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The Columbia Express

For the week of Monday September 2, 2002

On September 6, 1840, the Prince Rupert set sail for England with the years’ letter bags and retiring staff of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Many of these letters and passengers were brought from Fort Vancouver by the Columbia Express – a mail service that, for 40 years, allowed the fastest exchange of news possible between the HBC posts on the Pacific Coast and their headquarters in London, England.

The Columbia Express Route, ca.1850

The Columbia Express Route, ca.1850
© 2001 Government of Canada
with permission from
Natural Resources Canada

The Columbia Express was a party of travellers who carried mail between York Factory on Hudson Bay and Fort Vancouver on the Pacific Ocean – leaving York Factory in the autumn and returning in spring. The North West Company had begun the practice in 1813 to move employees and mail from Montréal to its new trading posts on the Pacific. (The heavy goods went by sea around Cape Horn.) The Express crossed two continental divides, both in present-day Alberta: from the Atlantic to the Arctic watershed at Portage La Biche, and on to the Pacific watershed at Athabasca Pass. This continued, with some changes of route and equipment, after the Nor’westers merged with the HBC in 1821.

When leaving York Factory, the party travelled the Hayes River to Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River. At Edmonton House, they crossed over land to Fort Assiniboine and headed up the Athabasca River, reaching the Rocky Mountains. Crossing the Athabasca Pass through the mountains they journeyed more than 1600 kilometres down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.

The cross-continent journey took between 85 and 105 days to complete. The men worked 17-hour days, and encountered many challenges. Supplies often ran out because of unexpected delays, and because the paths were not always clear the chances of getting lost increased. In the Rockies, the party switched from boats to horses to snowshoes – good snowshoes were important to make the steep mountain passes manageable as the travellers carried heavy packs of personal items and letters.

The Columbia Express Ascending<br>the Rocky Mountains

The Columbia Express Ascending
the Rocky Mountains

© LAC / 1965-76-41

On the western side, HBC men awaited the Express party with boats. Together, they descended many dangerous rapids on the Columbia River where the boats occasionally flipped losing personal possessions, destroying the boats and sometimes drowning passengers. Yet, despite these many dangers the Columbia Express delivered its cargo faithfully and in good time, allowing ‘rapid’ communication that was needed for the company to run well.

For their roles in the fur trade, many places along the Columbia Express route are designated as national historic sites of Canada, including Athabasca Pass, York Factory, Fort Edmonton, Fort Assiniboine and Boat Encampment.

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