Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
BC Shipyards Build Strange Things!
The recent flap about BC Ferries building their new major vessels in Germany has thrown new fuel on an old debate about BC’s shipyards. It’s a worthwhile discussion, because when you consider the past, you’ll see that some very exceptional things have been done on this coast.
Granted, there are always related issues like costs and availability of trained manpower, but when the need is there, BC shipyards have always performed.
Ship building began here in 1788, with the construction of a small sailing vessel called Northwest America in Nootka Sound. Numerous small yards sprang up all over the coast as local trading grew – if you needed a boat you either built it here or brought it ‘round the Horn.
Local yards produced dozens of wooden vessels through the 1800s, taking full advantage of the abundant supply of wood to build boats for fishing, towing and freighting. By 1851, the British Admiralty had begun to recognize the need for a Pacific repair base to support the Royal Navy’s efforts to protect British interests. Esquimalt was the chosen site, and the new naval base began to take shape. The first drydock was completed by 1900, and added a new dimension to BC’s ship repair capabilities.
However, as iron and steam became popular, BC lost its material advantage since there were no sources of steel and iron out west - everything had to come by rail from eastern Canada or even England. A good example is the construction of the Princess Maquinna in 1912; plates and machinery were sent out from Scotland, to be assembled by BC Marine Railway Co. in Esquimalt.
Wooden tugs and coastal vessels continued to be built for the home trade, and gradually a few machinery makers (such as Albion Iron Works) had established themselves in Victoria and Vancouver. As well, some of the larger yards made the investment in plate rolling equipment necessary to build or repair steel hulls.
With the start of World War 1 in 1914, BC shipyards were called on to build steel-hulled freighters. 20 of these ships were built, providing a short-lived boom for the industry. Of course, freighters weren’t the only things being produced.
In 1915, the Electric Boat Company of Connecticut took on a contract to build 5 submarines for Russia. Because of US neutrality laws, the boats would be built in Vancouver, using parts supplied by EBC, and moved to Russia in sections for re-assembly.
The project required construction of a new shipyard at Barnet, on Burrard Inlet near Vancouver. Steel was shipped via the adjacent CP Rail line or using barges from the yard in Seattle, and these five boats were built in short order – the first two ready in 6 months. Once the job was completed, the yard was closed and the machinery taken away. Amazingly, another submarine order was placed in 1917, and yet another new yard was built – this time on the Vancouver waterfront. A number of boats were built and crated, but then “political difficulties” arose with Russia, and the fate of these boats is unclear.
With the end of WW 1, BC shipbuilding reverted to its pre-war levels. Yards built only small ships for domestic trade, and ship repair became the order of the day. The start of WW 2 changed that, of course, as BC yards were called upon to produce the famous “Park” and “Fort” ships – 10,000 ton steel freighters. This boom was followed by the predictable bust at the end of the war, lasting until the start of BC Ferries construction in the 1960s.
The industry has struggled along since then, with a few ferries and naval ships to keep everyone’s interest up while the skilled labour pool retires or drifts away. Today’s high dollar will do nothing to enhance BC’s competitive position in the world market, and it’s highly unlikely that government or private industry will make the kind of capital investment needed to compete in terms of scale – the big European and Asian yards are huge; BC yards are tiny by comparison.
So, the boom and bust cycles are nothing new but hopefully, BC shipyards will continue to produce a few unusual floaters in the meantime – fast cats come to mind….
The answer does seem obvious, doesn’t it? Start a war and build submarines!
Beneath the Surface, Bill Lightfoot, Cordillera Books, 2005
Shipyards of British Columbia, G.W. Taylor, Morriss Publishing, 1986
Tin Pots and Pirate Ships, Michael Hatley & Roger Sarty, McGill - Queens University Press, 1990