Squamish is a river port, like many port towns around the world, and in contrast to the deep water harbours of Woodfibre, Britannia and Burrard inlet.
The navigation channels of Squamish harbour are in constant need of maintenance dredging.
The need for dredging first came with the railway. The original Pacific Great Eastern Railway docks, also used by the steamship ferries, were built in 1913-14 just slightly east of Squamish Terminals. The pilings for these docks can still be seen.
This was a location vulnerable to the river (and was eventually replaced with new facilities further east, in 1929). During 1912-14, the dredge vessel ROBSON prepared the site of these PGE docks for ocean freighters, which began to call in 1913.
The ROBSON was the first of several big rigs which were to visit Squamish many times over the coming decades. During the years the west side PGE/ steamship ferry docks were in use, the dredge rigs would sometimes be accompanied by a specialized snag pulling vessel, the SS Samson III, owned by the Department of Public Works.
Snag pulling operations in the lower Squamish main branch would especially be required after a big freshet, such as the major flood event of 1921. Snags at the mouth of the river were not only a navigation hazard but an obstacle for dredging equipment used.
Public Works has owned five sternwheeler snag pullers named SAMSON. The A-frame crane from the SAMSON III which worked several times at Squamish is preserved and on display today at Anacortes, Washington.
Public Works vessels KING EDWARD II and FRÜHLING alternated in looking after dredging operations in the challenging conditions of the west side PGE docks through the 1920s.
The FRÜHLING and her master, Captain J.F. Gosse, made news headlines in February 1922 when they came to clean up the mess created by major Squamish River high water events during the previous Fall, “performing one of the best and quickest dredging jobs in the records of such work on this Coast.”
The FRÜHLING was a suction cutter dredge. Suction dredges, especially when the material to be dredged contains heavy wood debris, clamshell rigs have been most commonly used at Squamish.
Steam-powered dredges were still being used in the Blind Channel in the 1970s. Sternwheeler vessels were still in service on the lower Fraser until 1980. Modern dredge rigs are modular and demountable in design, and a wide variety of smaller scale machinery is available to suit the job at hand today.
Dredging can have detrimental environmental impacts, especially in an estuary. This came into focus in the 1970s, not only here at Squamish but in the Fraser and elsewhere.
This was not a new concern then. In 1912 a consortium of Lower Mainland sawmill interests with local timber rights applied to dredge the East Branch of the Squamish (Mamquam Blind Channel) all the way up to where the Capilano University campus is today. This was referred to Indian Affairs and the local chiefs said no. This was critical eulachon spawning habitat.
The first major dredging in the Mamquam Blind Channel was in 1953 for the new small boat harbour. This was undertaken by electric powered machinery using a power cable strung from Britannia Beach.
With the expansion of the forest industry in the 1960s, with more timber being brought to Squamish from the north by truck and rail, there were new needs for waterfront facilities and dredging that could not be handled by local dragline and winch equipment.
With 13 forest industry operators on the channel at this time, there was opportunity for collaboration in sharing costs with Public Works.
Today’s Oceanfront peninsula, the Cattermole Slough and the Squamish Terminals facilities were created through major railway-sponsored dredging projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The lower Blind Channel at the “salt docks” was dredged in 1966 to handled very large oceangoing ships.
Dredging has created the waterfront as know it today – but not only the waterfront. Downtown sloughs were filled in to create land for streets, buildings and parks.
Creation of new land for water dependent industry at “Site B” south of the Stawamus has enabled redevelopment of the Downtown waterfront along Loggers Lane. The upper Loggers Lane north from the Adventure Centre was also constructed with dredge spoil from the harbour in 1963.
Lack of navigation channel maintenance not only constrains the functions of the harbour but can also be a safety issue.
The most noteworthy marine accident in Squamish harbour occurred during a 1949 late November storm when the big charter vessel MV MARINER went hard aground approaching the docks, with 100 passengers on board, including VIPs, journalists and a large children’s choir. Woodfibre tugs and local boats were mobilized to attend to the ship and rescue the passengers.
During recent summers stranded sailboats have been a common occurrence in the lower Blind Channel. A barge or two have been grounded, as well.
Fortunately, nobody has been hurt in these incidents.
The last comprehensive dredging of the Mamquam Blind Channel waterway was organized by the Chamber of Commerce in 1986. A large suction dredge, the FORT LANGLEY (CPW No.322) was deployed all the way up to the railway bridge. This enabled a new dock to be established at the foot of Main Street for the large cruise vessel MV BRITANNIA.
Shortly after that 1986 dredging project, Public Works sold off the FORT LANGLEY and the rest of its dredging fleet. A decade later, with a new Marine Act and as part of budget cutbacks, the federal government divested itself of direct responsibilities for harbour maintenance at Squamish.
With the closure of the Empire Lumber mill nearly 20 years ago, there is also no longer any industry-sponsored navigation channel dredging benefiting recreational boating and other users.
The river port of Squamish will always have dredging and uses for dredge spoil fill in our development plans. There are certainly pressing needs again today.
This includes for habitat restoration objectives, such as restoring freshwater flow through the old East Branch, and integrated solution schemes for both the Stawamus estuary and on the west side of Squamish Terminals.
Eric Andersen is a local historian and District of Squamish councillor.