Good's Little Fleet

Fifty years ago B.C.’s coastal loggers were a rough tough bunch. Then along came Rev. John Antle and his seagoing successors of the Columbia Coast Mission. Take a trip to the strange raft villages with these salty men and watch a floating church go into action

McKENZIE PORTER November 12 1955

Good's Little Fleet

Fifty years ago B.C.’s coastal loggers were a rough tough bunch. Then along came Rev. John Antle and his seagoing successors of the Columbia Coast Mission. Take a trip to the strange raft villages with these salty men and watch a floating church go into action

McKENZIE PORTER November 12 1955

Good's Little Fleet


Fifty years ago B.C.’s coastal loggers were a rough tough bunch. Then along came Rev. John Antle and his seagoing successors of the Columbia Coast Mission. Take a trip to the strange raft villages with these salty men and watch a floating church go into action


THE Reverend John Antle, who died six years ago at the age of eighty-four, was a seagoing Anglican missionary to British Columbia's coastal loggers, and he was successful largely be cause he paid almost no attention to clerical con ventions. Ordinarily he dressed like a deck hand, reserving his ecclesiastical collar for Sunday services. Among his husky flock, he could listen without a blush to obscenity and profanity. "They don't really mean it," he would explain, "it's just their lack of vocabulary." Liquor rarely affronted Antie for he was the son of a Newfoundland ship's captain and had inherited a Nelsonian relish for grog himself.

Once, when he was over eighty, he was visited aboard his little private yawd Reverie by a Vancouver photographer. Producing a bottle of rum, Antle said with a grin: “They tell me this is wicked

stuff. Let’s kill it.” The photographer disembarked marveling at the old parson’s capacity.

Antle always said he felt nearer to God at the helm than he did at the lectern. On the ocean he certainly seemed to be blessed by the divine propinquity. Twice he crossed the Atlantic in command of ships less than one quarter the size of Columbus’ Santa Maria. In Vancouver he left an enduring monument to his Christianity, seamanship and personality.

That monument is the Columbia Coast Mission, an evangelical branch of the Church of England in Canada. For more than fifty years the CCM has owned and operated a succession of small ships that serve as waterborne churches, ambulances, libraries, theatres and even as notaries’ offices to a community of ten thousand loggers scattered over twenty thousand square miles of British Columbia’s wild, dank and lonely shores. The parish embraces the middle and both sides of Queen Charlotte Straits, the gulf separating the upper half of Vancouver Island from the mainland. On the northern inside coast of Vancouver Island it takes in isolated communities like Sayward, Alert Bay and Port Hardy. In the centre of the passage it includes such islands as Cortes, Quadra and Malcolm and extends to others like Nigei and Hope which stand in the mouth and shudder under the pounding of the open Pacific. On the mainland the CCM’s parish spreads deep into the brooding fiords of Belize, Seymour and Kingcome Inlets.

At present three CCM ships are in service, the Columbia, Rendezvous and John Antle II—each carrying a chaplain who sustains the cheerful, indulgent missionary traditions established by Antle. Among them they officiate at an average of a hundred and fifty baptisms, a score of weddings and a dozen burials a year. Each year the three ships pick up and rush to hospital about two hundred sick and injured loggers, distribute enough novels

to fill a boxcar and show programs of movies almost every night. To save the loggers the expense of traveling some two hundred miles to Vancouver on legal business one ship carries a notary who witnesses deeds of sale, wills, declarations, citizenship papers and other documents. The loggers call the ships “God’s Little Fleet.”

The fleet’s origins go back to the summer of 1904 when John Antle, then rector at Holy Trinity Church, Vancouver, set off up the coast in his tiny sailing dinghy Laverock to see how the loggers worked and lived. He returned with the conviction that they were being “brutalized by their environment.” The rough bunkhouses, coarse food, heavy labor, constant danger and enforced celibacy, unrelieved by anything to occupy the mind in the

evenings, were responsible, in Antle’s opinion, for the average logger’s unending cycle of moneymaking spurts and pauperizing binges.

