The area of Campbell River has been occupied by the Indigenous for thousands of years. Archeological digs in the area have found an extensive village and fishing site that was used for centuries. The land was primarily the territory of the Island Comox people and the Coast Salish. During the 17th century, the Kwakwaka-wakw people began to migrate in and establish themselves, leading to conflict with the Comox.
Before the Indigenous ever arrived, a 10-metre tall glacial erratic fell off a glacier and landed along the future Sea Walk of Campbell River. According to the Indigenous, the rock was originally a grizzly bear that claimed he could jump from the mainland to the island. The Great Spirit told the bear that he would turn into stone if he touched the water. The bear attempted to jump and he was able to make the jump but his back paw touched the water. As a result, he turned to stone.
It was in this environment that Captain George Vancouver arrived in 1792 aboard his ships the Discovery and Chatham. The channel between Campbell River and Quadra Island was called Discovery Passage in honour of one of those ships by Vancouver.
Archibald Menzies, who was on the ship, met with a local group of Indigenous numbering 350 who spoke the Salish language. This would be the only European contact with the Indigenous of the area apart from the occasional visits by Spanish and English fur traders, but these visits were few and far between.
It was not until 1859 that the HMS Plumper arrived to chart the area. It was at this time that the river was named Campbell River in honour of Dr. Samuel Campbell, who was the surgeon on board the ship.
At this point, European settlement began to increase as the logging industry of the area started to thrive in the 1860s. The logging camps were temporary to start as loggers came in and cut the trees close to shore before moving on. It was only after the logging along the shore had been exhausted that more long-term camps started to pop up, and with them, logging mills.
At Duncan Bay, a settlement was planned, with the name Duluth, but this would not happen. It was not until the 1880s that Fred Nunns settled in the area of Campbell River and the community would begin to appear. By the early 1900s, there was a hotel and other establishments in the growing community but the only way to Campbell River was by boat at this point. It was not until 1920 that the first road came through and Campbell River started to become the regional centre.
It was also around this time that fishermen, both looking to make money and those who did it as a hobby, started to notice Campbell River. They would come to the area to try and catch the Tyee Salmon, which was larger than other salmon, coming in at 30 pounds or more. The Tyee Club of British Columbia would be established in 1924 to regulate and protect the growing sport in the area. Its origin actually goes back a bit further to 1904 when Charles Thulin and his wife arrived in the area. They would build the Hotel Willows, which became the first headquarters for the Tyee Club. For the next two decades, before the club existed, anglers would come to the community and stay at the hotel as they went fishing. Cars from the United States and throughout Canada would be seen in greater numbers as time went on until the club was officially formed.
Today, the Tyee Club is the oldest organization in Campbell River. It is also thanks to the growth of the fishing industry that Campbell River bills itself as the Salmon Capital of the World today.
Thanks to the growth of the fishing industry, the first commercial wharf was built along Pier Street. It was here that Union Steamships would stop to load and unload freight, as well as passengers who were coming to take advantage of the fishing opportunities. Pier Street would actually become one of the most important streets in the community. It was along this street that the first barbershop, first general store and first café were all built. The street and its buildings, for the most part, still stand to this day and you can take a stroll along the historic Pier Street to this day.
As shipping increased in the area, there was a need to make sure everyone stayed safe on the water, no thanks to Ripple Rock, which I will talk about later. In 1916, the Cape Mudge Lighthouse was built to replace the original smaller lighthouse that had been built in 1898. This lighthouse would stand 40 feet high and be made of reinforced-concrete with an octagonal lantern that kept ships away from shore. The lighthouse continues to stand to this day and represents the efforts of the federal government to establish aids to navigation for ships on British Columbia’s coast. The development of the Discovery Passage is strongly linked to the Cape Mudge Lighthouse, as well as to the Klondike Gold Rush for the original lighthouse, due to the many ships that came through the passage on their way with prospectors hoping to strike it rich in the Yukon. In 2015, the lighthouse was designated as a Heritage Lighthouse.
One interesting aspect of the lighthouse is that just below where it stands, you can find ancient petroglyphs of abstract figures, carved into the rock by the Indigenous centuries or even thousands of years ago.
