Kamloops is defined by its rivers.
Everyone who lives in Kamloops is familiar with the two rivers that meet here, giving the city its name.
Tk’emlúps means “confluence” in the Secwépemc language. The rivers, too, had Secwépemctsin names. Simpcwétkwe for the North Thompson, Secwépemcétkwe for the South Thompson and Snek’w7étkwe for the main Thompson.
The early explorers and fur traders gave different names to the rivers. It was Simon Fraser of the North West Company who named the Thompson in 1808 after his colleague, David Thompson, who was exploring the Columbia River to the east. But Thompson never set eyes on the river named after him. The first fur traders to visit Tk’emlúps in 1811 named it Stuart’s River after David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company. But Thompson named it on his great map of 1814 as the “Sheewap River,” his corruption of the name Secwépemc. By 1827, the name “Thompson” was confirmed on maps made by the Hudson’s Bay Company and European cartographers.
Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader Archibald McDonald’s 1827 map shows the name Thompson River, referring to the main stream, and the names South Branch and North River to the other arms. But the rivers were not useful to the fur traders.
They were intent on trying the rivers for transportation, but resorted to trails instead. To cross the river with horses, strategic places like Monte Creek and what became Little Fort were used.
The Thompson at Savona and the rivers at Kamloops were crossed using watercraft.
The local Secwépemc people made more use of the rivers than the fur traders. The Secwépemc made bark and dugout canoes to travel long stretches of the rivers, to fish and to go between villages. Large trout were caught using dipnets from rocky shorelines or were speared by torchlight from canoes and rafts on the stiller waters of the Thompson rivers and on Kamloops Lake.
George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, canoed down the North Thompson on a reconnaissance trip in 1828. Stopping at Fort Kamloops, his party repaired the canoes and batteaux they used. Continuing downstream, Simpson determined that the Thompson and Fraser rivers were not navigable for the use of the fur trade.
In 1862, a group of Overlanders crossed the Rocky Mountains, headed for the Cariboo goldfields. There was more than one group and more than one route was taken. Between 40 and 50 men, as well as the Schubert family with three young children, took the route down the North Thompson River.
They travelled by trail for the most part, but from what is now Vavenby south, they took to rafts. Catherine Schubert was pregnant and gave birth to a fourth child shortly after their arrival in October 1862 near Fort Kamloops, which was being rebuilt on the south side of the river junction.
A few years later, a paddlewheeler, the S.S. Marten, was constructed in 1865 to operate from Savona’s Ferry to the head of Seymour Arm on Shuswap Lake for the gold seekers then headed to the Columbia River. The venture did not last long when the Big Bend rush ended. But the Marten was rehabilitated in 1874 and used for a trip up the North Thompson to Vavenby, 193 kilometres from Kamloops.
It was not until the period of Canadian Pacific Railway construction that paddlewheelers became common on the Thompson waterways. The largest one, the S.S. Peerless, was launched in 1881 and used on an exploratory expedition from Kamloops down the Thompson River as far as Spences Bridge and back. Like the Marten, the Peerless was also tried 160 kilometres up the North Thompson. Rapids and rocks were the impediments to river travel, even with the shallow-drafted steamers.
The viewing pier at Riverside Park is the perfect place to observe “where the rivers meet” and to appreciate the history of the Thompson waterways.
Ken Favrholdt is a historical geographer and freelance writer. He was formerly curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum & Archives.