The Grand Junction Canal runs through Berkhamsted parallel to the High Street. The section from the River Thames at Brentford to Berkhamsted was completed in 1798 and the extension to Birmingham in 1805. The canal later became part of the Grand Union Canal in 1929. The town also stands on the River Bulbourne (non navigable).
With the advent of canal transport, Castle Wharf became a hub of inland water transport and boat building activity. It is still known as the Port of Berkhamsted. One former boat builders' yard was located by the Castle Street bridge. In 1910 it was turned into a timber yard run by William Key and Son timber merchants and importers, and in 1963 the business was taken over by J Alsford Ltd, a family-run timber merchants from Leyton, east London. The timber yard has since gone, but the site is marked by a Canadian totem pole.
In the early 1960s, Roger Alsford, a great-grandson of the founder of the timber company, James Alsford (1841–1912), went to work at the Tahsis lumber mill on Vancouver Island. During a strike he was rescued from starvation by a local Kwakiutl community. Alsford's brother, William John Alsford, visited the island, and in gratitude for their hospitality, commissioned a totem pole from the Canadian First Nations artist Henry Hunt. The western red cedar pole, 30 feet (9.1 m) long and 3 feet (0.91 m) in diameter, was carved by Hunt at Thunderbird Park, a centre for First Nation monuments. The completed pole was shipped to Britain and erected at Alsford's Wharf in 1968. Alsford's warehouses were demolished and replaced in 1994 by Fairclough Homes with a housing development, but the totem pole remains in place today as an unusual local landmark. As it stands in the private walled grounds of the flats, it can only be viewed at a distance from the public road. It is one of only a handful of totem poles in the United Kingdom, others being on display at the British Museum and Horniman Museum in London, Windsor Great Park, Bushy Park and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The carvings on the totem pole represent four figures from North American First Nations legend: at the top sits Raven, the trickster and creator deity; he sits on the head of Sunman, who has outstretched arms representing the rays of the sun and who wears a copper (a type of ceremonial skirt); Sunman stands on the fearsome witch-spirit Dzunukwa; at the base is the two-headed warrior sea-serpent, Sisiutl, who has upstretched wings.
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