Hard Waters - by Mike Creasy
The launch of the Queen of Prince Rupert at Victoria Machinery Depot in 1966 marked the start of a new era for coastal transportation. Freight and passenger transportation on the BC Coast had always been provided by a number of private operators, usually with the benefit of federal subsidies. These were a legacy of Confederation; a kind of extension of the national railway system, and by the 1950s it was clear that change was needed. New shipping companies were starting up, using modern post-war equipment, and new communities were springing up all over the coast to service growing resource-based industries.
The need to move bulk cargoes as well as growing numbers of cars and trucks meant that the old style "mixed freight" steamers of the pre-war years were no longer right for the job. Union Steamships was trying to modernize, but losing the battle - and the precious subsidies - to newcomer Northland Navigation. Canadian Pacific was still building out of date ships like the Princess Marguerite (launched on the Clyde in 1949) and the Princess Patricia (launched in 1948), but their Ottawa connections ensured no loss of subsidy. Black Ball was operating a successful car ferry service between Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay and Victoria to Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Seattle as well as throughout Puget Sound (remember the Kahloke? shown here at Black Ball's new Departure Bay terminal).
Premier W.A.C. Bennett had been pressing the companies to improve their services, recognizing that transportation would be the backbone of economic development in the post-war era. Black Ball was receptive, but couldn't get financing to build the new ships and larger terminals needed. Union Steamships had been working to improve their freight capacity, but faced a never-ending struggle with operating costs. CP's eastern brass told Bennett to buzz off because, as one CP steamship expert put it, they had lots of experience running ships and didn't need any advice from a hardware store owner!
In 1958, things came to head. Seafarer's International Union workers at CP went on strike for more pay, and were quickly joined by Black Ball employees. Union Steamships had already begun to shut down money-losing services after federal subsidies were eliminated. BC's coastal transportation system came to a virtual halt while political rhetoric heated up and the public steamed.
Bennett moved quickly to invoke the provincial Civil Defence Act to force Black Ball workers back to work (CP was federally regulated and provincial legislation didn't apply). The new BC Toll Authority Ferry System was created and work began on the car ferries Sidney and Tsawwassen, along with new terminals at Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. Federal politicians, meanwhile, were rummaging around for maps of Canada to see where all the noise was coming from.
BC Ferries began Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen service in the summer of 1960, and it was a roaring success from the start. Black Ball, still operating on the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo and Langdale routes, was bought out in 1961 and new ferries and routes were added throughout the south coast. The north coast, between Port Hardy, Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands, was served by Northland Navigation, which had purchased some of Union Steamships' vessels in 1959 when Union shut down for good. Northland provided freight and limited passenger services throughout the mid- and north coast with Haida Prince, Island Prince, Nootka Prince, Skeena Prince and Tahsis Prince.
Travel to Prince Rupert in the 1950s was a major expedition however you did it. One option was the auto journey up the Fraser Canyon to Prince George, then west on Highway 16 through Smithers and Terrace. This was a genuine goat trail until 1953, when Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi extended it all the way through to Prince Rupert. The other option was CPAir's DC-6 service from Vancouver to Sandspit, connecting to the PBY/Canso flying boat for the trip across to Seal Cove. Either way, the trip was long and delays inevitable. Clearly, something better was needed and BC's shipbuilding industry delivered.
The Queen of Prince Rupert soon became a regular feature on the BC Coast, connecting Port Hardy with Bella Bella, Ocean Falls, Sandspit and Prince Rupert with simple, reliable vehicle and passenger service, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.
In 1967, the QPR confirmed the location of Haddington Reef near Alert Bay. Then in 1980, she proved that the Gunboat Channel shortcut between Bella Bella and Ocean Falls wasn't suitable for big ferryboats. In both cases, metal was bent and pride wounded, but no one was injured.
In July 1970, QPR came to the rescue of the Alaska State Ferry Taku, which had grounded near Prince Rupert. Some expert ship handling and fast work by the crew allowed them to take 70 vehicles off the stranded Taku, allowing her to float off at high tide.
QPR was moved to the Prince Rupert - Skidegate route in 1980, after a very short career operating Victoria - Seattle as a replacement for the Princess Marguerite.
She was replaced on the Prince Rupert run by the Queen of the North, now infamous for its unsuccessful attempt to move Gil Island in 2006.
QPR was quickly pressed back into service on the Prince Rupert run until 2007, when the new Northern Adventure and Northern Expedition joined the fleet. The Queen of Prince Rupert was officially decommissioned by BC Ferries in April, 2009, after 43 years as part of the coastal scenery. BC's coastal communities owe a lot to this ship, and to the foresight of a sharp hardware store owner.
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WAC Bennett and the Rise of BC, David J. Mitchell, Douglas & McIntyre, 1983
The Pacific Princesses, Robert D. Turner, Sono Nis Press, 1977
Whistle Up the Inlet, Gerald A. Rushton, Douglas & McIntyre, 1974