Aboriginal Bridges of Northwestern B.C.

Bridge at Hagwilget, 1881. Source: B.C. Archives.

I don’t know that much about the “Living Landscapes” program, which includes a series of small web exhibits.  While related to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, and covered by their insane legal language (see below), they seem to have outsourced the actual expertise to non-RBCM people.  Not that surprising, really, since they have hardly any in-house expertise left after decades of cuts!  But all credit to them for their role in the informative series, even if the program is now (2006) finished with nothing for Vancouver Island.

I’ll probably review a few of these pages, but for now the exhibit which caught my eye, mainly because of its cool illustrations, is the one of Aboriginal Bridges of Northwestern B.C. The author, Brenda Guernsey, has put together a great set of images from various public archives to illustrate these amazing features.

Hagwilget bridge in winter. Source: B.C. Archives

The best known is the bridge over the Bulkley River at Hagwilget Canyon, near Hazelton.   This bridge exemplifies a design common to many of the others: larger trunks extended from each side of the shore as far as possible, and then a gangway is tied on to join the two halves.  By the time many of these pictures were taken, steel cable from the Western Union Telegraph line had been added to strengthen this bridge, and perhaps others as well.  Other descriptions describe methods of spanning large creeks and rivers using only wood and withes. Nonethless, the crossing is still vividly expressed in various choice quotes from Guernsey’s text.

An archaeological note and picture is also included, regarding the 1981 discovery of remnants of the bridge.

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 [George McDonald] said, heritage lines, and of great significance to the owners. [Northern Sentinel 1981]

But as I say, Hagwilget Bridge is quite well known.  Guernsey documents a number of other intricate, delicate, and frightening bridges, such as this one over the Suskwa River near Hazelton.

Old Suspension Bridge over Suskwa River. Source: B.C. Archives.

My favourite is this 1900 picture, below, of a bridge over Beatty Creek (a.k.a., Beady Creek?), in Tahltan territory.

Beatty Creek bridge, ca. 1900. Source: Living Landscapes.

Your certainly get a sense of trusting your life to a linear basket!  Note how far down the river is, it helps with the horizontal scale as well.  Guernsey gives some detail:

Beatty Creek is a tributary of the Tahltan River, which flows into the Stikine River. The Beatty Creek bridge is one of three identified bridges in Tahltan territory, the others located at the mouths of the Tuya and Tanzanilla Rivers. O’Dwyer took this picture in 1900 and engineer, A.F. Buckham (1950:179), describes the bridge at Beatty Creek as ‘A light, hastily constructed Indian bridge made from saplings’; a style which ‘was sometimes used by the Indians over the narrower streams’.

So, overall, this is a small, but informative and well-illustrated, site.  The only problem I have with it is actually with the Living Landscapes web site as a whole.  Without exception, the following is the most absurd disclaimer I have ever read on the internet, and gives insight into the mind set that prevails in certain quarters of the B.C. “Heritage Industry” and the RBCM:

Warranty Disclaimer
This information is provided as a public service by the Royal British Columbia Museum, 675 Belleville Street, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8W 9W2.

This Web site and all of the information it contains are provided “as is” without warranty of any kind, whether express or implied. All implied warranties, including, without limitation, implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement, are hereby expressly disclaimed.

Limitation of Liabilities
Under no circumstances will the Royal British Columbia Museum be liable to any person or business entity for any direct, indirect, special, incidental, consequential, or other damages based on any use of this Web site or any other Web site to which this site is linked, including, without limitation, any lost profits, business interruption, or loss of programs or information, even if the Royal British Columbia Museum has been specifically advised of the possibility of such damages.

Oh dear.  I sprained my finger while surfing your site and now you won’t pay for the band-aid.

They also have a bunch of other threatening language about ownership which is frankly, offensive, considering they are a public institution using public money to display elements from the public archives, to the public, which under the Museums Act is their principle social and legal reason for existence.  Educate me, don’t harangue me.

So RBCM, just so we are on the same page here: this post is a review of your website and it is covered by both fair use principles of Canadian copyright law; by the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding “citizen journalism” and its protections as speech; and, indeed, by Academic Freedom.  Also, this blog is hosted in a foreign country.  Your call who to call. 

11 responses to “Aboriginal Bridges of Northwestern B.C.

  1. More great photographs, Quentin. You’re sucking me in with the continuing Tahltan examples. The NTS topographic map name is Beatty Creek. I would quibble with the notion that there are only three bridges in Tahltan territory. I know of at least one other – I’ve seen it from the air – over Klastline River on the main trail between Iskut and Telegraph Creek. That bridge is in a poor state of repair and, unfortunately, without it hiking trips between Iskut and Telegraph today are difficult to impossible.

    Given the size of Tahltan territory, and the large number of rivers, I’d have expected more bridges. On the other hand, Tahltans used rafts regularly to cross rivers and lakes. The name Kinaskan (Lake) translates to ‘raft crossing.’ Travelers on the major trail from Telegraph, through the Spatsizi, to the HBC forts in the Rocky Mountain Trench (like Ware and Grahame) crossed the Klappan River via a raft.


  2. Very interesting document you have reviewed. I have long been aware of these bridges, but most of the images are new to me.

    I was on that trip with George MacDonald in 1981 when parts of the bridge were identified. It was a media tour he arranged out of the Kitselas Canyon up the Skeena to Ksan to publicise the project at Kitselas. Later that year he was made director of the National Museum and did not do anymore intensive field work in BC.

