SS Pezuta, Tlell River

SS Pezuta, Tlell River

by | Jul 30, 2022

Tlell River starts on the eastern flank of Graham Island in Haida Gwaii and drains a watershed of about 85,000 acres (34,400 ha), flowing generally north-northeast for 28 miles (45 km) to Hecate Strait near the wreck of the steamship SS Pezuta, about 29 miles (47 km) south-southeast of Masset and 4.5 miles (7 km) north of Tlell, British Columbia. The small community of Tlell is named after the Tlell River, but the meaning of the name in the Haida language is not certain and may refer to ‘place of big surf’ or ‘land of berries’. Haida Gwaii means ‘islands of the people’ and is comprised of an archipelago with approximately 150 islands. Two main islands represent most of the land mass, Graham Island in the north, and Moresby Island in the south. The west coast of Graham Island is mountainous and rugged, and the eastern part of Graham Island forms a broad lowland. The islands of Haida Gwaii are within the Wrangellia terrane which has been identified from Oregon to Alaska. The western margin of Wrangellia at Haida Gwaii is bounded by the Queen Charlotte Fault which represents the plate boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The eastern margin is not well defined but lies east of Hecate Strait. The Wrangellian terrane consists of Late Triassic basalts overlain by calcareous sedimentary rocks that were deposited starting about 230 million years ago. In the lowlands of eastern Graham Island, these basement rocks are overlain by thick unconsolidated Quaternary sediments consisting mainly of marine and glaciomarine mud, outwash sand, and till. The sand probably was deposited near the margin of a complex of piedmont glaciers flowing from the mountains of Haida Gwaii and mainland British Columbia. Late Wisconsin glaciation of the coastal lowlands of Graham Island was likely minor and of short duration, and was followed by a marine inundation that peaked about 8,000 to 7,500 years ago when the sea level was about 50 feet (15 m) higher relative to the land than at present. The relative sea level decreased during the middle and late Holocene time producing wave-cut scarps, wave-cut benches overlain by littoral sediments, bars, spits, and beach and dune ridges.

Local concentrations of endemic species and subspecies occur on the islands of Haida Gwaii which may have resulted from the presence of glacial refugia during the late Pleistocene time. In addition, archaeologists have suggested that the islands may have been a possible stepping stone for the migration of humans into North America from Beringia. Haida Gwaii is the ancestral home of the seafaring Haida First Nation who have inhabited the region for thousands of years and their population before the arrival of Europeans was probably in the tens of thousands. The first recorded contact between the Haida and Europeans was in 1774 with Spanish explorer Juan José Pérez Hernández, who was sailing north on an expedition to find and claim new territory for Spain. Trade for sea otter pelts was initiated by British Captain George Dixon in 1787. The Haida subsequently conducted regular trade with Russian, Spanish, British, and American fur traders and whalers. European settlers did not significantly populate the islands of Haida Gwaii until about 1900. By 1915, their population had declined to 588 people, mainly as a result of internecine warfare, smallpox, and other diseases for which they had no immunity. The area was first settled by William T. Hodges or ‘Mexican Tom’ who got his nickname either from a swarthy Welsh complexion and long black hair or from dealing with Mexican bandits close to the Texas border. Hodges immigrated to Canada in 1887, and by 1904 was cattle ranching on Graham Island at Tlell. In 1907, he married Flora Emily Burns with a wedding party aboard the SS Amur. He built up a homestead, now known as the Richardson Ranch, on the banks of the Tlell River and an early hotel was established nearby. In 2008, the Tlall Heritage Site and Conservancy was created and includes 40,060 acres (16,212 ha) of traditional Haida territory. It is part of an archipelago-wide system of protected areas with half of the land base of Haida Gwaii now in protected status. Tlall Conservancy includes a fen of 865 acres (350 ha) and marsh area known as the Tlell Pontoons and a large portion of the Tlell River watershed. Naikoon Provincial Park extends north from Tlell for 45 miles (72 km) to Rose Spit at the northeast tip of Graham Island and is the site of the SS Pezuta shipwreck about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) north of the Tlell River mouth.

SS Pezuta was built in Raymond, Washington on Willapa Bay for the Emergency Fleet Corporation by the Sanderson & Porter Shipyard. The ship was launched in 1918 and the name is from the Lakota Sioux word for ‘medicine’.  The Emergency Fleet Corporation was established by the United States Shipping Board to acquire merchant ships during World War I to meet the needs for national defense. Construction of the ship required 1.8 million board feet of lumber, 20,000 nails, 10,000 pounds of clinch rings, 600 gallons of paint, 400 bales of oakum, 200 tons of round iron, 30 tons of iron strapping, and 2 tons of lead preservatives. Following the launch, the ship was towed to Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island for the installation of coal-fired steam engines, and then to Seattle for sea trials and acceptance by the United States Shipping Board. However, the armistice on November 11, 1918, ended the need for ships and Pezuta was sold to reduce the inventory of excess ships and hulls. By 1922, Pezuta was no longer on the official U.S. Merchant Ship Registry and most likely was abandoned. A large number of the surplus wooden ships were obtained by the Washington Tug & Barge Company, which joined with Canadian shipbuilder John Coughlan to form the British Pacific Transport Company Ltd. Pezuta was then refitted as a barge for hauling logs. On December 11, 1928, Pezuta was under tow by the steam tug Imbricaria during a heavy southeast gale when the tow line broke and she went aground at the mouth of the Tlell River on Graham Island. She was almost a complete loss, but logs were salvaged by locals and Prince Rupert Salvage & Towing Company determined the hull was not worth refloating. Three truckloads of machinery were stripped from the ship and the remainder of the wreck remained high on the beach to be gradually broken up by waves and weather. Read more here and here. Explore more of the SS Pezuta and Tlell River here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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