When I first came to Quesnel in 1952, I found postcards of scenes around the Cariboo, including one showing a huge dugout canoe, under a rough shelter, on the Fraser River bank in front of the HBC building, close to the current heritage park.
Michael Cotton got in touch with me recently, to give me papers that showed this family’s connection to that very canoe in 1911 and 1943.
The Quesnel Museum has the accompanying photo showing the canoe before it was sheltered. The museum has another picture showing two canoes out in the open, one being the dugout, about 1912 to 1913. The shelter was in place in June, 1920.
Here is the story of the canoe courtesy of Mr. Cotton.
Michael’s grandfather, Arthur Frederick Cotton, was in charge of a party surveying the subdividing for the Provincial Government at Stewart (Stuart) Lake in 1911. Michael’s dad and his uncle were asked to join the survey party which they set out to do. They had to go by ship from Vancouver to Prince Rupert where they caught a sternwheeler, the S.S. Inlander, one of Foley, Welch and Stewart’s, who were building the Grand Trunk Northern Railway (now CNR), for passage to Hazelton.
After several harrowing adventures and another boat, they reached Hazelton. Then it was by pack train to Babine Lake where a small dugout canoe carried them 105 miles to a portage to Stewart (Stuart) Lake. On arrival, they found Michael’s father – the trip had taken 27 days.
By November, they had finished their surveying and had to go downstream from Fort St. James to Quesnel. They heard of a canoe which was available. It was 55 and a half feet long and four and a half feet wide, a dugout from a huge cottonwood tree. It had been used by the HBC on the string of lakes north of the fort, that being Stuart, Trembler and Takla, each joined by a common stream forming the Tachie, Midd and Driftwood Rivers. It was now December and the nine members cut oars and a sweep (for steering) and set off downstream guided by a very capable native, Jimmy Alexander. After years of use, it had thin spots that were easily damaged by the pancake ice sheets which necessitated stopping to collect spruce gum to seal the breaks, about five or six times daily.
He wrote “When we hit fast water or places where Big Jim had to handle the canoe in a hurry – he would yell “Hudson’s Bay”. Which meant speed ‘er up.”
A stove mounted on the canoe meant they did not have to stop for meals and as the weather worsened, hot tea or soup was a comfort.
Fort George Canyon on the Fraser and then Cottonwood Canyon above Quesnel, were taken in wild rides steered by the capable Jimmy Alexander.
After six days from Fort St. James, they camped above Quesnel at possibly Ewings Farm (on Hillborn or Robins Road.)
On arrival in Quesnel the next morning, a large crowd greeted them as they had been observed by Mr. Allison and the town folks as they rounded the river curve near Four Mile Flat. They were entertained hospitably and then they hosted a dance. Two days later they left on the B.C. Express stage #14.
The canoe was left at the steamer landing just by the wooden bridge where it sat until a shelter was built over it. There it rested until 1943 when Michael’s dad, Walter Cotton, working as the resident engineer for the Department of Public Works, decided the faithful relic was so badly deteriorated, he tossed the remains in the Fraser River.
Files, pictures and information from M. Cotton and Quesnel Museum.
Andy Motherwell is an amateur historian and regular Observer columnist.