Stewart, Bear River

Stewart, Bear River

by | Dec 31, 2021

Stewart is a Canadian border community at the mouth of the Bear River and the head of Portland Canal, connected to Hyder, Alaska by 2 miles (3.2 km) of road, about 99 miles (159 km) east-southeast of Wrangell and 114 miles (183 km) north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The head of Portland Canal was traditionally the territory of the Tsetsaut, an Athapaskan people from the interior who became decimated by war with the Haida and Tlingit, and diseases introduced by Europeans, and eventually were assimilated by the Nass River Nisga’a in the mid-1800s. The Tsetsaut were called the Jits’aawit by the Nisga’a, or more generally the ‘Sgamagunt‘ meaning ‘strong house’ or ‘safe house’ which refers to the whole Bear River valley, probably because it served as the only retreat in Portland Canal from the harassment of the outer coast Haida and Tlingit. Portland Canal was first explored by Europeans in 1793 and named by Captain George Vancouver in honor of William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, who was Home Secretary from 1794 to 1801. The waterway was again explored in 1896 by Captain David D. Gaillard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the International Boundary Dispute, and he built a stone storage house at present-day Hyder to mark U.S. claimed territory. Stewart was reputedly founded by a group of prospectors who were swindled by a promoter named Burgess from Seattle. Apparently, Burgess placed advertisements in Seattle newspapers claiming he had a map showing the location of placer diggings in the Nass River Valley. In the spring of 1898, a group of 84 men left Seattle on the chartered SS Discovery and landed on the Bear River delta at the head of Portland Canal with horses and provisions. When it came time to show the men their claims, Burgess disappeared. The group split up with some returning south, but others remained including David J. Rainey and James W. Stewart. Rainey built the first log cabin in the pioneer community, and in 1900, he was one of the first to pre-empt land at the head of Portland Canal, and later a creek and a mountain were named after him. James Stewart was joined in 1902 by his brothers John and Robert, and in 1905, founded the town of Stewart with Robert as the first postmaster. The Stewart brothers formed the Stewart Land Company and started selling residential lots. They also started the Stewart Mining & Development Company and owned several mining claims.

In 1917, gold and silver mining started dominating the economy of Stewart and the neighboring community of Hyder with the discovery of rich silver veins in the upper Salmon River basin. Hyder became an access and supply point for the mines in Alaska, and Stewart served as the port for Canadian mining which was primarily at Premier, about 14 miles (23 km) up the Salmon River valley by road through Alaska and back into British Columbia. By 1918, Premier had developed into one of the richest mineral deposits in British Columbia if not all of Canada. The property, comprised of a mining plant, included a concentrator of about 500 tons (453,592 kg) daily capacity. Power was supplied by the company’s own power plant, consisting of a 1,620 horsepower diesel engine and 1,100 horsepower in hydroelectric power. An aerial tramway with ore bins was built 12 miles (19 km) long connecting the mine to the dock at tidewater in Stewart. The Premier Mine was operated under several owners for 35 years, producing gold steadily from 1918 until 1953, and then sporadically for another few years. It was very profitable for most of its life, paying out about 22 million dollars in dividends. The property sat idle from 1967-1988, other than some exploration in the early 1980s. In 1988, Westmin Mines began construction on the property and operated an open-pit mine from 1989-1992. In 1993, Westmin Mines began underground operations which continued until 1996. Other significant mines in the area were the Jumbo, BC Silver, Red Cliff, and Porter-Idaho. The Porter Idaho Mines are on the southeast slope of Mount Rainey on the east side of Portland Canal, with workings extending from about 4,200 feet (1,280 m) to an elevation of about 6,000 feet (1,829 m). The Porter Idaho Mining Company was organized in 1925 to take over the claims originally staked by Clay Porter. Underground development followed on the exposed veins of four mineralized zones, and the first ore was shipped from oxidized surface material yielding high-value silver and lead. In 1926, the Premier Gold Mining Company took a 52 percent interest in the property and in 1928 assumed management of the Porter Idaho. An impressive aerial tramline to haul ore to Stewart from the mine site was built from sea level at the mouth of the Marmot River on Portland Canal to the mine at 5,000 feet (1,524 m) elevation over a total distance of 5 miles. The cost of the development continued to increase and the Premier company assumed a 76 percent interest in the mine. By 1930, the mines were in full production, but the declining silver price and the heavy development cost involved in opening up small isolated ore veins forced the closure in 1931. In 1946, Big Four Silver Mines Limited assumed control of the mine and shipped 28 tons of high-grade ore in 1950. In 1952, Cassiar Consolidated Mines Limited assumed control of the mines. See a short video on the Premier and Porter Idaho mine operations here.

The Bear River watershed is located within the Boundary Range of the Coast Mountains and starts from Strohn Lake, a proglacial lake at the terminus of the Bear River Glacier, approximately 19 miles (30 km) upstream of Stewart, and 14 miles (23 km) west of Meziadin Junction on the Cassiar Highway. Flanked by Mounts Strohn and Disraeli, the Bear River Glacier flows 3 miles (5 km) from the Cambria Icefield at an elevation of 7,005 feet (2,135 m), and descends northward into Bear River Pass, a low divide in the east-west trending Bear River Valley, terminating in Strohn Lake which is 1.1 miles (1.7 km) long and 984 feet (300 m) wide. The actual hydrologic divide has shifted over the past 100 years, depending on the dynamics of ice extent, lake extent, and human intervention. The glacier has historically crossed the valley floor creating an ice dam, and as late as 1955, the river has flowed both west towards the Portland Canal, and east towards Meziadin Lake. The Cambria Icefield covers an area of 176,680 acres (71,500 ha) and large outlet glaciers spill into surrounding valleys. Principal tributaries to the Bear River include Bitter Creek that also emanates from the Cambria Icefield, and American Creek which flows in from the north, as well as numerous named and unnamed mountain rivers, all sourced by mountain top glaciers on either side of the valley. The glacial sediment load results in the Bear River forming a braided network of channels, especially in the lower reaches where flow velocity decrease. The tides in Portland Canal, with a mean elevation of 17 feet (5.3 m) and a range of 27 feet (8.2 m), influence the flow velocity and water levels in the extreme lower section of the river. In the first half of the 20th century, the river migrated across the delta, and in the 1950s dikes were built along the river channel to contain the flow and provide flood control for the growing community. The river continued to aggrade over time, requiring continual extensions and raising of the dike system to reduce flood risks and provide protection against associated commercial, residential, and highway damages. The Glacier Highway is a spur road of 40 miles (64 km) that was built in 1984 connecting the Cassiar Highway at Meziadin Junction to the border towns of Stewart and Hyder. From Hyder, the road becomes the Salmon River Road and continues as an unsigned highway generally north through the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, then crosses the international border again at the Premier Mine and continues to the Salmon Glacier summit viewpoint, and then ends at the Granduc Mine. Read more here and here. Explore more of Stewart and Portland Canal here:

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