In the 1920s, Painter’s Lodge was opened by Ned and June Painter. These lodges catered to the fishers who came to the area to catch salmon. It was here that the Tyee Club would rent rowboats out to anglers. In 1938, the couple moved their operation to the oceanfront and the resort still stands there today. June Painter was instrumental in the success of this lodge and the couple would sell the lodge in 1948 once it was a major success. The lodge would have many distinguished guests including John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Unfortunately, the lodge burned down in 1985 but it was soon rebuilt and continues to operate to this day.
In 1927, a boat called the Motor Vessel BCP 45 was built at the Burrard Shipyard in Vancouver. It would then go into service in the west coast fishing industry. For decades, it operated successfully in a variety of roles. Its first 14 years were spent under a cannery licence and was the first boat of its kind to be owned and operated by an Indigenous person. As time went on, these old wooden boats fell out of use and today it remains one of the oldest and best preserved examples of its class of vessel. Due to its historic nature, it would be permanently housed at the Campbell River Maritime Heritage Centre. In 2005, it was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. If you’re going to Campbell River, be sure to check out this ship, as well as the maritime heritage centre itself.
In 1936, a man named Roderick Haig-Brown came to the Campbell River area. He had been born in England in 1908, and was the godson of Lord Boden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. He came to Canada in 1926 and worked on Vancouver Island and in Washington. Upon moving to Campbell River with his wife, he started to rent a house that belonged to Red Pidcock, a founding settler of the community. When the neighbouring house came up for sale, he bought it and it was there he embarked on a writing career while building up the home he lived in with his family. This small home included a small farm that had a large garden, milk and goats. As an avid fisher, he was also concerned about the welfare of the fish in the river and the environment. He would become a trustee for the Natural Conservancy of Canada and an advisor to the BC Wildlife Federation. As the area was beginning to grow, new projects such as a hydro dam were proposed and threatening the natural environment he loved. It was thanks to him and his lobbying that the Moran Dam would be stopped, protecting the river eco-system he loved. Through his life, he would write 25 books and over 200 articles and speeches, which would influence fisheries biologists, ecologists and many others to look at how they impacted the world around them. He also served as the Chancellor of the University of Victoria from 1970 to 1973. Roderick would pass away in 1976, followed by his wife Ann in 1990.
Upon his death, the Victoria Times Colonist wrote quote:
“Roderick Haig-Brown was well on his way to becoming a living legend and will surely join Emily Carr among giants on the west coast. He brought his beloved Campbell River alive for readers around the world. No more dry humour delivered in immaculate English with a trace of a smile. No more lyrical prose on seasons of the year as they touched his corner of Vancouver Island and were understood by people who read him everywhere.”
Their home would become the Haig Brown Heritage House, which is now managed by the Campbell River Museum and the City of Campbell River. In 2016, he was named a National Historic Person.
Ripple Rock sits at Seymour Narrows along the Discovery Passage in British Columbia. Close to Campbell River, it presented a significant hazard to boats coming through the area.
George Vancouver wrote in his diary in 1792 that it was one of the vilest stretches of water in the entire world.
Over the years, many ships would hit the rock that was only a few feet below the water at low tide. The eddies that were formed by tidal currents around the rock also presented a significant hazard to ships.
Named by Captain Richards because of the standing waves that its summits made as the tidal current moved through the straight.
The first large ship to ever hit the rock was the USS Saranac, which crashed into it in 1875 on its way to Alaska. From that point until 1958, 20 large ships and 100 small ships were sunk or badly damaged on the rock. It is known that at least 110 people drowned in the accidents caused by the rock.
As soon as the first ship hit the rock in the 1800s, it was decided that the rock had to go and an explosion of monumental proportions was needed. One plan had a bridge being built to connect Vancouver Island with Blue Inlet, using the rock as a support but that was abandoned in the 1860s in favour of eventually destroying the rock.
In 1931, a Canadian marine commission recommended removing the rock completely but it would be over a decade until the government gave permission to do so.