The logger’s most urgent need, he decided, was a medical service. Oscar Soderman, a logger on Minstrel Island, had driven this point home to Antle with grim force. When his closest friend had been crushed by a falling tree, sustaining two broken legs and several broken ribs, Soderman followed the routine procedure. He rowed his friend out to sea in an open boat and tried to dull his agony with copious shots of whisky. For forty-eight hours Soderman kept a lookout for ships. Finally he managed to signal a passing vessel bound for Vancouver. The injured logger was lifted aboard.

Gangrene had set in during the long wet wait in the boat. In Vancouver both his legs had to be amputated.

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"Under conditions like that,” said Antle, "it’s no good going up to the loggers and preaching. We must demonstrate our Christianity with deeds. I am going to build a ship and devote my life to them.”

With the help of the Hastings Mill Company, one of Vancouver’s earliest sawmilling firms, Antle built a sixtyfive-foot vessel, took command himself, hired a doctor, engineer and deckhand, and sailed north to minister to the loggers. Within five years provincial government grants, private donations, and missionary society collections from as far away as England enabled Antle to put three ships on patrol. During the years that followed the CCM built twelve churches, three hospitals and an old folks’ colony on sites that even today may be reached only by boat or seaplane.

By 1930 the CCM had forty-five employees, the majority doctors, nurses, chaplains and lay readers. In 1932, when Antle wished to replace a ship, he heard of a yacht going cheap at Monte Carlo. The British Columbia and Yukon Church Aid Society of London, England, bought her for him. Five volunteers helped Antle sail her back to Vancouver via England, the Azores i and the Panama Canal. The yacht had been built for semi-tropical harbors and several times her performance in the Atlantic brought the crew to their knees. But under Antle’s seamanship ’ she survived.

The brine in Antle’s blood never thinned. In 1940, when he had been retired six years and became widowed, he traded his cottage on Vancouver Island for the yawl Reverie, which was moored in England. Though the yawl was only twenty-five feet long, Antle, with two elderly seamen, sailed her to Vancouver. The voyage took nearly a hundred days and during it Antle reached the age of seventy-five.

From then on he lived aboard the Reverie and cruised his old parish as a ! sort of superintendent emeritus of the CCM. His old-fashioned glasses with small oval lenses, his crumpled yachting cap, jeans and rubber-soled shoes were a familiar and welcome sight at I every camp.

Antle died of a stroke in 1949, near to his God in the wheelhouse, of the Reverie as she lay in Vancouver Harbor. His last words were a quotation from the Scriptures. The Vancouver Province, in an obituary, called him "The Grenfell of the Pacific.”

He was buried at sea from the afterdeck of the Columbia, the CCM’s oldest and biggest ship. Built in 1910, she resembles one of those early private yachts in the background of faded photographs of Edward VII at Cowes. She is a hundred feet long, Dieselpowered, and capable of twelve knots. The forepart of her big deckhouse is a two-bunk hospital equipped with an operating table and dental chair. Her main cabin belowdecks becomes, as occasion demands, a chapel, movie theatre or community hall for forty or fifty people. Every year the Columbia travels twenty thousand miles on the most northerly of the CCM’s three patrols. By radio telephone she keeps in touch with her sister ships and the shore. She answers about eighty emergency calls a year to the scene of accidents and sickness in a watery wilderness.

The skipper is George MacDonald, a bulky bald-headed man in his seventies

who often spends ten hours a day at the wheel. He is also the ship’s notary. Her engineer is a pale, bespectacled, taciturn man of forty named Bob McCrae who doubles as the movie projectionist. Thirty - two - year - old Henry Wetselaar, a thin blond Dutch immigrant, is the doctor; Lou Toy, a seventy-year-old Chinese, is the cook, and the deckhand is seventeen-yearold Bob Hamilton.

Since old John Antle retired in 1936 the Columbia and CCM’s two other ships—and all the work of the mission —have been administered by Canon Alan Greene, a cheerfully efficient man who holds the title of superintendent and who carries on many of Antle’s more colorful traditions. He navigates the John Antle II on patrol, and at sea he usually wears old flannel pants, an Indian sweater and a yachting cap with the CCM badge—a red cross in the upper corner of the flag of St. George. Alan Greene has been with CCM since 1910. At the logging camps he’s always in demand at Christmas as Santa Claus.

