Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Aug. 9, 2022

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Clark County History: The SS Beaver


The little paddle ship made no pretense of advancing maritime navigation or technology. Like hundreds of others, she was just a routine vessel. Instead, the SS Beaver’s fated half-century service in the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company made her a legend.

Around 1832, George Simpson, governor of the Hudson Bay Company’s northwest division, sent a proposal to John McLoughlin, Fort Vancouver’s chief factor, asking whether a small paddle steamship might work as a mobile fur post and factory. The small ship could negotiate rivers and inlets inaccessible to larger steamships without needing sails, winds or tides. Despite McLoughlin’s reluctance, the company drafted the ship’s specifications and built her on the River Thames.

In August 1835, the SS Beaver sailed for America, arriving at Fort Vancouver in April 1836. Her boilers were partially dismantled for the trip. Hudson’s Bay Company workers added paddle wheels, restored the boilers and got a head of steam. With that, she became the first steamship on the Columbia River and America’s West Coast.

McLoughlin wanted the 20-by-101 foot ship gone. So he sent it to Alaska. The ship stopped to trade at Fort George in Astoria, Ore., then Fort McLoughlin on Milbanke Sound in British Columbia before reaching Alaska. Sailing south along the Pacific Coast, she arrived at Fort Nisqually in November 1836 and became the first steamship on Puget Sound and a floating trading post in the area for over a decade.

Her 31-man crew included 13 woodcutters and four stokers. The Beaver’s wood-fired boilers burned through 40 cords of wood in nearly 14-hour days as it steamed along hundreds of miles. Duncan Finlayson, chief factor at Milbanke, estimated that six men chopped wood for two days to fill the ship’s quota.

In the early 1850s, when the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a coal mine on Vancouver Island, the little steamer could then burn wood or coal. The Beaver burned about a ton of coal an hour and cruised at 6 to 7 knots (about 8 mph).

The SS Beaver proved McLoughlin wrong. She required no more repair or care than if she had sailed on the Atlantic coast. The boiler, however, occasionally needed attention. In 1841, McLoughlin wanted to send her to Alaska but told the London office he needed white lead to make the boiler’s joints hold under steam pressure. The boiler sidelined the vessel for much of 1842. Eventually, the steamer would go through several boilers.

Captains of the SS Beaver wrecked her several times. Once, while traveling at full speed, the Beaver rammed a rock in 1850 near Point Chatham in Johnstone Strait east of Vancouver Island. Another captain beached her at Fort Simpson in British Columbia. In Alaska, according to Hudson’s Bay Company logs, the Russians lifted her out of the water to replace planking, a rotted deck and recoppered her hull, among other repairs. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold her in 1874, and her private owners put her to work as a tug.

Crashed and stranded at the Burrard Inlet in 1888, her owners abandoned her. Souvenir hunters came for her, even when the wake of a large steamship dashed her in 1892.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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