William Irving (1816 – 1872) was born in Annan, Scotland and immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts becoming a licensed steamship captain by 1847. He moved to Oregon in 1849 – one of the early pioneers of steam ship travel in the Pacific Northwest. In 1851 he married 18-year-old Elizabeth Dixon who had arrived in Oregon from Indiana the previous year. The Irving’s lived in Oregon for nine years and had five children: Mary, John, Susan, Elizabeth, and Nellie.
The family moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1859 where he became a partner in the Victoria Steam Navigation Company. He built two stern wheelers, the Governor Douglas and the Colonel Moody to serve the route between Victoria, capital of the colony of Vancouver Island, and New Westminster, then capital of the colony of British Columbia. Irving did not have a monopoly on the route and a rate war soon erupted between Irving and his main rival, Victoria’s Captain William Moore, who ran his Henrietta on the same route.
By 1860, as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush was beginning to decline, more than a dozen stern wheelers were working the Fraser River between New Westminster, Fort Hope and Port Douglas, with vessels arriving from the US or locally built. To end the rivalry, the owners got together to cooperatively set rates.
In 1862, news of Cariboo Gold Rush brought 4,000 new miners to the area and rate wars began anew. Irving sold his boats to John Wright. William Moore left to work the Stikine River route. Irving immediately had another sternwheeler, the Reliance, built and was kept busy shipping miners and supplies from Victoria to Yale where they embarked on the new Cariboo Wagon Road to the Barkerville goldfields.
In 1863 and ’64 rate wars erupted again when Irving’s old rival, Moore returned from the Stikine River, rich with profits and ready to take on the Irving’s Reliance with his Flying Dutchman and Alexandra. Irving managed to keep most of his customers, forcing Moore into bankruptcy.
In 1865 Captain Irving moved his family to New Westminster. By that time there were only four stern wheelers plying the lower Fraser River, Irving’s Reliance and Onward and Captain Fleming’s Lillooet and Hope. To avoid yet another rate war, the two captains agreed to run their stern wheelers in alternate years and took equal shares in the profits.
In 1871 British Columbia became a province in the Dominion of Canada, with an arrangement that included the promise of a railway constructed to the west coast. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway breathed new life into the economy, making the faltering river trade profitable once again. Irving would not live long enough to enjoy the new era’s prosperity. He died at New Westminster in 1872. On the day of his funeral, flags were flown at half-mast and stores were closed. He is buried in New Westminster’s Fraser Cemetery.
At eighteen, William’s son, John Irving, took take over his father’s business to become every bit as successful in British Columbia’s river trade.