He is also one half of CCM’s famous team of brother canons. The other half is his older brother—by two years— Canon Heber Greene, a chubby little cleric in his late sixties, with white hair, pink cheeks and blue eyes peering gravely over the top of steel-rimmed Spectacles. For twenty years Heber Greene has been chaplain of the Columbia. Like his brother Alan and John Antle before them, he’s noted for his casual dress. He toddles around the deck of the Columbia in a battered black fedora, sports shirt and tie, the unmatching jacket and trousers of two old business suits and often a pair of sea boots.

Rugs for a Floating Village

The father of Alan and Heber Greene was the late Canon Richard Greene of St. James Church in Orillia, Ont. He was said to be the original of Stephen Leacock’s amusing character Dean Drone in the Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Heber Greene inherited his sire’s sonorous and digressive habits of speech. Apologetically aware of this, he frequently stops short in the middle of a sermon or conversation and exclaims: "There I go again, babbling like the proverbial brook.’’ One of his married daughters once said to him: "Daddy, that old head of yours is so full of thoughts they simply overflow.”

One evening last August the Columbia put into a Seymour Inlet logging camp owned by the Dumaresq Brothers of Vancouver. It’s a floating village of many well-painted buildings on a log raft about two hundred yards long by seventy-five yards wide. Dominating the centre is the biggest building, the cookhouse, where loggers often down two or three T-bone steaks for dinner. Nearby are several bunkhouses with spring mattresses on the beds, rugs on the floor and reading lamps among the occasional chairs. They sleep about fifty men. Next to them are showers.

At one end of the raft there are a number of workshops, and at the other the homes of half a dozen married families. These might have been lifted off some suburban street, for each has a x'efrigerator, washing machine and modern kitchen. They are surrounded by little fenced-ofif gardens full of flowers in boxes and tubs. Between all the buildings are plank walkways, lit by overhanging electric lamps, and suggestive of miniature streets.

Ashore, at the back of the raft, a creek snakes inland between two high mountains. Following its course is a dirt road. Down the road come trucks laden with logs. With a block and tackle, supported from a huge A-frame,

the logs are plucked off the trucks, dumped into the water, assembled into Davis rafts by the boom men, and readied for the two-hundi'ed-and-fiftymile tow to the mills of Vancouver.

The caxxxp is one of scores of various sizes in the B. C. fiords that employ anywhere from ten to a hundred men. All remain moored in one spot until its stand of timber is logged out. Then one or more tugs tow the whole shebang to a new site, often three or four days’ voyage away. During the voyages the women carry on with their housework as usual.

Within ten minutes of tying up at the Dumaresq camp there was a queue of patients on the Columbia’s deck waiting to see the doctor. Wetselaar, who has studied psychology, was frank with one young lumberman who complained of heart trouble. He told him he was imagining the ailment and traced the illusion to the fact that the îxxan’s mother had died of a heart attack. He told another luixxberixian who complained of abdominal pains that he should get his appendix out when he was next in Vancouver. For a third logger he pulled four teeth. Then

he examined a logger’s wife who was pregnant and told her all was well.

At eight o’clock engineer Bob McCrae rang the ship’s bell to announce that a program of movies, including the Queen’s tour of New Zealand, a documentary about the Powell River Company’s pulp operation, several National Film Board productions and a comic cartoon, was about to begin. McCrae is proud of the fact he was able to show A Queen Is Crowned, the movie of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, three weeks after it was shot. This was at a time when only first-run houses in big

cities could get it. J. Arthur Rank, who had heard of the Columbia’s shows, ordered a special copy flown to the ship.

As the loggers and a handful of women and children filed down to the cabin each man was asked to sign his name on a slip of paper and specify the amount he would like to contribute. Through an arrangement with the camp’s timekeeper the money would be deducted from next month’s pay. One logger put himself down for five dollars. None contributed less than a dollar. "We wouldn’t like to be without these shows,” explained one.

While the program went on Skipper MacDonald, in his role of notary, witnessed the citizenship documents of a European immigrant. "Ha!” said the New Canadian, when MacDonald had signed. "Now I am a British object.”

