The Salty Princesses of the Pacific Coast
B.C. wouldn’t be the same without the Princess boats. They've ferried sourdoughs, fought steamboat wars, set speed records. Now they’re as much a part of the seascape as the gulls
Along the British Columbia coastline almost everyone has a warm affection for the Canadian Pacific’s Princess ships, the small black-and-white steamers that are as much a part of the local seascape as the screeching gulls that hover round them wherever they go.
For the past fifty-seven years, the Princesses— twenty-six of them, in all—have plied the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest, from Puget Sound in Washington State to the Alaska Panhandle. The royal sisters have brought pleasure to millions and helped fashion the economic life of the province, even as they do today.
To generations of British Columbians—and to thousands of tourists from the landlocked prairies — the Princesses have been lighthearted pleasure ships. Small boys and not a few adults have thrilled to their first sea voyage aboard one of these miniature ocean liners. Newlyweds have made "the midnight boat” between Vancouver and Victoria a honeymoon special. American tourists, loaded to the gunwales with photographic paraphernalia, flock aboard Princess Louise 11 each summer for her cruise to Alaska where, in gold-rush days, other Princesses put ashore
sourdoughs, faro dealers and dance-hall girls.
But the Princess ships have their more serious side. Their basic job is—and has always been— to serve as a water-borne extension of the Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental railway, linking Vancouver Island and northern British Columbia ports with the rail terminus at Vancouver.
Captain Oliver John Williams, manager of the B.C. Coast Service, as the fleet is formally known, says, “The Princesses form a bridge of ships, lacing together our whole Pacific seaboard.”
The province’s capital city, Victoria, is on Vancouver Island. So are one hundred and fifty thousand of its people, a large part of its forest and fishing industry, and some of its finest tourist country. Access from the mainland across the Strait of Georgia to the Island is provided mainly by the Princess fleet. Over the years visionary Victorians have dreamed of bridges, tunnels, and, most recently, an overhead monorail train, to span the Strait. While they dream the Princesses keep shuttling back and forth. When fog thwarts TCA planes the Princesses keep going, groping their way as if by instinct.
The Princesses have, at times, run to as many as eighty-two regular ports of call, and there’s scarcely a town or village from Seattle to Skagway that has not had a visit from one of them. They've poked their stems into every industrial outpost on the coast, carrying loggers, miners, fishermen, paper-workers and construction crews, and then ferrying food and materials to them.
The present twenty-million-dollar fleet of nine ships — Princesses Louise, Llaine. Joan. Elizabeth, Patricia. Marguerite, and the Princesses of Vancouver, Nanaimo and Alberni— serves twenty-four ports in winter and thirty-two in summer. Riding the crest of B. (Vs wave ol prosperity, the Princesses are carrying far more passengers than ever before—an all-time high of 1,7 I 8,672 last year.
They steam more than half a million miles a year, plying into such busy deep-sea ports as Vancouver and Victoria, or nudging into roughhewn jetties at Esperanza, C'eepeecee and Zeballos. tiny settlements on the isolated west coast of Vancouver Island. At some points there isn't even a wharf; at Clo-oose. old Josh, an Indian, paddles his canoe out on continued on page 40
Princess Louise rounded the Horn to start the greatest steamboat war in Northwest history
the open heaving Pacific to take freight, or, infrequently, a passenger off Princess of Alberni.
Home port and headquarters has always been Victoria and, until recently, the most profitable run was between Vancouver and the province's capital. Since World War II the up-Island city of Nanaimo has become the Princesses’ most important port of call, a change wrought by the automobile and the huge highway transport. The cruise through winding Active Pass from Vancouver to Victoria is far more scenic than the crossing to Nanaimo, but it is also twice as long—seventy-two miles as compared to thirty-six. Anyone with a car or truck prefers to drive it aboard a Princess bound for Nanaimo. From here he can drive to Victoria in the south; Campbell River, home of the famous Tyee salmon, in the north: or the logging and pulp centres of Alberni and Port Alberni in the west.
The two largest and newest ships of the fleet. Princess of Vancouver and Princess of Nanaimo, are huge car ferries designed for the Nanaimo run. With the help of Princess Elaine, they make eight daily round trips from Vancouver to Nanaimo. Fast year the Princesses transported 1.071.934 passengers and 201,372 cars on this route. Between Victoria and Vancouver they carried only 282.579 passengers and 26.895 cars. TCA has cut into the Victoria service, flying 220,000 people between Vancouver and the capital last year.
The longest and most colorful Princess route, attracting tourists from all over Canada and the United States, is Louise’s summer cruise from Vancouver to Skagway. She steams through the famous Inside Passage (the Fjord Route. CPR travel folders call it) on a seven-and-ahalf-day journey, covering a total of 1,848 miles each trip. From May to September she makes fifteen such voyages. The July cruises are often solidly booked in the dead of winter.
