The impermanence of forts and the importance of ports

👤Charlynn Toews 🕔Mar 29, 2013

Let’s celebrate the anniversary of the publication, on February 18, 1693, of A Treatise of the Roman Ports and Forts of Kent, in which William Somner finds a suspicious place name: “Probably it is not the true, genuine, ancient and original name, but rather a corruption of the right name contracted and caused by that grand corruption as well of names as things, time.”

And so “Laxłgu’alaams,” the “place of the wild roses,” becomes Fort Simpson in 1834, then Port Simpson, and now Lax-Kw’alaams. But not only do places change names—places change places. The name Fort Simpson derived from Captain Aemilius Simpson, a superintendent with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who first established Fort Simpson on the nearby Nass River in 1830.

Archeologists don’t know what the original inhabitants of the area called it 10,500 years ago, but Fort St. John has changed names and places many times since. The Northwest Company called it Rocky Mountain Fort in 1794, which was replaced with Fort d’Epinette in 1806 near the mouth of the Beatton River, then renamed Fort St John in 1821. It was relocated three more times, including at Fish Creek in 1925. By then settlers were moving westward to the fertile agricultural lands on both sides of the Peace River.

Fort Nelson, named in honour of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, was established in 1805 as a fur-trading post. In a deft and dandy phrase, Wikipedia tells us, “Due to fires, floods and feuds, Fort Nelson is currently situated in its fifth location.”

The Lheidli T’Enneh (People from the Confluence of Two Rivers) lived where the Fraser meets the Nechako. Simon Fraser established Fort George there in 1807, which spawned two settlements: South Fort George was built on the Fraser River near the trading post, and Central Fort George was built three kilometres away on the Nechako River. When the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway arrived in 1913, the river junction became the new town centre and was named Prince George.

PG is now known as “BC’s northern capital,” but for a long time it was small potatoes compared to Fort St. James. FSJ (rebuilt four times) was the capital of New Caledonia, the huge territory drained by the Peace, Stuart and Bulkley river systems. Wikipedia tells us that the fur trade was slow to take root in the area, since the economy of the Dakelh had been based on fishing rather than on trapping.

Meanwhile, on the coast, a BC Archives photo shows a group of men and canoes, circa 1910, “landing a cargo of furs, Prince Rupert.” It’s all about trade and transportation, isn’t it?

About 90 percent of the world’s goods are transported by ship, says Wouter Jacobs in “The Role of Port Infrastructure and Logistics in Global Networks.” That percentage has remained fairly constant over the last century, but the volumes have increased enormously in the last 20 years.

While shipping over water has grown by economies of scale (ships so big they’re called ULCVs, or Ultra Large Container Vessels), figuring out how to get good from the pier to the people is done by economies of scope. “Scope” means access to appropriate shipping infrastructure (such as seaports), logistics expertise (trucks, cranes, trains, planes) and appropriate government regulations. That’s brains, not brawn.

Have we got the grey matter needed to take advantage of our ports? Here in northern BC, we have a lot of them, actually: from Ferry Landings on Haida Gwaii to five industrial operations at Rupert, three in Stewart and four (so far) in Kitimat.

The Romans, William Somner tells us, “at length deserted” England. I think they are on their way here.