In the summer of 1866, two parties headed towards the Junction of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers with the intent to lay the Collins Western Union Overland Telegraph. One party, supervised and documented by Thomas Elwyn, proceeded up the Fraser River to survey and construct the telegraph line between Quesnel Mouth and Fort Stager (Kispiox). Also included in this first party was John Clayton White. The second party, of which Charles Morison was a member, travelled from Westminster, up the Northwest Coast to the Skeena River and then on to Fort Stager.
Figure 12: Title of John Clayton White's 1866 Map
[Reproduced with Permission from the Bancroft Library]
In Charles Morison's (1919:26-27) unpublished manuscript he describes the two men he met with at Fort Stager 'We also had a Stipendiary Magistrate with his Constable travelling with us, he was that well known official T. Elwin [sic] ...then we had our draughtsman, P.J. White [sic] also late RE.E. he sketched and painted beautifully...' All three of these men left detailed accounts of Aboriginal Bridges along the route.
The bridge was reportedly strengthened in 1866 with cable wire from the Western Union Telegraph. Some accounts state that Colonel Bulkley had it strengthened with wire prior to crossing it and continuing, others state that it was strengthened with wire left after the Telegraph construction was abandoned, and others cite a combination of the two. 'When Colonel Charles S. Bulkley arrived during the mid 1860s, the Indians agreed to have the bridge strengthened with wire... In 1880 the Indians built a new bridge from wood and telegraph wire' (Septer 1994:20).' ...they finally consented to having their own bridge strengthened with wire. This was done by the company's engineer, and men, animals and equipment were safely taken across'. (Large 1957:26)
Interestingly, Charles Morison offers a slightly alternate account the events that took place in 1866 while he was there:
...now the crossing of the Bulkley had to be made for all men and material (including, men, two hundred pack animals, cattle, and baggage)... so Steve Decker the foreman ordered up his bridge gang, first class men at their work, to build a bridge across the Bulkley; here another difficulty arose, the Indians strongly objected to this procedure as one of their wise men had [sic] informed them that if the 'Whites' builta [sic] bridge across the river no more salmon would run up it, and as the Company did not want to collide with natives in any way a great palaver was held, and the Indians consented to allow Steve Decker to repair their bridge and make it practicable for the passage of animals. Now all the hides of the cattle killed on the way from Quesnel, had been turned into rawhide rope, with this Steve lashed the bridge strongly laid a new floor on it and the passage was made safely by all; although I think that humans and animals were glad when they were over and a great load was removed from Steve Decker's mind. [Charles Morison 1919: 26]
Morison describes the bridge at Hagwilget:
...we had reached the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers... Be it known that these Indians have no canoes and are wonderful travellers in the bush. They had built a wonderful bridge across the Bulkley River Canyon on the cantilever principle, a bridge with not a single nail or piece of iron in its composition nothing but wooden pegs and all the timber fastened together with cedar withes, it was really a wonderful piece of work! but shaky and calculated to try the nerves of anyone crossing it for the first time; this bridge is now replaced by a fine suspension bridge [sic] built by that much worried institution the Land and Works Department of the Provincial Government of British Columbia. The Bulkley Canyon was judged impossible for navigation and no Indian had tried to ascend it by either boat or canoe... [Charles Morison 1919: 25]
Thomas Elwyn documented several bridges along the Bulkley, Skeena and Kispiox rivers on his Eastward trek from Quesnel Forks. He describes the location of an upriver bridge located at 'Station 12' that could possible be a bridge at the Susqua near the entrance to the Bulkley canyon.
Between the last mentioned station [station #10] and the Indian suspension bridge across the Wastonquah, 50 miles, there is a stretch of country more favourable for settlement than any other part of the Colony... The bedrock of one of the tributaries of the Wastonquah, crossed by the wire 2 ten miles before it reaches the bridge, is of slate formation... At the suspension bridge the river, from a breadth of nearly one hundred yards, suddenly narrows to about fifty feet, turns through a canon with that average breadth for three hundred yards...
The bridge is most ingeniously constructed on the suspension principle, but the platform being only supported by a few dry withes gives to the bridge even a greater appearance of frailness than perhaps it deserves. [Thomas Elwyn, Sept. 4, 1866]
In his notes, Elwyn goes on to describe another bridge that is at the mouth, or exit, of the canyon and where the Hagwilget bridge is located.