The flagship is the 5,553-ton Princess of Vancouver, built in 1955 at a cost of four million dollars. Her enormous innards swallow railway boxcars whole, as many as twenty-six at a time. Or, alternately, there’s room on her vast car deck for one hundred and fifty automobiles. She can carry twelve hundred passengers. In a sense, Princess of Vancouver is automation applied to shipping: for loaded trucks, trailers and boxcars take their freight on board with them, dispensing with the work of longshoremen, billers and checkers.
Fleet manager Williams, who helped design her, is immensely proud: “She’s four ships rolled into one—passenger ship, cargo ship, auto-ferry, and tug and barge. What we want is another Princess of Vancouver and we want her as quickly as possible . . . The way that ship scoffs up cargo!”
The people of Victoria find it difficult to accept a mammoth workhorse like Princess of Vancouver as the pride of the fleet—in fact, they sometimes call her and her fellow car-ferry. Princess of Nanaimo, “the pregnant Princesses.”
Typical of the beautiful Princesses that
Victorians remember with affection were the stately sisters, Princess Kathleen and the original Princess Marguerite. They sailed from 1925 till World War II. Marguerite was torpedoed in the Mediterranean in 1942, and Kathleen sank, without loss of life, during an Alaska cruise in 1952. With their three funnels, classic lines and luxurious appointments they were pocket-sized ocean liners.
The two most luxurious and fastest ships of the present fleet, Princess Patricia II and Princess Marguerite II, put to sea only from April to October, the tourist season. Sister ships,.they were built in 1948 at a cost of four million dollars each. “They are like our Banff Springs Hotel—open only in summer for the tourist trade,” says Captain Williams.
Yet it pains Victorians to see them tied up in the inner harbour all winter and, bitterly, they call them white elephants.
The first Princess was a sidewheeler, the original Princess Louise. She was only a mite—932 gross tons—but she was fast and spirited.
Fashioned out of seasoned white oak at a cost of two hundred thousand dollars, she was launched in New York, in 1869, as the Olympia. She sailed round the Horn to provoke, in 1871, the greatest steamboat war ever to flare in the Pacific Northwest. Her antagonist, on the run from Olympia, Wash., to Victoria, was another fast-moving sidewheeler, North Pacific.
The war began with the Olympia-toVictoria fare at sixteen dollars. It neared its end when each ship offered “free passage, free meal and free chromo,” the latter being a hideous colored picture depicting “a stirring patriotic scene.” The rival owners eventually agreed on a race, the winner to be given a monopoly and the loser to be banished to other waters, comforted by an annual subsidy of $7,500 paid by the winner. The course was from Race Rocks, near Victoria, to Port Townsend, at the entrance to Puget Sound.
Tremendous excitement gripped Victoria, Olympia and Seattle. Betting was heavy. Both ships were loaded from stem to stern with barrels of tar and resin, to be used in keeping a full head of steam. Over most of the distance the two fought it out neck and neck. Only in the last mile did North Pacific pull in front to beat Olympia by three minutes.
After prospering in Californian exile for seven years Olympia returned to the Northwest to be purchased, in 1879, by the Hudson’s Bay Company. She was renamed Princess Louise after the Duchess of Argyle, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the then governor-general of Canada.
In 1883 the Hudson’s Bay Company merged its fleet with the Pioneer Line, owned by a Captain John Irving, to form the Canadian Pacific Navigation Co. Then, in January 1901, the CPR purchased the merged fleet for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, plus
a life-time pass on the CPR’s ships for Irving.
It was, for the most part, a ramshackle fleet the CPR took over. Passengers had dubbed the line “the candle route” because one of its ancient craft still used candles to light the staterooms. The Louise was scornfully spoken of as the Princess Lousy.
A daring, autocratic riverboat master, Captain James W. Troup, then superintendent of the CPR's inland fleet on the Kootenay L.akes and Columbia River, was given command. He set to work to build a line of modern ships. In the first decade of his rule Troup established CPR supremacy on the coast, and then developed the fleet into the largest — and, many contend, the finest — of its kind on the continent. In tribute, Victorians called him The Commodore.
It was with Princess Victoria—the Old Vic, as she is affectionately called today —that Troup began the glory of the line. He had talked hard and fast in persuading his Montreal directors to put up the three hundred thousand dollars she cost to build in Scotland. In Victoria, she was derided as Troup’s Folly; but she paid for herself in her first year and became known as Troup’s Bonanza.
Princess Victoria, 3,167 gross tons, could do upward of twenty knots and. for more than twenty years, could show her heels to any ship on the coast. She had battleship engines — duplicates of those previously designed in Britain for a Swedish cruiser.
