Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
The Mission Boats
The name Columbia Coast Mission might ring a bell for anyone who’s been around this coast for a while. How about the Shantymen’s Mission or the Methodist/United Church Mission? All of these operated small boats on the coast, tending their flocks and becoming a big part of coastal life from the late 1800s until the 1960s. Mission boats can still be found on the coast today, although in a much reduced role.
I worked as a deckhand on a former Columbia Coast Mission boat in the Smith and Rivers Inlet area, back in the late 1960’s. At that time the boat was on a charter to Federal Fisheries, monitoring the salmon fleet and doing stream inspections.
A few weeks ago I spotted the old boat here in Victoria Harbour, which started me thinking about my time aboard, and earlier days on the West Coast.
The western hope was built in Prince Rupert in for the Anglican Diocese of Caledonia. This stout little 45 footer was built be the Wahl shipyard, and was, if I recall correctly, yellow cedar planks with gumwood sheathing. Originally powered by a Chrysler Crown gas engine, she had been repowered with a GM diesel by the time I met up with her. She was passed over to the Columbia Coast Mission in 1953 and renamed the John Antle, after the mission’s founder. In 1957 she became the Rendezvous, and continued her coastal mission work until 1962, when she was sold to private interests.
As an ignorant teenager, I never understood why so many people in the tiny communities we often called at: Butedale, Klemtu, Bella Bella, Margaret Bay, Boswell, Dawson’s Landing, Wadhams, Christie Pass, Alert Bay, Sointula, Lund, (and dozens more) seemed to recognize the boat and stop by to say hello. Most of this was probably just coastal friendliness, but at least some had to be due to the earlier history of this and other mission boats. And the mission boats were a real presence on the BC coast for many years, crewed by a variety of men and women – some of them altruistic, some of them searching for something in themselves, and some of them just plain peculiar.
The early Christian missions began around 1850, operated by several of the larger churches and staffed by recent immigrants from England and Europe. Many of these well-intentioned folks had never been to North America before, and subscribed to the prevailing opinion that British Columbia was a vast untamed wilderness overrun with uncivilized savages. It’s different today, as most missionaries now come from Toronto and Ottawa.
Missionaries and coastal traders were faced with the problem of getting around on the coast, and all made use of the Hudson’s Bay and Royal Navy ships. Some established churches in the larger communities, leaving it up to the locals to find their way to the door, and some decided on a more mobile approach.
John Antle was a Newfoundlander, born in 1865. He began as a teacher in remote Newfoundland communities and became drawn to his calling as a “fisher of men”. He eventually came west to Anacortes, Washington as a pastor, in 1876 and it was here that here that he was first exposed to west coast life as it was for loggers and fishermen.
In those days, there were very few schools or hospitals or any of the other services that we now blithely regard as necessities of life. What services were available were generally offered by churches or other benevolent organizations, not by government.
Antle moved to Vancouver in 1899 and soon began planning a coastal mission boat service. In 1901 he built a 16 foot sailing skiff with a Springfield gas engine, and set off on a five hundred mile adventure to Alert Bay and back, stopping at camps and shantytowns along the way.
Armed with first-hand proof of need, Antle raised support and by 1905, the first Columbia was launched. This little 30 foot launch with its 20 hp Union gas engine quickly began a regular route around the coast. Just as quickly, she was pressed into service as a floating hospital, dealing with the results of logging accidents and illnesses, as well as delivering babies and pulling teeth.
From this modest beginning, John Antle went on to create a network of hospitals, held together with a series of mission boats that continued up until the 1960’s. Queen’s Hospital at Rock Bay, Columbia Hospital at Vananda, St George’s Hospital at Alert Bay and St Mary’s Hospital at Garden Bay were all part of the CCM.
On the West Coast of the Island, the Shantymen’s Mission operated the Messenger III from 1946 to 1968. This little ship was a prominent fixture at the Oak Bay Marina until recently – hopefully, she’s still around the area. The Northern Cross operated out of Prince Rupert for the Anglican Church between 1929 and the early ‘50s.
In 1874 Methodist Reverend Thomas Crosby and his new wife Emma landed in Fort Simpson to begin a new mission for the local heathens. Crosby soon realized that a boat was needed, and acquired the steam/sloop Glad Tidings. No doubt the uncharted rocks and weather of the north coast provided the good Reverend – a non-sailor - with many lessons in return for his ministrations. The mission (later run by the United Church) went on to operate a series of boats, all named Thomas Crosby.
The final version of the series, Thomas Crosby V, a fine looking ship of 80 feet, was built in 1957 in New Westminster. She operated until 1990, when the drive for economy outweighed the need to serve God’s children.
The history of missions in BC has been stained recently by the residential school issue, and I’m sure that many people today are puzzled by past deeds of church and government. Generally, the floating missions seem to have avoided much involvement in that troublesome issue, probably because they were drawn into the coastal life themselves. Religion often took a back seat to the more immediate needs of isolated camps and communities. The “common sense” approach so prevalent on the coastal frontiers saw the mission boats provide much, much more than bible thumping – they carried people and pets, groceries and medicine to places where boats and airplanes were the only way. Babies delivered, marriages performed, emergency surgery, tooth extractions, towing services, rescues, you name it – the mission boats were there.
Many of these unique craft are still around our coast. Some would make great subjects for a scale model – maybe without the Sunday sermons……
God’s Little Ships, Michael L. Hadley, Harbour Publishing, 1995
Good Intentions Gone Awry, Jan Hare & Jean Baumann, UBC Press, 2006
Mission to Nootka, Fr A.J. Brabant, Gray’s Publishing, 1977