as highways was over, giving way to recreational boating and floatplanes.

Catch a glimpse of a bygone era and imagine the coastal communities as the vital and thriving settlements they once were this summer.  Take a trip on Discovery Marine Safaris comfortable boats and learn about your desination from knowledgeable local guides.  Follow this link to the schedule.