The first attempt to destroy the rock with explosives was in 1943. Floating drilling barges were tasked with drilling into the rock to blast it into pieces. This approach was abandoned quickly as cables tended to break every 48 hours.
In 1945, another attempt was made using two large overhead steel lines but this was abandoned when only 93 out of 1,500 controlled explosions were successful.
In 1953, the National Research Council of Canada commissioned a feasibility study on planting explosive charges underneath the peaks of the rock. Three companies, Northern Construction Company, J.W. Stewart Limited and Boyles Brothers Drilling Company were granted the contract, worth $3 million.
The United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment were very interested in this explosion as it was going to be a very large, non-nuclear, explosion.
From November of 1955 to April of 1958, 75 men working in three shifts built a 500 foot vertical shaft from Maud Island, and a 2,370 foot long horizontal shaft to the base of Ripple Rock. Two more main shafts were built from the twin peaks. A total of 1,270 metric tons of Nitramex 2H explosives were used. This was 10 times what would have been used for an explosion above water. There were worries by some that it would destroy Campbell River 40 kilometres away, while some worried that a tsunami would hit Japan, or that millions of fish would die. A few people theorized that it would even cause the Big One, an earthquake many in British Columbia have been expecting for years.
On April 5, 1958 at 9:31 a.m., the explosion took place. A total of 635,000 metric tons of rock and water were displaced by the explosion. Rocks and debris were thrown 1,000 feet into the air. The blast was large enough that it cleared 45 feet of vertical rock, providing ships with plenty of room to go over. While it was a very large explosion, there was almost no noise as the water muffled the majority of it.
As for the destructive aspects, there was a brief 25-foot tsunami, and a few fish died, but that was it. The only damage that was reported was to a wall clock at a mining clock at Quadra Island.
The RCMP were on hand for the explosion to ensure no one would be anywhere within three miles of the explosion. TV crews and engineers were housed in a bunker. The explosion is now a National Historic Event and it was seen live on CBC Television coast-to-coast. It was one of the first live coast-to-coast television broadcasts in Canadian history.
On Aug. 9, 1970, a child named Rod Brind’Amour was born in Ottawa, but he would come out to Campbell River as a child where he would begin to play minor hockey and quickly excel. He would be drafted in the 1988 NHL Draft, eighth overall, by the St. Louis Blues and would play his first full NHL season in 1989-90, picking up 27 points in the team’s first 24 games. A short time later in 1991-92, he would be traded to the Philadelphia Flyers and it was there he developed a reputation as a shutdown centre. By the time he left the Flyers, he had played 633 games, recording 366 assists, 235 goals and 601 points.
He would then go over to the Carolina Hurricanes where he would find success, leading the team to the Stanley Cup in 2006 over the Edmonton Oilers. In 2010, he became the team captain and one year later he decided to retire. His #17 jersey would be retired by the team on Feb. 18, 2011. Upon his retirement, he was one of the last players to have played in the 1980s still in the game. During his NHL career, he had 1,184 points in 1,484 games and won two Frank J. Selke Trophies. While he is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame yet, there is talk he could wind up there someday. He would then become a coach for the Hurricanes in 2018 and in 2021, he won the Jack Adams Award as the Coach of the Year.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Campbell River, the best place to visit is the Campbell River Museum. The museum began in 1958 as an exhibit in the lobby of the sports fishing lodge. The exhibit included artifacts collected over the years, dating back to the pre-colonial era. By 1978, the collection had grown so large that there was a need for a new facility. Planning for this facility began in 1987 and in 1994, a 21,000 square foot facility was opened. Today, the museum houses many exhibitions including a First Nations exhibit that has artifacts from 30 different First Nation groups. There is the Transitions Gallery that explores difficult parts of the past such as residential schools, and Logging in the Jungles, which highlights the logging history of the area. The logging exhibit includes a Hayes-Anderson logging truck and a 1916 Empire Steam Donkey. A log cabin, built of Douglas Firs is also an exhibit, as is the sports fishing exhibit and the commercial salmon fishing exhibit. The Willows Hotel has also been rebuilt as an exhibit, showing how it would have looked during its heyday in 1914. There are also several temporary exhibits that change over the years.