April 10, 2015 OriginalShipster 0Comment

British Columbia has a long list of shipwrecks. Many of them are more recent, including decommissioned Navy ships as artificial reefs (such as the HMCS Annapolis this year), and the sinking of the ferry M/V Queen of the North in 2006. Quite a few of them, however, stem from the turn of the century, when the expansion of the Canadian west was in full swing, and steamships were the way to get people and cargo to communities along the rushing rivers. One such ship was owned by the Hudson Bay Company, and met a quick and unfortunate demise on the Skeena River in 1907. This week, we’re looking at the story of the sternwheeler Mount Royal.

Ship Stats
Nationality: Canadian
Length: 42.1m
Beam: 8.5m
Draught: 1m (loaded)
Speed: 12 knots
Year: 1902

At the turn of the century, people had begun building up the Canadian West, with communities sprouting up along the shores of the rivers of British Columbia. Before the Grand Trunk Railway was constructed, steamships were the primary way of moving people and supplies around. Private contractors, such as Robert Cunningham of Port Essington, were quick to jump on this business opportunity and constructed small fleets of ships. Cunningham was chief businessman in his district and had a couple of ships built before constructing the quick and agile Hazelton, a sternwheeler specifically made to operate on the Skeena River.

The Mount Royal. Image from BC Archives.
The Mount Royal. Image from BC Archives collection.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, with a shipping business in the same area, took notice. As the Hazelton began to make better and better times on her runs, HBC commissioned the Mount Royal. Built with a shallow draught (only 18″ when empty) she was built for one main reason – beat the Hazelton.

The Mount Royal was launched in April 1902, but at first try she became stuck. Workers struggled to free her, and she slid for a few more feet before getting tangled up again. It took her workers a few days to get her untangled, but finally she slid into the waters of the bay. Not a great start.

The rivalry started immediately. The standing order from Cunningham and HBC was the same to their captains – beat the other boat, at all costs!

The rivalry came to a head in the spring of 1904. Both ships were eager to start their seasons, but the Hazelton, under command of Captain Bronser, got away first. She had steamed upriver and was taking on wood for her boiler when all of a sudden a column of steam appeared in the distance. The Mount Royal came rushing around the bend with her skipper, Captain Johnson, behind the wheel. Capt. Bronser gave the order to let slip the lines, leaving half of his wood load on the dockside. The Hazelton came up to full steam with the Mount Royal hot on her heels. As the two ships fought up the river, the Mount Royal came alongside until they were bow-to-bow. Capt. Bronser was having none of this, and proceeded to start ramming the side of the Mount Royal. The two ships kept fighting until one more smack from the Hazelton sent the Mount Royal broadside into the current, which then started taking her back down the river, bow first. Capt. Johnson, furious, left the helm and went below decks, emerging with his rifle and firing off a couple of shots at the the stern of the Hazelton as she sailed away.

The Hazelton. Image from British Columbia Archives.
The Hazelton. Image from BC Archives collection.

The incident was investigated by the Federal Department of Marine and both Captains were found to be at fault. Capt. Bronser for ramming the Mount Royal, Capt. Johnson for leaving the helm, and both captains for putting their passengers and cargo in danger. After, HBC and Robert Cunningham both agreed that the rivalry was benefitting no one. HBC paid Cunningham $2,500 to tie up his ship to the dock, and said they would ship the remainder of his freight for free. With that, HBC became the prime provider of freight and passenger service on the Skeena River.

Their reign continued, with the acquisition of more ships, and the speedy Mount Royal leading the way until 1907. On July 6, Capt. Johnson was bringing the ship back from the town of Hazelton and steaming through Kitselas Canyon when a strong wind came up. The wind pushed against the structure of the ship, treating it like a sail and driving her into a large rock formation called Ringbolt Island. The ship remained snug against the rocks, allowing the passengers and crew to scramble to safety. As the ship sat, being pounded by the current, Capt. Johnson assessed the situation and decided that it would be possible to move the ship back off the rocks. He and 9 of his crew boarded the ship again, planning to use the capstan to winch the Mount Royal back around the rocks.

This turned out to be much better in theory than in practice. As the ship began to shift, she started to crumble. The king post broke and drove right through the bottom of the ship and she buckled. The current washed over her and she broke into pieces, taking six of her crew with her.

As the wreck broke up and the debris was washed away, larger pieces came to the attention of two men on the shore. They paddled out and were surprised to see a hand sticking out, waving at them through a hole in a floating bilge tank. They freed the man, chief engineer Ben Maddigan. Surprisingly, he was filthy and a bit bruised and banged up, but otherwise uninjured. When the men remarked that there must have been a lot of air in the tank, he was quoted as saying “I don’t know about air, but there was one hell of a lot of water!”

Following the wreck, HBC approached Cunningham and bought the Hazelton to replace the Mount Royal. They sailed her until 1912, when she was sold and turned into a clubhouse for the Prince Rupert Yacht club.

The mystery that continues to this day with the Mount Royal revolves around the strongbox that was said to be on board. It was rumoured that this box was filled with an undisclosed amount of both paper and coin money. There was also said to have been a large shipment of gold dust (though that was never completely proven). Although many treasure hunters have tried to locate the strongbox and the gold dust, none of them have been successful.

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