Victoria Steamship Company's R.P. Rithet at Yale B.C. on the Fraser River in 1882. Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Victoria Steamship Company’s R.P. Rithet at Yale B.C. on the Fraser River in 1882. Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Victoria: Steamboat Capital of the Fraser

Victoria entrepreneurs like Captain William Moore, William Irving, and his son John Irving constructed and operated the dominant early steamship lines though a number of others ran their boats from Victoria’s Harbour. The gold rushes along the Fraser, up the British Columbia coast gold rushes were a boon to Victoria’s steamboat and shipyard operators as thousands of would be millionaires clamored for passage from Victoria where they’d purchased their mining licenses.

Speed was everything and the fastest steamboats charged the most. In their race to New Westminster and to Yale on the Fraser some ran aground and at least one burned to the waterline. After the Canadian gold rushes Victoria’s steamboats continued to ply routes across the Strait of George but added routes penetrating down into Puget Sound, developing early versions of triangle routes the Princess liners of the British Columbia Coast Service would make famous in the 20th Century. With the discovery of gold in Alaska Victoria’s shipbuilding and transportation business once again accelerated to a gold fever pace.

The Birth of the Riverboat

Henry Shreve, father of the steamboat

Henry Shreve, father of the steamboat

Victoria’s early steamboat fleet on the Victoria – Fraser River route were direct descendants of the Mississippi steamboat. The Mississippi, like the Fraser, shoaled frequently and demanded new thinking in vessel design. Henry Shreve solved the problem with the launch of his steamboat Washington in 1807.

Her hull was flat bottomed and very shallow, too shallow to accommodate her machinery. Shreve decked over the hull and installed her engines and horizontal boilers on that deck. He covered it all with a second deck, and above this he placed the pilothouse and the steamboat was born.

From Paddle Wheels to Propellers

The steamship routes on the west coast of Canada and southeast coast of Alaska from Victoria and Vancouver ran through the winding channels and fjords along the coast, stopping at the principal towns for passengers, cargo, and mail. Many different types of vessels navigated the Inside Passage, as it was known, but the dominant vessel type on longer routes was the “coastal liner”. A coastal liner was a vessel that could withstand severe ocean conditions though operated in relatively protected coastal waters. For example, as a coastal liner, Sophia would only be licensed to carry passengers within 50 miles of the coastline. Coastal liners carried both passengers and freight, and were often the only link that isolated coastal communities, canneries, and logging operations had with the outside world. Originally coastal liners were built of wood. This practice continued well after ocean liners had moved to iron and then steel construction. After several shipwrecks in the Inside Passage and other areas of the Pacific Northwest showed the weakness of wooden hulls, vessel construction switched over to steel.