In building her superstructure in Victoria Troup was lavish. Overwhelmed by the elegance of her smoking saloon, a reporter for the Victoria Colonist wrote, “Tobacco incinerated in this Temple of Nicotine will surely have an added flavor of Paradise.”
Troup had a flair for showmanship. On the August day in 1903 when Princess Victoria steamed on her maiden voyage from Victoria to Vancouver he loaded her with two hundred and fifty guests.
newspapermen and the local dignitaries of the time. Then he gave orders for his new ship to smash the record for the seventy-two-mile crossing.
Princess Victoria, then gleaming white, skimmed like a ghost across Georgia Strait in three hours and forty-eight minutes, clipping thirteen minutes off the old record set by a deep-sea ship, RMS Moana, of New Zealand. Victoria now held the mythical blue ribbon for the crossing. For Troup this wasn’t enough; he had a ribbon of blue paint daubed round her hull.
Troup encouraged his Princesses to race among themselves as well as outspeed rival vessels. The crews of Princess Victoria and Princess Charlotte would stake a week’s pay on the outcome of their races. On today’s railway-like schedules the Vancouver-Victoria run takes a fixed time of four hours and fifteen minutes.
The Victoria was Troup’s ship of the line in 1908-09 when the fleet engaged and vanquished a United States enemy, the Inland Navigation Co., in a rate war on the Victoria-Seattle-Vancouver “Triangle” route. It was a full-scale war, lasting over a year and pitting three Princesses — Victoria, Beatrice and Royal—against the former Great Lakes steamers Chippewa and Iroquois.
Fares were slashed and traffic increased by two hundred percent. On Chippewa a group known as Wagner’s band added to the gaiety. On Victoria a sole bugler played “Au revoir, but not goodbye” as the Old Vic left her rival behind. Single fare on the Victoria-Seattle leg of the triangle was cut from two and a half dollars to twenty-five cents. Eventually the CPR also reduced the SeattleVancouver single fare to twenty-five cents. Today the Seattle-Victoria oneway fare is $4.35 and Seattle-Vancouver, $6.50.
Neither Chippewa nor Iroquois was in a class with Princess Victoria. In a typical race the cocky Princess gave
Chippewa a head-start of forty-five minutes leaving Victoria, and beat her to Seattle by a full hour. A Seattle newspaper published two photographs of the Princess, taken from Chippewa, and captioned them: Here She Comes and There She Goes!
There was no formal end to the war. It simply petered out, early in 1909. Yet the Princesses’ victory was clearly decisive and they have reigned supreme over the triangle run ever since.
The glory of Princess Victoria began to fade in the mid-Twenties when she was superseded by faster and finer ships, Kathleen and Marguerite. Finally, in 1951, she was sold and converted into a hog fuel barge to carry wood chips from coast sawmills. Her conversion was reported by the Victoria Times in this sorrowful vein: “An acetylene torch in the hands of a young lady, Miss Vi Fiddick, arced into flame . . . and hissed the first bars in the funeral dirge for the Old Vic.”
Fortunately, her,shame was hidden behind the name Tahsis III. In March of 1953 she struck a rock near Sechelt, B.C., and went to her grave. Her salvaged whistle is now on the Princess of Nanaimo.
No Princess ship, not even Victoria, ever won as many staunch friends as did Princess Maquinna. She became an institution among the earthy folk of Vancouver Island’s west coast—loggers, fishermen, cannery workers, miners. She was a homely ship, her single funnel too tall and thin and her lines ungainly, but what she lacked in looks she more than made up in dependability.
Built in Victoria in 1913, she was 1,777 gross tons, at that time the largest ship to be launched on the B. C. coast. Her top speed was thirteen knots. She was named Maquinna after a native princess whose father was a famous Indian chief at Nootka in the days of the early British and Spanish explorers.
Year in and year out Maquinna tossed and rolled up and down the west coast of the Island on the only Princess route that travels the open Pacific, bringing passengers, mail and supplies to forty and more ports of call. Some of these were no more than floating logging camps, others Indian encampments of a dozen or so people. In good weather and foul she kept going, the settlements’ only link with Victoria and the outside. In summer she was packed to the gunwales with tourists.
The end came in 1953; Maquinna was converted into an ore-carrying barge and
renamed Taku. When she went to the breakers „Ivan Clarke, of Hot Springs Cove, went too—as chief mourner and to buy all her stateroom keys as souvenirs.
In 1933, Princess Maquinna put Clarke ashore at Hot Springs (then Refuge Cove) and there he pitched his tent. Thirteen months later Maquinna brought Mabel Stephens from Victoria and, as the ship stood off the Indian village of Ahousat, she and Clarke were wed on board, with Captain William [Black] Thomson as best man. Seven times during the next eight years the Maquinna took Mabel Clarke to Victoria to have her children.
