Before Europeans came to the North Island, First Nations travelled extensively in dugout canoes and via a network of overland trails. One of these trails crossed from the mudflats at the end of Hardy Bay to what is now Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound.
In pre-contact times, before large numbers of First Nations had moved to the area around Fort Rupert, there were a number of sites utilized by First Nations in Hardy Bay.
With the arrival of settlers and the advent of steamships, people and goods needed to move from Fort Victoria to the North Island. In the late 1800s, it became clear that the quickest way for people and mail to get to Quatsino Sound in a timely manner was to travel by steamer up the East Coast of Vancouver Island, and then over the 13-mile trail from Hardy Bay to Coal Harbour.
In 1888 Indian agent R.H. Pedcock reported walking the trail in six hours, in order to visit the Quatsino First Nation villages. The trail generally traced the same route as today’s road.
The old community of Port Hardy, on the East side of the bay, was a stop for steamships. It took steamers only three days to get to Port Hardy from Fort Victoria, whereas it took 10 days to come up the West Coast of Vancouver Island to Quatsino Sound, and the trip on the exposed West Coast was much rougher.
The trail from Hardy Bay started in the mudflats by the mouth of the Quatse River. There was a small boat which took people from old Port Hardy (present day Bear Cove) to the trailhead. The charge for the boat was 50 cents per man, but if you volunteered to row the trip was free.
Residents of Coal Harbour were hired to pack mail on the trail. They would leave Coal Harbour in the morning, hike the trail, row to Port Hardy to collect the mail, row back to the trail, and hike back to Quatsino Sound. Then they would use a small boat to deliver mail around the Sound.
A source of tension was mail orders for liquor placed by workers at the Port Alice Pulp Mill. Albert Hole, who delivered the mail, at one point refused to deliver the bottles, packed in boxes stuffed with straw, because they were too heavy. He insisted they had to be sent via second class mail on the West Coast steamer.
Hole was accompanied on his mail route by a large sheepdog, which was fitted with a harness allowing it to carry up to 60 lbs.
In 1895 surveyor Hugh Burnet surveyed a route between Coal Harbour and Port Hardy known as the “Colonization Road,” because it would allow settlers to bring their belongings and livestock into the area. Construction began on a 10-foot wide corduroy road in 1895, but after two years and $3,071.34, there was still a four-mile-long section in the middle which was still a path.
In 1898 the Quatsino colonists circulated a petition to the government which, among other things, requested that Lord Varney (who had homesteaded at the mouth of the Marble River), be replaced as the road construction supervisor due to the fact that he was “utterly incapable of supervising the road-building crew.”
In 1916 the trail was officially opened as the Port Hardy road. Once a wagon could traverse the length of the road, perishables could be delivered to Coal Harbour and around Quatsino Sound. At this time a roadhouse was also opened in Coal Harbour to lodge travelers. Horses were used to transport passengers and goods.
In 1927 the Hardy Bay-Coal Harbour road was graveled, and the first motorized vehicles travelled the road. Very soon a bus service, taxi service, and freight delivery were all utilizing the road. A few years earlier the town of Port Hardy had moved to the west side of Hardy Bay, and the trail eventually was connected to the new community by road, eliminating the need to row across the Bay.
It wasn’t until the construction of the Island Copper Mine that the road was finally paved, and the link between Coal Harbour and Port Hardy finally became more reliable and permanent.
Brenda McCorquodale is a Port Hardy resident and North Island history enthusiast. If you have any stories or local lore you’d like to share, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org