CN Ships

Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy



Do you remember the former Canadian National steamer Prince George, which lay for many years at the old Britannia Mines dock in Howe Sound? ​​ Well then, did you know about the connection between CN, the port of Prince Rupert and the RMS Titanic?


Long before the CNR was created, BC’s northern rail system was built and operated by the Grand Trunk Railway. ​​ The GTR began in 1852 with a line from Montreal to Toronto. ​​ It slowly expanded in Eastern Canada and the US, but faced growing competition from the CPR.


CP completed its transcontinental rail system with a railhead in Vancouver in 1886, and the British owners of the Grand Trunk decided they needed their own west coast terminus. ​​ They hired a hard driving American, Charles Melville Hays, and he quickly set out to take on the country and the competition.


In 1903, his engineers laid out the route. ​​ Through the Yellowhead Pass to Fort George, along the Nechako River and down the Skeena to the new town of Prince Rupert. ​​ 500 miles shorter than the rival CPR route, and with lower grades to boot.


The Grand Trunk Pacific started its marine operations in1908, when paddlewheel riverboats were needed along the Skeena to support railway construction. ​​ By 1910, GTP was offering service to Vancouver and the Queen Charlottes with the 232 foot Prince Albert and the 185 foot Prince John.


The original Prince Rupert and Prince George were built in 1909/1910, specifically intended to compete with the CPR’s Princess ships. ​​ These identical passenger liners were 320 long, with two triple expansion steam engines powered by coal burning boilers.

The new Prince ships went head to head with the CP’s Princess Charlotte and Princess Adelaide in the express passenger business, while the smaller Albert and John continued to service smaller communities and logging camps.


Charles Hays had great plans for the GTP fleet and for Prince Rupert. The services of Francis Rattenbury were retained to design a new grand hotel over the waterfront, to be twice the size of Victoria’s Empress Hotel. ​​ GTP was already marketing coastal cruises to the icefields of Alaska ($48 return from Seattle), with the option of a rail tour of the Rockies.