Hells Gate is an abrupt narrowing of British Columbia's Fraser River, located immediately downstream of Boston Bar in the southern Fraser Canyon. The towering rock walls of the Fraser River plunge toward each other forcing the waters through a passage only wide. It is also the name of the rural locality at the same location.
For centuries the narrow passage has been a popular fishing ground for Aboriginal communities in the area. European settlers also began to congregate there in the summer months to fish. Eventually the Fraser Canyon became a route used by gold rush miners wishing to access the upper Fraser gold-bearing bars and the upper country beyond up the Fraser and the Thompson. In the 1880s the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built a transcontinental railroad that passed along the bank at Hells Gate, and in 1911 the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) began constructing a second track. In 1914 a large rockslide triggered by CNR construction fell into the river at Hells Gate, obstructing the passage of Pacific salmon needing to swim upstream to spawn. Salmon had difficulty passing through the now swifter water, and were appearing in increased numbers downstream below the Hells Gate passage and in tributary rivers and streams that they had not inhabited before. In the winter of 1914 debris removal began, and in 1915 the river was pronounced clear. However many biologists claim that the river was permanently altered and the salmon migration would forever remain disturbed by the slide.
A decrease in Fraser salmon catalyzed tension between the Canadian government and the Aboriginal peoples of the area. Not only did the debris clearing operation impede their access to the river, but the government imposed new fishing restrictions, such as a four-day-per-week limit, in an attempt to preserve the salmon population. Ultimately the slide and subsequent restrictions proved very damaging for the Aboriginal fishing economy.
The Canadian and United States governments formed the Pacific Salmon Convention (PSC) of 1937, which created the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission (IPSFC) (now the Pacific Salmon Commission). The IPSFC carried out extensive research, and as based on their findings they recommended that fishways be constructed to help migrating salmon pass through Hells Gate. Building of the fishways began in 1944.
This decision sparked a major controversy in the Pacific fisheries and research community, which became divided along national lines. American William Thompson, head researcher for the IPSFC, was criticized by Canadian zoologist William Ricker who claimed that the IPSFC research was unreliable and that fishways were not a means to preserving Fraser salmon. Ricker believed that Hells Gate posed no threat to migrating salmon, and that commercial over-fishing did. He held that stringent regulations should be placed on fishing for Fraser salmon.
The fishways at Hells Gate became a tourist attraction in the 1970s. Among the attractions for tourists are the airtram, food outlets, observation decks and an educational fisheries exhibit.