John began his career in the Fraser River steamboat business at the age of 18 when his father, Captain William Irving, died in 1872. John inherited the stern wheeled steam ships Onward and the Reliance and proved capable of following in his father’s footsteps, becoming one of the most famous and prosperous riverboat captains of the era.
In 1873, Irving took command of the Onward and ordered a new stern wheeler, Glenora, which launched in 1874. Glenora served on the Stikine River, providing freight and passenger service to miners during the Cassiar Gold Rush. Although the Stikine was his rival Captain William Moore’s territory, Moore was busy prospecting, so the Glenora’s only competition was Captain Parson’s Hope. The two stern wheelers worked the Stikine under the owner’s agreement to share profits.
In 1874, Irving purchased Royal City from Captain Parson, who with his wife and daughter, would perish the following year in the sinking of the SS Pacific.
In 1875, John experienced his first rate war with his father’s old rival, Captain Moore. Moore ran his Gertrude against Irving’s Royal City for weeks. The competition lowered passenger fares between New Westminster and Yale to $1.00. With no profit to be made, Moore laid the Gertrude up at Victoria leaving John Irving to the river.
In 1876, John had another sternwheeler built, the Reliance, which he intended to run on the Stikine, but after consultation with Moore, the two captains decided it was more profitable for each to stick to their respective rivers.
In 1879, Glenora sank just below the Harrison River. John replaced her with a new vessel, the William Irving.
By 1881, only five sternwheelers were plying the Fraser, Irving’s Reliance, Royal City and William Irving, and Moore’s Cassiar and Western Slope. The two captains battled for the increased business resulting in the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. To compete with Moore’s Western Slope, Irving built a new sternwheeler, the $80,000 Elizabeth J Irving. On her second trip to Yale, while racing Moore’s Western Slope, she caught fire near Hope and was reduced to a charred wreck. The loss was a tremendous financial blow to Irving, who had allowed the vessel’s insurance to expire a week earlier.
In 1882, Irving launched another sternwheeler, RP Rithet, the finest yet to serve on the river. Around this time Captain Moore fell on hard times, losing his stern wheelers, his home, and properties in Victoria. Irving purchased Moore’s Western Slope at auction and, in a grand gesture, hired Moore’s three sons as her crew, Billie her captain, Henry her mate, and John her purser, thus helping his old rival’s family remain solvent.
In 1883 John, then 29, became general manager of Victoria’s Canadian Pacific Navigation Company. Irving arranged for the company to purchase the side wheel steamboat Yosemite that had been lying idle in Oakland, California.
In 1896, John Irving partnered with Stephen Tingley, former owner of the BC Express Company, and with Senator James Reid of Quesnel, to form the North British Columbia Navigation Company. The partners hired Alexander Watson to build the sternwheeler Charlotte, she was the only sternwheeler to work the Fraser River from Soda Creek to Quesnel until decommissioned in 1909.
From 1894 to 1901 John Irving served as the Member of BC’s Legislative Assembly for the Cassiar Electoral District.
The death of Irving’s only son Willie in the first Great War was a great blow to Irving. He gambled and gave his money away with abandon. In a few years his fine mansion in Victoria, his horses and stables, the accumulated wealth of a most successful business career were gone.
When Irving sold the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company to the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) in 1901, he was presented with a lifetime pass on CPR’s coastal steamships. Irving, who, for a period lacked a regular home ashore, came to use the pass constantly. So long as Irving’s old friend Captain James W. Troup was superintendent of CPR coastal operations, Irving was welcome aboard the company’s ships. When Troup retired in 1928 his successor, believing Irving was abusing the pass, advised his captains that while travel might be at the company’s expense, Irving was to pay for his accommodations and meals. The directive was ignored and CPR’s Captains continued to seat Irving at the captain’s table and ensure a cabin was always available for him.
In his later years, Captain Irving lived in a small converted store on West Pender Street in Vancouver. He died in 1936, poor in everything but friends.
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