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The first settlers known in the area were members of the Island Comox and related Coast Salish peoples. During the 18th century a migration of Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwak’wala-speaking) people of the Wakashan cultural and linguistic group migrated south from the area of Fort Rupert and established themselves in the Campbell River area, at first enslaving and then absorbing the Comox, and became infamous as raiders of the Coast Salish peoples farther south, known to history as the Euclataws, which is also spelled Yucultas and is a variant on their name for themselves, the Laich-kwil-tach, Lekwiltok or Legwildok. Of this group, also known as the Southern Kwakiutl, there are two subdivisions, the Wekayi or Weiwaikai of the Cape Mudge Indian Band on Quadra Island and the Weiwaikum of the Campbell River Band located in and around the city of Campbell River.
Captain George Vancouver reached Campbell River in 1792 aboard the ships HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham. The channel between Quadra Island and Campbell River is named Discovery Passage after HMS Discovery. The captain and his botanist, Mr Archibald Menzies, discovered a small tribe of 350 natives who spoke the Salish language. A Lekwiltok war party, heavily armed with European rifles, paddled south from Johnstone Strait in the middle of the 19th century and were in control of the area when the HMS Plumper came through on a cartography mission under Captain George Henry Richards around 1859. Dr Samuel Campbell was the ship surgeon, and historians believe his name was given to the river by Richards. The community took the name of “Campbell River” when its post office was constructed in 1907. Likewise, the name of HMS Discovery’s First Lieutenant Zachary Mudge is preserved in the nearby Cape Mudge.
Sports fishermen travelled to the area as early as the 1880s, especially after the tales from noted anglers such as Sir Richard Musgrave and Sir John Rogers. The formation of the Campbell River Tyee Club in 1924, over concern regarding over-fishing of the salmon stocks, actually served to increase the popularity of the area. E.P. Painter, for instance, moved to Campbell River the following year and opened his Painter’s Lodge in 1929. Painter’s Lodge attracted clientele from Hollywood and regular patrons included Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Commercial fishing was a large industry for many years. The town’s magistrate Roderick Haig-Brown purchased a fishing cabin on Campbell River and wrote a number of books on fly fishing that are influential and well-loved around the world for both sport fishermen and conservationists.
Industrial logging took off in the 1920s with Merrill Ring and Company, Bloedel, Stewart and Welch and Comox Logging. A large forest fire started near Buttle Lake and burned much of the valley in 1938. Rock Bay, Menzies Bay, and Englewood all were big logging camps.
Campbell River prospered after 1912 and it became a supply point for northern Vancouver Island, Quadra Island and Cortes Island. The E and N Railway was surveyed to Campbell River, yet it only reached Courtenay, forty miles south; in its original conception it would have been the last leg of the transcontinental railway, which had been proposed to run down Bute Inlet after cross the British Columbia Interior, connecting to Vancouver Island just north of Campbell River at Seymour Narrows. After the Second World War, Campbell River became a boom town and industrial centre with the building of the John Hart Dam, Elk River pulp mill, and nearby mills in Tahsis and Gold River. Logging and mining in the area prospered. There is a lead zinc mine nearby, and coal mines, while a large copper mine operated to the north.