YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Awesome History Of The Long Forgotten North Shore Ferries

February 19, 2013 

by Stevie Wilson | Back in the mid 1860s, if you were looking to cross the Burrard Inlet from North Vancouver to Vancouver proper, you’d likely find yourself stuck in a private rowboat “captained” by “Navvy” Jack Thomas, a deserter from the Royal Navy. Fortunately in 1893, two years after the incorporation of the City of North Vancouver, a deal was inked with the Union Steamship Company to provide six scheduled (and far more accommodating) crossings a day. Until then, Navvy Jack and other small passenger boats – including the Sea Foam, the Chinaman, the Lily, the Elonora, and the Senator – bore the weight of intensifying residential and commercial activity in the area. Following a brief period in 1899 wherein the city reclaimed ownership of the service, the North Vancouver Ferry and Power Company took over. When the steam-powered North Vancouver Ferry No. 1 (aka the Norvan) proved too small to accommodate the growing Lonsdale population, sister ship North Vancouver Ferry No. 2 (aka the St. George) was launched with No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 eventually joining the ranks as well.

Naturally, West Vancouver had a ferry company all its own. In 1905, John Lawson purchased 160 acres of auctioned North Shore land from the provincial government, and along with his brother-in-law William C. Thompson commissioned two boats to transport would-be residents and prospective lot buyers under the name of “West Vancouver Launch Service”. These freight and passenger ferries were an instrumental force in the development of the relatively isolated area, as travel to and from “over town” had previously been a process dependent on the kindness of passing boats (and some well-placed flags) due to its limited number of private properties and settlements. Only a handful of tugboats and pilot ships were available to carry passengers back and forth.

In 1909, West Vancouver authorized the formation of the West Vancouver Ferry Company (a new firm formed by Lawson and Thompson with Robert Macpherson and John Sinclair) to own and operate the service. Three years later, however, Lawson was eager to sell out. By 1912 he had spent over $11,500 on the service and boats, and wasn’t seeing much profit. In 1912, the newly minted municipality bought the company for just $6,000. With the purchase came two boats: the 34 passenger West Vancouver No. 1 (formerly a fishing boat named Eileen), and the 40-passenger Sea Foam (not be confused with the North Van vessel that blew up in 1867), built in 1906. The West Vancouver No. 1 operated from 1909 to 1915, when it was sold to a new operator. In 1928, she sank in Thunder Bay, BC.

In 1913, a proper terminal – housing a ticket office and a tea room - was constructed at the foot of 14th street. From the West Vancouver archives:

The West Vancouver terminus at the foot of 14th Street was the headquarters of the ferry fleet. The standard run was to the foot of Columbia Street on the Vancouver waterfront . The trip took 25 minutes and ran on the hour. It cost 10 cents, and later 15, and one could buy a fare card for 10 or 20 rides. The ferries ran seven-days-a-week and 18-hours-a-day, later increasing in frequency to every half hour and every 20 minutes during rush hour. The crew consisted of a skipper, engineer, and sometimes a mate, who would circulate and punch the tickets and sometimes there was a lookout man too. The larger ferries had divided cabins – the fore-cabin was for smokers and was known as the “glory hole” – non-smokers reeled out of it, choking.

Of course, riding the ferry wasn’t without its hazards.

At 8:47 am on Monday, February 4, 1935, in thick fog, the West Vancouver No. 5 was westbound for the 14th Street terminus, reportedly on course, at a slow speed and approaching Prospect Point, when the sharp steel bow of the much bigger CPR ship “Princess Alice” loomed out of the fog. The “Alice” was inbound from Seattle, 47 minutes late. There was no time to try to dodge and the “Alice’s” bow cut into the ferry at an acute angle on the port side of the after cabin. It was obvious that the ferry would sink immediately. Luckily she carried few passengers on that trip, and only one (the elderly Mrs. William E. Burritt) was trapped, below decks. The bow of the “Alice” pinned her against the side of the cabin. Captain Darius Smith , aided by mate Hayes and lookout Arnold Garthorne, made valiant efforts to free her but the ferry went down so fast that the others had to drag Capt. Smith out before he went down with her.

But the end of the ferries was an eventual consequence of the opening of the Second Narrows Bridge in 1925 and then the Lions Gate Bridge in 1938. The two bridges rendered them impractical. Due to the security restrictions on bridge use, increased gas rationing, and the expense of bus fare, the ferries delayed their closure until after WWII. A referendum held in 1945 revealed that 80% of the population favoured the discontinuation of the service. In 1947, West Vancouver’s boats had their last sailing, followed by North Vancouver’s ferry farewell in 1958.

The Ferry Building in Ambleside, originally used as a ticket office and waiting room, still operates today as an art gallery. In Tofino, the North Vancouver #1 ferry is still intact, albeit tremendously weatherworn, as an above-water installment and accommodations on Strawberry Island. The North Vancouver Ferry No. 5 was repurposed into the Seven Seas Restaurant in Lonsdale until it was decommissioned in 2001, and the last remaining West Vancouver ferry, the Hollyburn, was run under Harbour Ferries as a tour boat before being scrapped in February, 2010.

And then came the Seabus, but…well…that’s another story.

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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  • Paul D

    Fascinating. Thanks!

  • Conrad Yablonski

    “Navvy” Jack Thomas, a deserter from the Royal Navy”

    That is highly unlikely-the British Navy relentlessly hunted down deserters and dealt with them harshly.

    Being as how Vancouver was such a tiny place, firmly clasped to the bosom of the Briddish Empire, the idea that a known deserter held a position of public responsibility is nonsense and that’s being polite about it.

  • Stevie Wilson

    Hey Conrad,

    If you’re curious about Jack Thomas’ story, his distinction as the first Caucasian settler on the North Shore, and the idea of manning a one-man rowboat as it pertains to “a position of public responsibility”, you can check out the West Van library or online archives. It’s where I found that particular information for my article, and I’m sure they’ll be able to clear up this “nonsense” for you (and that’s being polite about it)!

  • D IDE

    Thanks Stevie
    This will go into the subject files at the North Vancouver Museum & Archives. If you are into doing another ferry article, how about one on Ferry #5 that became the Seven Seas Restaurant?

  • Eden Toth

    I love your column Stevie, it’s the perfect little dose of Vancouver history. Thanks so much!!

  • http://www.nvma.ca D IDE

    I should add that the Ferry #1 was the first North Van ferry, not Ferry #2. Also the ferries continued to run in North Vancouver until 1958, not 1948. Let me know if I can help further.

  • Stevie Wilson

    Good eye, thanks!

  • http://www.bcbsides.ca/ Brooke

    I love this. I’ll definitely start following Stevie from here on in- great article, great photos and great info. Hope you don’t mind but I’m going to share this link with some folks I know over at the ministry of Transportation, I’m sure they’d get a kick out of it!

  • Jeff Aleck

    Hello Stevie, Thank you for sharing! I was looking up Navvy Jacks history when I came across your article. If You could please help with your services, on helping me find more info on him. I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you