Now Clarke is postmaster, harbormaster, school trustee and general storekeeper at Hot Springs (pop. 100). The Maquinna was his ship that came in— frequently.
The men who command the Princess ships are all veterans who have worked their way up from the bottom. Typical was Captain Archibald Phelps, of Princess Joan, who was senior master of the fleet until early this year. He began as a dishwasher in 1906 at thirteen, and retired at sixty-five.
Phelps knows every reef and jut of land on the hundreds of miles of coast the Princesses sail, and he also knows how each point and inlet was given its name.
More than once his store of local knowledge has helped Phelps fix his ship’s position in dense fog. Once, while sailing to Alaska as first mate on Princess Royal, he heard a rooster crow and knew at once where he was—off Alert Bay. “I knew,” he recalls, “that it was the only place from Vancouver to Alaska where chickens were kept at the water’s edge.”
A favorite Princess with travelers and especially with the people of Nanaimo was the first Princess Patricia. She began life on the Clyde as Queen Alexandra and was bought and renamed by the CPR in 1912. Smallest of the Princesses —only 665 tons—and one of the fastest, the Pat sped like a destroyer between Vancouver and Nanaimo twice a day for sixteen years.
The automobile finished the Pat’s career on the Nanaimo run in 1928. She could carry only ten cars and even they had to be squeezed into her hold. After lowering the windshield of a car—not a difficult job with the cars they built in those days—and removing the tires, seamen would pile on the mudguards to compress the car’s springs. By contrast,
Princess of Vancouver, her modern successor on the Nanaimo service, has carried a whole sixteen-car circus train with room to spare.
The Pat was scrapped in 1937 after nine years as an excursion steamer. Not only British Columbians but people of many lands mourned her passing. The Victoria firm that broke her up was swamped with requests for souvenirs. “They came from all over the world,” recalls Morris Greene, manager of the scrapyard. “Some wanted her wheel and some her main-plate. But there were all kinds of people who asked for anything —even a brass screw—as long as it was from the Pat.”
Princess Mary, a ship well known and fondly remembered in the picturesque Gulf Islands and the paper-mill town of Powell River, has found a new life ashore. When her hull became a scow the section of the Mary’s promenade deck that carried her coffee shop and dining saloon was salvaged. Today it's a Victoria restaurant.
Three Princesses—Charlotte and the sisters Alice and Adelaide—were sold in 1949 and 1950 to a Greek firm after forty years on the Pacific coast. Today they’re basking in the Mediterranean sun. Princess Alice, now the Aegeon, puts into Samos. Siros, Icaria, Chios, and Lesbos, all names to be found in the Greek classics. Princess Adelaide was renamed Angelica and Charlotte. SS Mediterranean. Charlotte now has one modern raked stack, instead of three ungainly funnels, and has been fitted with three bars, a cinema, swimming pool and ballroom. On her travels from Venice to Greece to Istanbul she carries five distinct classes of passengers.
There are many people in B. C. whose hobby is to collect photographs of the Princesses or gather fact and folklore concerning them. It is only among these close friends of the fleet that one hears of Captain Troup’s masterpieces, Princess Margaret and Princess Irene. They are sometimes called the ghost Princesses, for they never saw the B. C. coast. Built for the triangle service, they were each 6,000 gross tons, splendid threestackers with a speed of twenty-three knots. They were launched in Scotland in 1914 and immediately pressed into war service as mine layers. In May 1915 the Irene, laden with mines, blew up at her berth. The Margaret, worn out by the war, was scrapped overseas in 1927. A large model of the Margaret is displayed in the parliament buildings in Victoria.
Captain Williams, the brisk, fifty-sixyear-old Englishman who now bosses the Princess fleet, began as a deckhand on Princess Victoria in 1924. But he'll build no ships like her. This is the day of the all-purpose Princess, like the Vancouver.
Williams is looking north—to Kitimat —and planning a new Princess to link Vancouver and that roaring boom town. Princess Norah, renamed Queen of the North, and operated jointly by the CPR and CNR, serves Kitimat.
“Kitimat is going to be another Nanaimo,” Williams says. And spreading out a map, he adds, "Look, it's roughly 960 miles from Vancouver to Kitimat by road. 1,100 by rail and only 430 miles by sea. Another Princess like the Vancouver would be ideal for that route.”
Within a few years the pride of the Princess fleet is almost certain to be a Princess of Kitimat, a huge stern-loader like the Vancouver to carry passengers, truck transports and railway cars—as well as to carry on the tradition that began with the speedy sidewheelcr, Princess Louise, it