Rocher de Bouillé, a large Indian fishing village, is situated on the left bank of the Wastonquah two miles and a half below the second crossing and is consequently not on the telegraph line. The lodges are built at the mouth of the canon [sic], which is crossed by a larger and longer bridge than the one before mentioned. [Thomas Elwyn, Sept. 4, 1866]
Figure 13: First Bridge at Hagwilget in Winter
[BC Archives A-06048]
In 1872, as part of a Canadian pacific Railway Survey for the Dominion Government, Charles Horetzky passed through the Gitskan village at Hagwilget. While there, Horetzky took the above photograph and noted that:
The bridge is built entirely of wood, fastened together by withes and branches; its height above the roaring waters beneath is fifty feet, and it sways under the weight of a man, to try even the nerves of a Blondin 3.[Horetzky 1874:103]
The photograph in Figure 1 was taken six years after the Telegraph company went through and he makes no mention of rawhide rope in his description nor does he make any mention of wire strengthening the bridge. It is possible that the rawhide rope could have rotted in this time period.
In 1880, Helen Kate Woods Sketched the bridge at 'Aquilket River' while she was visiting with her sister, Mary Tomlinson at Ankihtlast Mission near Kispiox. While in the area, Helen sketched some pictures for the Hazleton Queek [Figure 15], a pioneer newspaper published in central British Columbia (Bridge 1998:161)
Figure 14: "Indian Bridge Over Aquilket River Over 100 Feet Long
and 3 Feet Broad" by Helen Kate Woods
[BC Archives PDP01682]
Figure 15: A sketch, probably by H.K. Woods; Bridge 1898
[BC Archives B-00051]
Figure 16: A Sketch of the first Indian Bridge at Hagwilget
[BC Archives A-04018]
The above image is a sketch that Buckham (1950) confirmed was drawn by Indian Agent R.E. Loring in the 1890s.
Figure 17: The Bridge at Hagwilget
[BC Archives B-01363]
Although this 'version' of the bridge taken during the winter months has no corresponding date, it demonstrates the constant changing nature of bridges that has been well documented with the Hagwilget Bridge in particular. The bridge at Hagwilget Canyon on the Bulkley River is one such bridge, its various forms revealed in photographs, sketches, and through archival documentation.
Figure 18: Hagwilget Bridge 189-
[BC Archives A-01783]
Above is the 'Bridge at Hagwilget, built by Chief Charles, Chief of Hagwilget' (BC Archives A-01783). This photograph was taken in the 1890s, but it is not clear which specific year. This does give an approximate date for Figure 17, above, as it appears to be an early version of Chief Charles' bridge.
Figure 19: George Macdonald
[Northern Sentinel 1981]
In 1981, archaeologist George Macdonald identified three of the bridge's four heading poles. When in use on the bridge, the poles were seven metres long and joined by a ten metre cross span and can be seen in Figure 18 at either end of the bridge. The poles were laying on the banks of the river. The steel support cables had prevented them from falling into the river when the old bridge collapsed.
Macdonald described the cultural features on the wooden poles:
The two support posts are carved to represent stylized ancestor figures which tradition said would cry out a warning if a crossing were attempted by anyone not a 'trading partner' of the bridge engineers. Two rings around each 'head' are, he said, heritage lines, and of great significance to the owners. [Northern Sentinel 1981]
This explanation of the carvings by the archaeologist can be compared to the information in the story of the Kisgagax Bridge.
Figure 20: Second and Third Bridge at Hagwilget near Hazleton
[BC Archives A-04014]
The first bridge to replace the aboriginal bridge was built by the wire and cable company of Craddock and Co. No roads lead to the bridge, so Craddock also had to build connecting roads. Never popular, the Craddock Bridge was too narrow for cars and swayed too much in the winds. It was replaced by a more substantial bridge in 1931, and moved to another location up the Bulkley River as a footbridge (Cline n.d.).
2 In his report, Elwyn is describing the passage of the telegraph wire and the terrain, including geological observations, probably for maintenance purposes as much as for purposes of economic development of the country.
3 Horetzky is most likely referring to Chevalier Blondin, a famous and highly paid tightrope walker based in London during the mid to late 1800s.
Copyright © Royal