    George is referring to a version of the bridge that you have not illustrated in your blog, but is the one pictured above the newspaper article. It is of a different engineering design than the others. It has four vertical posts, two at each end, and telegraph wire suspended between pairs of the posts which hold up the bridge very much like the Lions Gate bridge in Vancouver. The earliest versions of the bridge are more along the lines of two cantilevered platforms, one from each bank, that have a short suspensed walkway in the gap between.

    It was pretty exciting to find those upright posts with wire still attached. I remember George speculating at the time that the shape of the top of the posts with the rings was very similar to the insulators which the wire would have been attached to and wondering if the design was intended to somehow use a form of (non-electrical) power from the telegraph line. This power could be inferred from an apparent necessary association between wire and insulator. It is always interesting to work with George, he has a ton of ideas.

    As I understood it, the Living Landscapes program was some form of outreach program where the RBCM extended its resources into different regions of the Province working usually with local museums and other groups, including First Nations, on regional projects. Probably since they are based on Vancouver Island it was not felt necessary to reach into their immediate backyard. Their own staff did a lot of studies related to this program, mostly biological I think. Field programs were requred in each region as the program shifted from one focus to another. The program was managed by Brian Apland after he finished with being director of the Archaeology Branch. It was a good idea and as far as I know filled quite a few gaps in the RBCM collections and knowledge and brought a lot of information into smaller communities. I don’t recall much being done with prehistory; not surprising given the very few archaeological staff they have.


  3. That disclaimer is actually a boilerplate disclaimer used by just about every small-time-with-big-aspirations website in existence. Google the phrase “without warranty of any kind, whether express or implied” and you’ll get a handy list.


  4. Hi rob – I still don’t get what the point of it is, and honestly I have never seen it before. I believe you it is out there but still, not needed right there as a primary link on an important home page.

    Tad — thanks for the info. I love the Tahltan territory — my first, and still best, field project ever was on the Stikine-Iskut. Those rafts – I guess the disadvantage is you might want to have one on each side of the river!! It’d be neat to replace the Klastline bridge but you know these days you’d never get away with anything less than completely to code, vs. the hanging basket model….

    APM — cool story. I guess you saw the news report about MacDonald that is copied in the Hagwilget link? I love the idea of the carved insulator motif, an English archaeologist would make a career from that idea alone!

    Re: Living Landscapes, yeah that rings a bell now that Apland was involved, Overall, fine, I am glad they did something, outsourced or not. I don’t think that, Kyuquot, say, feels very connected to the RBCM but they probably needed to regionalize the province. Some of the LL exhibits online are pretty poor though – really sophomoric and poorly illustrated while some are excellent. I guess that’s the downside of not doing it professionally across the board (and maybe the upside as well if it allows other voices to be heard).


  5. While researching the Brittany Triangle Supreme Court case, I came across several Chilcotin bridges. Some were well known, like the Canyon Shuswap/Chilcotin one at the mouth of the Chilcotin, and the almost-as-well-known one near Ft Chilcotin and yet another near the ‘kiggly’ site (a bastardization of Chinook jargon keekwilie, or underground house, applied by early white settlers to the archaeological housepit features; ironically, very few Chilcotins ever spoke Chinook). But there was another completely new bridge that I don’t hink any modern researchers had known about that showed up in surveyor/architect/explorer H.O. Tiedemann’s journal of his nearly disasterous investigation of the route from Bute Inlet to Tatlayoko Lake (hint; follow the aboriginal route, don’t try and make your own…..). Anyway, as they reached the relative safety and proximity to food that Tatlayoko Lake promised, they saw an aboriginal bridge at the lake outlet (well, others saw it and described it to him; he didn’t see it very well, having lost his glasses along with much of the food when he nearly drowned crossing a glacial river). Great story of perseverance and humour “For supper, 1/5 part of a squirrel”, with the aboriginal bridge tucked in for good measure.


    • Do you know if Tiedemann had a journal for other aspects of his work? In particular I am interested in the background behind a 9′ x 9′ plan he drafted of Victoria. It would have been from the early 1860’s.


  6. Since a squirrel has four legs, I shudder to think what the fifth part is.

    These bridges would have interesting implications for predictive modelling that attempted to model trails based on least-cost distances, for example. They basically turn the directionality of the landscape upside down.


  7. I urge anyone who is interested in understanding what a feat of courage it required to cross some of these aboriginal bridges to read Peter Skene Ogden’s description of his party traversing a bridge over the Bulkley River at Hagwilget (presumably) in Chapter 5 “A Tale of Western Caledonia” from his 1853 book _Traits of American-Indian Life and Character by a Fur Trader_ One of the men with him was lost to the rapids below; very sad.

    Scary, scary stuff for those with a fear of heights, or a healthy respect for the limits of human engineering!

    HBC Chief Trader at Stuart Lake, Simon McGillivray, Jr., refused to cross the bridge in summer 1833 and got into quite a heated argument with a hired hand who decided to risk it on his own [HBCA, B. 188/a/18, Reel 1M130].

    I’m pretty sure I would have tried to find another way to the opposite bank!


  8. Another aboriginal bridge was on the Bridge River at Lillooet, I assume in the location of the present bridge. Checked the bc archives and a ‘Bridge over Bridge River’ is shown in 1909, doesn’t appear aboriginal, but does suggest the aboriginal bridge was transformed through time to become the bridge in use today. Its an awesome valley, my family has lived there since the 1960’s, and it’s always sort of a big deal to cross that bridge.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You may be interested to know that the book, Traits of an American-Indian Life and Character, contains much spurious information. It was not written by Ogden. See Appendix D, in The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, by A G Morice.
    P S Ogden never was in a position to cross any bridge across the Bulkley River.



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