At this time Canon Heber Greene was on the raft, baby-sitting for a young logging couple who didn’t want to miss the movies. Later he returned to the Columbia to attend to a dozen loggers who wished to change their library books. In addition to hardback novels there was a big stack of pocketbooks with sexy covers. A man would put three or four he’d read into the stack and take away an equal number. "We don’t bother much about the quality of the literature,” said Heber Greene. "Who are we to set ourselves up as censors? In any case there is a lot of good literature in those pocketbooks.”

Later the entire Columbia crew, with the exception of Heber Greene, visited the home of Sandy McPherson, one of the loggers. There they gossiped about community life and took coffee and sandwiches prepared by McPherson’s pretty wife Myrna.

Heber Greene was busy visiting the single loggers and other married families. Among the children he distributed juvenile magazines published by the Anglican Church. At one mar| ried home he conducted a private communion service. Around midnight he went to play chess with the camp cook j and didn’t get back to the Columbia until three in the morning.

He has taught chess to dozens of loggers and in many camps is eagerly ! awaited for a game. Several of his former students now beat him. The loggers address him as "Reverend.”

! They seem to think he rates more than "Mister” yet find "Canon” too formal. "I don’t know why they don’t call me Dean Drone,” he says.

Heber Greene has witnessed a revolution in living conditions and moral standards in the camps. He attributes this to modern mechanical equipment which has taken many stresses out of the life. A more ambitious and provident type of man, he says, is being attracted to the craft. Nearly all the independent owners of small camps in Greene’s parish started working for j somebody else, saved a stake and set up for themselves.

Now most of them own their own seaplanes, have homes in Vancouver, send their children to boarding schools, spend a couple of winter months in Mexico, Honolulu or Europe, and think nothing of slipping the CCM an occasional check for a hundred dollars.

Although many of the loggers—who now earn up to a hundred and fifty dollars a week — are still drifters and spendthrifts Greene knows more who handle their funds well. Bachelor Mike Tomsick, for example, a last war veteran employed at Crowther’s camp, has spent three months in Europe every year since 1949. This winter he is touring Australia and New Zealand—first class.

Nor are the bosses and leading hands the only ones whose life is shared in

the camps by wives and children. Jim Zoney, at present an employee of Greening's camp, owns his own small raft house and a powerboat strong enough to tow it. He simply ties up alongside any camp where he happens to get a job. In this way he is able to take his wife and five children with him The youngsters wear lifebelts all day and receive their education through a special correspondence course administered by the British Columbia Department of Education.

The presence of womenfolk, who often entertain groups of the single men in their family circle at night, has ameliorated much of the loneliness that usted to lead to bunkhouse drinking and gambling. The air taxi, a seaplane that mav be summoned to any camp by radio telephone, links with scheduled CPA and TCA flights to Victoria and Vancouver and gives the men a sense of contact with the "outside.” When a man feels bushed he simply quits and calk a taxi. As a result it is fairly easy for the camp bosses to enforce nodrinking and no-gambling rules in most camps.

Occasionally however loggers let theiir hair down. Heber Greene says the most common excuse is a wedding.

A couple of years ago the Columbia took him up one of the mainland fiords to marry the daughter of a logger. As Greene stepped onto the raft the Columbia moved on to show a film in another camp. The sixteen-year-old bride took up position on her father’s arm outside the cookhouse door. Inside, on dining benches, were about fifteen loggers who’d just washed up after work. Among them were four women: the boss’ wife, the wives of two leading hands and the camp cook. The groom, a brawny high-rigger, stood waiting as Greene set up his portable | altar and donned his surplice.

A Pastor Has to Dance

When he was ready Heber Greene nodded to a logger who squeezed a faltering bridal march out of a concertina. When Greene asked: "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” the bride’s father said: "I do. An’ if the punk don’t look after her I’ll blow his brains out!” Heber Greene ¡ waited for a murmur of approval to die down, and then continued.

By the time it was all over two ; bottles of gin had been emptied and everybody was ready for the dancing. "Come on, Reverend,” said the cook. "Give me a whirl.”

At midnight the young couple retired j to a new bungalow on the raft. But ! not for long. About one o’clock the j bride’s father said: "Let’s shivaree j

them.” This old custom of turning the | young couple out of their bed and bringing them back to the festivities j was carried out with zest. At four o’clock the bride’s father wanted to dunk his daughter and her husband in the chuck,” which is Chinook jargon for the salt water. Looking up from a glass of whisky he’d been nursing for j several hours, Heber Greene said: "Well, ' I’d better be going. We parsons have j to watch our Ps and Qs.”

