City Informer: What Did We Have Before BC Ferries?

The history of our sweet fleet.

I suppose there are other ways to get from the mainland to your island of choice—e.g., a revolutionary yet extremely wet new way of travel I am beta-testing called “gull-surfing”—but most BCers go with the obvious transportation solution: BC Ferries.

Sure, our local ferry service is a veritable monopoly that’s run by a government with no incentive to improve service or pricing, but if I may offer a counterpoint for all you panicked capitalists (my target demographic with this column): soft-serve is available on board? So as you step aboard the grand Spirit of Burquitlam this summer, take a moment to appreciate the fact that this service exists at all, and that romantic weekend getaway to bustling downtown Ladysmith will only cost you a mere $80 plus $17 for your reservation plus whatever you spend on caftans and novels from local authors (you simply must read The Qualicum Sister) in the gift shop. But ocean travel hasn’t always been so accessible and so caftan-rich.

Of course, individuals who knew their way around an oar (or, presumably, who could harness a passing pterodactyl for a ride to Prehistoric Nanaimo) could come and go as they pleased in the early days. But in the 1830s, the Hudson’s Bay Company operated the first official passenger service along the coast, the most notable vessel being a steamship called Beaver—a name I think we can all agree is superior to The Queen of Surrey—which was crafted primarily of African teak—a material I think we can all agree is superior to barf-proof turquoise carpet.

It was a fine option for ocean travel until the crew got too drunk and ran it into Prospect Point (what we in the marine-journalism world call “a big oopsie”). By 1901, Canadian Pacific Railway had taken over—going “off the rails” if you will—with lightning-fast five-hour trips between downtown Vancouver and Victoria aboard its “Princess Fleet,” which allegedly featured first-class accommodations, but without an Arcade Zone, how luxurious could it really be? When private company Black Ball Line floated onto the scene in 1948 with its own passenger service, the competition was on.

There was nary a drop of Triple-O sauce to be found on board, but it wasn’t that much different from today, in the sense that there was no working wi-fi. Passengers revelled in the glamour of sea travel, with trips that took just under two hours. But when ferry union employees went on strike in 1958 and the public found themselves stranded on either side of the Georgia Strait, cursing themselves for not investing in human-cannon technology, the government stepped in to remedy the situation. The province paid $6.7 million for five ships and seven terminals, launching a proud tradition that lives on to this day: enraging the province’s citizens with its spending.

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