THIS CANADA

A dowager's second debut

Wayne Skene April 27 1981
THIS CANADA

A dowager's second debut

Wayne Skene April 27 1981

A dowager's second debut

THIS CANADA

Wayne Skene

The “George” is back. The aged but still elegant phoenix of the West Coast’s inland passage to Alaska, the former CN cruise ship is being restored to duty, rising from a half-decade of oblivion and near extinction.

Beginning in 1948, the stubby-bowed queen of the Vancouver-to-Alaska run carried more than 100,000 eager passengers on a romantic voyage to Skagway, back to the Gold Rush days of ’98. One evening a week, for 27 consecutive summers, the S.S. Prince George, with her familiar black hull, white superstructure and audacious red-orange smokestack, could be seen cutting her way beneath Lion’s Gate Bridge, outward bound through the Georgia Strait, the Grenville Channel, to stops at Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Juneau and on up through the magnificent Lynn Canal to Skagway, Alaska.

After being singed by a small fire while in dry-dock and declared uneconomical by CN in 1975, the George was kicked around like a rejected lover. Purchased from CN by the socialist Barrett government (which intended to enter the cruise business), the George was quickly auctioned off by the incoming free-enterprise Bennett administration in 1976 to Nanaimo, B.C., investors intent on turning the graceful craft into a restaurant. When the eatery plans fell through she was left to drift aimlessly from owner to owner, until snapped from the jaws of the scrap pile by 20 enterprising businessmen from B.C. and Alberta.

And now, like the patient lady she is, the George is being restored to her rightful and dignified role. Following a scrubbing and new furnishings, a coat of fresh white paint, trimmed with regal blue and gold, will complete the majestic transformation. “We’re taking a ship that everyone thought was a goner and flying in the face of corporate giants,” says Ken Showers, director of Ship Operations for Canadian Cruise Lines (the company formed by the new owners), as he prepares for a May 18 launch and a 20-trip season. It was Showers who, after chasing the George for 5V2 years and being outbid at each turn of ownership, assembled 19 other investors willing to gamble more than $4 million that the George, with her 285-passenger capacity, could once again be a winner.

At the time CN abandoned the Vancouver-Alaska run in 1975, the George and her traditional rival, CP Ships’ Princess Patricia, were the last remaining ships on the run. Now, with a sudden surge in tourist cruising, more than a dozen ships (including TV’s Love Boat) shuffle thousands of passengers a month to Skagway and back during the summer season. “The old gal was the last word in cruise ships when she was built in ’48,” says Fred Baillie, superintendent of the George’s refit at Burrard Yarrow Corporation’s Vancouver dockyards and a member of one of the George’s first crews. “People fell in love with her.”

The George now sits motionless alongside the dock like a patient dowager waiting for a face-lift. The acrid fumes of cutting torches blend with her damp and musty odor. The staterooms remain surprisingly unspoiled. The bird’s-eye maple and black walnut veneer along the passageways still shines. Inspectors predict there are 30 years left in the George’s hull and that her twin 7,000 horsepower engines (which Baillie claims “run as silent as kittens in cream”) are ready to work again. “I’ll bet a million people have heard of her,” says Showers, who enthusiastically reports that despite the late start for refit (the decision to go ahead wasn’t made until late February) the new owners expect to reach their first year break-even point of 70-per-cent capacity. Last month bookings were running as high as 200 a day.

The George is no threat to the swinging Love Boat crowd. For $925 to $1,985 (mid-season) the George offers middle-class and middle-aged North Americans an abbreviated version of a world-class luxury liner cruise—with the fantasy of the Gold Rush days thrown in. “Fifty-five and up is the Alaska cruise trade today,” says Showers.

Ken Showers and his partners are committed to maintaining the legend— although he admits the confusing 16piece silver service in the dining room will probably go. Nostalgia was once the George’s style and fine food her trademark. Elaborate menus with quotations from John Masefield (“I must down to the seas again”) and Robert Service (“There are strange things done in the midnight sun . . .”) offered sumptuous six-course meals of prime roast beef, spring lamb and Alaska black cod served by young stewards.

For the stewards the third day out was referred to as “prune day”—when overstuffed passengers shifted gourmet gears to offset that “heavy” feeling after their first taste of three-a-day banquets. In between digestive walks on deck, passengers would swarm ashore at Juneau to travel to the Mendenhall Glacier or revel in the rustic atmosphere (a ceiling decorated with gunny sacks) at the Red Dog Saloon. At the Skagway dock they would be met by local Alaskans decked out in period costumes—dance-hall crinolines, sleeve garters and straw boaters. Eager nostalgia buffs clambered on board the White Pass and Yukon Railroad for a ride up the famous Gold Rush Trail to Lake Bennett. Others soaked up Skagway’s history, wandering through the cemetery searching for the grave of the legendary brigand Soapy Smith, the notorious bandit and saloon-owner (the AÍ Capone of Alaskan history) who controlled the Gold Rush trade until he was gunned down on the Skagway docks in 1898 by vigilante Frank Reid.

Confirming myths and generating memories, the George was a beloved institution to those who sailed on her. A Bellingham, Wash., couple sailed to the land of the midnight sun for 14 consecutive years. A Los Angeles grande dame made excursions twice each year, on the first and last trips of the season. Passengers adopted their favorite stewards, lavishing them with tips (up to $200 during her last years), paying the stewards’ air fares so they could visit in the off-season.“The George,” says former CN employee Anna Mclellan, “seemed to bring people together.”

For the moment, the legend of the Alaska run sits dignified while repair crews crawl over her fir decks and through her gutted innards, putting up with the noise of the hammers and drills and the ignominy of being scraped and peeled. It’s as if the lady knows she will soon be steaming out under the Lion’s Gate Bridge.