Heber Greene sailed off toward the Columbia, some ten miles distant, in the loggers’ boat. The Columbia’s crew were eating breakfast when he climbed aboard. He was asked what s rt of a time he’d had. "It was a bit f > rgy, and a bit groggy,” he replied, but otherwise very nice.”

Today Heber Greene insists the wedding was not typical of all logging camp ceremonies. "It reminded me more of the old days,” he says. "But it just shows you never know what to cxuect.”

He marries about twenty couples a

year and few of the ceremonies pass without incident. Late one fall, when it was unseasonably cold, he was in the middle of the service when one of the guests leaped up and cried: "Look! The wolves are packing!” Everybody rushed to the window and saw a dozen wolves staring down hungrily at the camp from a rocky eminence. Another service was interrupted by the arrival of a launch carrying an RCMP officer who suspected one of the guests had robbed a post office. At a third a hefty bride decided she would cut her cake with her father’s falling axe and in a single stroke reduced both cake and table to a little heap of sugar-coated kindling.

Good timing of weddings is sometimes impossible, owing to the remote camp sites. Heber Greene waited three days in one camp to marry a bride whose gown was somewhere at sea in a fogbound mailboat. He tarried a week in another until the groom, who was trying to get in with his own seaplane, found a break in the low-lying clouds.

Many young parishioners prefer to get married in the city. Since they usually want Heber Greene to perform the ceremony he has to leave the Columbia for a few days. Last summer Greene received a radiophone summons from a bridegroom who was getting married the next day in Vancouver. The groom promised he would pay the air passage and Greene promised to leave immediately. Hot owing to bad weather the air taxi could not get alongside the Columbia to take him off. So he embarked on a nautical hitchhike.

First he got a fish boat to take him out to the open gulf. There he transferred to a loggers’ boat which took him as far as a small island. On tue island Greene discovered that if he waited until four the next morning he could get a government fisheries protection boat as far as Campbell River, at the end of the road on Vancouver Island. It was only nine in the evening so he repaired to the local beer parlor to wait.

He talked to loggers until the beer parlor closed at midnight. Then until three o’clock he talked to the owner. At this point the owner’s wife hammered on the floor above and groaned: "Aw, Reverend, do please dry up.” Remorsefully Heber Greene spent the last hour waiting in silence.

At breakfast he was in Campbell River. He took a bus to Nanaimo and a CPR ferry to Vancouver, arriving just in time for the wedding. He spent that night with his wife on the outskirts of the city, and next day returned by air to Port Hardy, where the Columbia was waiting to pick him up. Before he left the airport at Port Hardy he noticed that the runway was fringed with bulrushes. He spent an hour collecting an armful for a logger’s wife who, he knew, used them as living-room decorations.

Heber Greene sometimes takes services under conditions that would reduce a city parson to hysterics. At the top of Kingcome Inlet is an Indian village which falls within his care. A few months ago he was baptizing a baby there in a shabby frame house. Although the Indians are Anglicans they follow their faith informally. As Heber Greene read the service the guests stood around laughing and chatting, children ran in and out screaming with laughter, and a mongrel dog yelped and snapped at his surplice. Henry Wetselaar, the doctor, who was looking on, says: 'T was cringing.” But Heber Greene was oblivious to the commotion for he was in communion with God.

Wetselaar is the latest of a long line

of doctors aboard the Columbia. Since the war, because the CCM has not been able to pay high salaries, the Columbia has taken on specially licensed immigrant doctors who are waiting to pass the examinations that will permit them to practice in British Columbia. Wetselaar bears a severe neck wound, a testimony to his fighting services in the wartime Dutch underground. After the liberation of Holland he became an interpreter in the British Army of Occupation, later worked as a movie theatre usher to

pay his way through medical school, and came to Canada a couple of years ago.

