Rounder, Foster marked final age of river navigation

This week in Prince George, May 6-12:

May 5, 1922: Two commercial motor boats were expected to begin service on the Fraser River between Prince George and Quesnel within a day, The Citizen reported.

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The Rounder, owned by Albert Johnson, and the Circle W, owned by Capt. Donald A. Foster and W.J. Matheson, were scheduled to begin service on May 9 and May 10, respectively.

"On Tuesday next the Johnson boat Rounder, a very fast craft, will leave for the south on her first (scheduled) trip carrying the mails," The Citizen reported. "It is possible that the Rounder will leave for the south today if the ice is not running, but her regular schedule starts Tuesday. The Rounder will leave here each Tuesday and Friday morning for Quesnel, returning on Wednesdays and Fridays."

Johnson, who arrived in Prince George by train with his wife, said if the business warrants it he will constuct a 60-foot, twin-engine boat to replace the Rounder. All the materials were already in Prince George and the boat could be built and commissioned in three weeks, Johnson told The Citizen.

"The Circle W, owned by Foster and Matheson, is lying at Quesnel and will leave on Wednesday for Prince George. This boat will also run on a regular schedule," The Citizen reported. "The proprietors of these gasoline boats expect that a good deal of passenger traffic will be carried this summer, owning to the surge of the northern miners towards the Cedar Creek country. This will assume definite proportions when the season for prospecting has advanced a little."

While many Prince George residents know about the steamships which plied the upper Fraser River, fewer are aware of the gas-powered boats which competed with them and continued to provide service when the last of the steamers were gone.

Here's a few details:

"Harry Bloom's boat, the Rounder, is giving the fastest service between South Fort George and Quesnel that the Fraser River has ever seen," the Prince George Post reported on April 17, 1915. "On the southbound trip the Rounder makes it in from 4 1/2 to five hours, while upstream it takes about 12 (hours). One can leave his breakfast table at Quesnel in the morning and get here in lots of time to catch the westbound train the same night. Or he can leave Prince George on the Rounder and come back the same evening, if the boat makes both trips in the one day, which it easily can."

In 1916, the Rounder was taken over by Browne & Pidgeon, who offered twice-weekly service between Quesnel and Prince George, before Johnson took over operating the boat.

The BX and B.C. Express paddlewheelers were broken up for parts at South Fort George in 1920, according to Citizen reports from the time. The Quesnel, the last sternwheeler on the upper Fraser, was wrecked on April, 1921 in the Fort George Canyon. Capt. Foster was in command for that final voyage, making him the last paddlewheel skipper on the Fraser.

In 1923-24, the Rounder provided connections for passengers and mail to the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later known as BC Rail) station in Quesnel. From Quesnel, the train travelled to its terminus in Squamish, where travelers would continue on by boat to Vancouver. The Rounder-PGE cutting the time mail takes to arrive from four days on the Canadian National Railway to two days.

The final stage of the Rounder's history came in 1926.

"The motor boat Rounder, which has played an important part in transportation during the early development of this district, will enter a new service this week," an April 1926 edition of The Citizen reported. "The little river boat has been purchased from Al Johnson by the Allen-Thrasher lumber company, and for the future will be used as a towboat in connection with its milling business."

Rounder was first used as a fast freight boat on the Fraser between Tete Jaune Cache and Prince George by P. Burns and Company during the construction of the railway, The Citizen reported.

"When the road was completed to this point and the big bridge across the Fraser was awaiting the finishing touches, the Rounder was put into the ferry service, moving passengers and express across the river," The Citizen reported.

Then, from 1915 to 1925 it offered passenger and express cargo service between Quesnel and Prince George.

"(It) proved to be a good money-maker, Jimmy Williams for a great part of the time serving as engineer and Captain Foster as master," The Citizen reported.

Foster, evidently, decided to work for Johnson rather than continuing competing.

Foster had previously captained the Charlotte, Quesnel and Chilcotin steamships, according to the Aug. 27, 1931 edition of The Citizen.

The end of passenger and mail service on the river forced Foster, who had been in the Cariboo since 1898, to keep up with the changing times.

"Capt. Foster, who is known to almost every man, woman and child in Prince George, will be missing from our midst at the end of September. For the past eight years he has been driving his bus over the highway between Prince George and Quesnel, carrying His Majesty's mail, but with the end of September this will be a thing of a past for the captain, as he has lost his mail contract," The Citizen reported in 1931.

Residents along the highway could "set their watch" by Foster's bus bouncing along on its twice-weekly mail runs. But cuts to the mail service and a lower bidder meant Foster was forced to take a contract delivering mail between Williams Lake and Kleena Kleene.

"Captain Foster was not always engaged as a mail-carrier. In the days of river navigation he was the autocrat of the Fraser River... To him belongs the distinction of having brought the largest cargo of freight up the river," The Citizen reported.

The story of Rounder and Capt. Foster shows the importance of the river to the history of this region. Eventually trains and automobiles replaced them, but for awhile the steamers and fast motor boats were the only link between Prince George and Quesnel - and the men who piloted them were 'autocrats of the river.'

To explore 100 years of local history yourself, visit the Prince George Citizen archives online at: pgc.cc/PGCarchive. The Prince George Citizen online archives are maintained by the Prince George Public Library.

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