Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
Some things never change - Victoria in 1908
Coming up to the 150th anniversary of BC joining Confederation and plenty is being written about the many differences between life then and now.
On land, we live in much fancier homes, don’t have to hitch up the horses anymore to journey in to Fort Victoria, the settlement is a little bigger, we have the E&N, airplanes, space travel, global warming (change isn’t always good), cell phones, etc, etc.
Lots of change on the water too - we have GPS and electronic charting, radar, VHF communications, even the new AIS system so you can follow the positions of ships and boats in real time from anywhere in the world (check it out at www.AISlive.com/).
Ships look different too. Wood is no longer the material of choice; we now have welded steel, modular construction, lightweight composites, fibreglass and epoxy. Hulls are designed for minimal resistance, equipped with active roll damping, bow and stern thrusters and strain gauges.
Gone are the bluff-bowed schooners and barkentines, the long lean clippers ships, side-wheelers and stern-wheelers, steam tugs and crimps (a civilian version of naval press-gangs).
But ships still come and go, carrying everything from coal to plasma TVs. A hundred years ago, Victoria was a busy place with ships, tugs and boats coming and going constantly. The Klondike gold rush of 1897 was just over, injecting a huge amount of money into the freight and passenger business – much of it through Victoria. The war between Russia and Japan had ended in 1905 with disastrous results for the Russian fleet in the Pacific, and Japan was now expanding her interests into the Pacific.
Armed conflicts were a regular thing in the Alaskan Pribilof Islands, full of fur seals, fish and whales. The Americans were still trying to develop an effective naval presence in the area, and Britain was focused on Asia and other parts of the Empire. British Columbia in 1908 wasn’t really part of the thinking in London, or even Ottawa – it was just too far away, and full of trees and fish. Just not the thing, old boy! Victoria did make a convenient access point to Pacific, and it was on that conditional basis that BC gained support for the railway link to civilization – sorry, Confederation.
HMS Algerine was dispatched from the China Station and arrived in Esquimalt to carry out seal fishery patrols in the Bering Sea. No doubt she would do something to control Japanese incursions into the region for whales as well. Whales were a big part of maritime commerce, as the steam whalers Orion and St.Lawrence, working from Cachalot Station at Kyuquot Sound, took over 600 whales between them in 1908. The CPR steamer Tees called regularly, bringing supplies in and taking barrels of whale oil out for shipment to Europe.
Deep sea traffic was substantial, with Canadian-Australian Royal Mail Line took delivery of two new ships. The 450 foot, 8075 ton Makura and the smaller Marama would provide regular service between Victoria and the Antipodes, although the Alley Line - operating similar service with their steamers Pondo and Bucentaur - would cease operations due to poor returns and competition from the government subsidized NYK Line of Japan.
On the triangle run, CP and Puget Sound navigation Co. were competing hard for Seattle traffic. CP’s Princess Victoria and Princess Royal held daily races with the American Iroquois and Chippewa, with passenger fares down to 25¢. North coastal traffic was competitive, too, with Union Steamships new steamer Cowichan arriving on July 31 from the builders. Not to be outdone, CP’s new Princess Charlotte arrived in December, after a 58 day journey from Glasgow.
The cable ship Restorer arrives at Victoria to maintain the newly completed Pacific Cable, which now linked Bamfield (and the rest of North America) with Hawaii, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. Restorer – 337 feet, 1280 tons - was built in Britain in 1903. She would be based at Victoria for the next 40 years.
The 163 foot survey vessel Lillooet was completed at the BC Marine Railway yard in Victoria, and the sternwheeler Port Simpson was built at Alexander Watson’s yard for Hudson Bay Co. service on the Skeena.
The 116 foot steam tug Nanoose was completed for the CPR, and the Craigflower, a small sternwheeler, was built for Skeena River excursions. Interestingly, she was built for Capt. Ray Troup, son of CP General Manger James Troup. Unfortunately, the little ship was not a commercial success and quickly faded from sight.
1908 had its scary moments as well. In mid-February, the bark Loudon Hill, inbound with general cargo, nearly grounded at Cape Beale. A timely wind shift allowed her to make Neah Bay, from where she was towed to Victoria by the steam tug Prosper.
Princess Victoria ran down the American halibut boat Ida May, heading home from her first voyage with a full load of fish. The steamer Henriette, loaded with horses and dynamite for the Grand Trunk Railway construction camps on the Skeena, ran into Protection Island near Nanaimo. The ship is later salvaged and returns to service. And, the steamer Humboldt wrecked on Mouat Point, Pender Island while northbound for Skagway.
All of this against a steady background of steamers and lumber clippers, rowboats and dugout canoes, coming and going from a bustling little port. A new hotel was nearing completion on an old bog, kittycorner from the Parliament buildings, which many of the old timers claimed would soon sink out of sight. Fortunately, the Empress hasn’t sunk as quickly as forecast!
So, from our comfortable perspective we can marvel at things the way they were and wonder how it would be to see those days with our own eyes. The Port of Victoria is still a busy place, but when it comes to shipwrecks and offshore construction, some things never change!
Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, H.W. McCurdy, Superior Publishing, 1965
Whalers No More, William A. Hagelund, Harbour Publishing, 1987
Light on the Water, Keith McLaren, Douglas & McIntyre, 1998