Nowadays injured loggers are usually flown from camp to hospital. But there are many occasions when the weather is too bad for aircraft. Then the Columbia is a valued standby. Recently Skipper MacDonald spent eighteen hours at the wheel and negotiated dangerous rapids at dusk to reach an accident case. Once a logger’s wife gave birth to a baby aboard the Columbia. But when she is not

I Where a Wedding Depends on a Ship’s Schedule

interrupted by emergency calls the Columbia makes a regular patrol, stopping at each camp on her route about every second week. To the south her two sister ships undertake similar duties. They are less than half the size of the Columbia and do not carry a doctor. But they are near to three loggers’ hospitals which the CCM built at Alert Bay on Vancouver Island, Van Anda on Texada Island, and Pender Harbor, forty miles north of Vancouver on the mainland. A few years ago the CCM handed the administration of these hospitals to local committees.

The central CCM patrol is covered by the Rendezvous under the command of Joe Titus, a young clergyman from Nova Scotia who makes his base at Whaletown on Cortes Island and carries his wife as crew. He joined the CCM only a couple of years ago but already has succumbed to its sartorial traditions. Last summer he waded ashore at a logging island in a straw hat, reversed dog collar, black jacket and khaki shorts. A logger’s wife who saw him cried: "Now I’ve seen everything!”

Alan Greene in the John Antle II

completes the fleet. He sails the most southerly patrol so that he can get to Vancouver for a few days each month to work in the CCM’s two-room office on Hastings Street. Here, with the help of a part-time secretary—a retired bank manager—he administers the whole fleet.

On the John Antle II Alan Greene relies on scratch crews. He often takes another parson who takes the trip as a holiday. Once he had a bishop as deckhand. Each year he takes his daughter and his niece on at least one trip.

There are many retired loggers and loggers’ widows on his beat, and he is forever carrying out commissions for them on his visits to Vancouver. Recently one old lady asked him to buy her a set of flannel underwear in a department store. For months afterward he couldn’t understand why she was so cold to him. Then he discovered that the department store had mixed up two deliveries and sent the old lady a set of exotic black-lace scanties.

Recently Alan Greene made a lecture tour across Canada and raised sixty thousand of the hundred thousand dollars required to replace the aged mission ship Columbia. He makes no bones about the CCM’s constant need of funds. It costs more than a hundred thousand a year to keep the mission going and though it receives regular grants from the provincial government and the Vancouver Community Chest it is largely dependent on private donations and collections. The loggers themselves are among the most generous supporters. Occasionally however they need prodding and Greene has no compunction about doing it.

Once at a service in a logging camp the collection plate came back so lightly laden that the timekeeper who’d been taking it around exploded: "What a bunch of cheapskates you are!” He showed Alan Greene the plate and said: "Will I take her round again, Reverend?” Firmly, Greene said: "Yes.” The loggers laughed and the offerings were more than trebled.

Funds come to the CCM from the most unexpected sources. Once an Indian made the mission a gift of a horse. The CCM had no use for the horse and tried in vain to sell it. Eventually they swapped the horse for a cow and the cow provided the three ships with beef for several months.

One of the most colorful patrons of the CCM is the New England Company of London, England. It originated as a trading company between England and the American colonies. After the American Revolution the company lost its trade and liquidated its assets. The funds were placed in trust by the management, which specified that the interest should be devoted to Indians who crossed the border from New England into Canada and remained loyal to the Union Jack.

Each year the trustees, who call themselves a court, meet for dinner in Bloomsbury Square. They eat off the old company gold plate. After dinner they vote a portion of the company’s annual income to the Indians of Kingcome Inlet in B. C. Their ancestors came from the old American colonies, and the money is administered for them by CCM.

"It’s not a big sum,” says Greene, "but it’s enough to support our mission to the Kingcome Indians.”

Most loggers and their families know how much expense and effort are required to bring comfort and cheer to the coastal outposts, and they’re grateful to men like the Greenes and young Joe Titus. But it wasn’t always that way.

During the Thirties Alan Greene used to visit a community of Finnish loggers. Times were hard and they were poverty-stricken. Many had adopted communism and they jeered at Greene on his visits and called him "a crack-brained sky pilot.” They refused to go to his services. But he kept going back regularly and gradually over the years the Finns changed.

A few months ago Alan Greene dropped into the community again and spent one of his busiest Sundays in years. He conducted services all day, christening Finnish children and administering the sacrament to new communicants. ★