Union Steamships

July 1 1889 - January 14 1959

The Union Steamship Company was part of a way of life on the West Coast that has sadly vanished. Their little steamers plied the Inside Passage and beyond to Alaska for many years. With numerous ships and routes, it was far easier and cheaper in those days to travel to places like Savary Island, Bute and Rivers Inlets, Ocean Falls, and Bella Coola than it is today, and typically with a greater level of comfort. The company supported many logging camps and isolated communities by shipping freight, food, livestock, and delivering mail.

The company's history has been extensively written about in at least two historical works, Whistle Up The Inlet, and Personality Ships of British Columbia, so I will merely note that the company was founded on July 1, 1889, and ceased operations seventy years later on January 14, 1959 when their remaining assets were sold to Northlands Navigation. At that time the Union Steamships, despite reductions in their fleet, still delivered freight to 150 coastal ports - an amazing number of ports that clearly indicates the scope of their work during all those years, and the large number of "outposts" scattered along the thousands of miles of B.C. shoreline.

In 1905 Spencer Perceval Judge, a noted marine artist, painted a series of watercolours of the early Union fleet. The paintings hung on the walls of the company's boardroom and the office of Gerald Rushton for many years, and were donated to Rushton after the company ceased operations.

The Vancouver School of Art traveled to Savary Island for many years for their annual summer camp. The Union Steamship company even advertised in The Paint Box, the art school's Annual, In the June 1929 Vol. 1 No. 4, their advertisement promised "Delightful summer cruises. Leaving Union Dock, Vancouver, EVERY DAY." A one-hour's sail to Bowen Island left every weekday at 9 a.m., Sunday at 10 a.m., for $1.25 return, with a special weekend rate of $1.00 return.

A cartoon by Jack Wright.

A Day Trip to Squamish via Britannia, leaving seven days a week, cost $2.00 return. The "Week-end Cruise" to the head of Bute Inlet, on the SS Chelohsin, left every Saturday at 2 p.m. and returned Monday morning at 8 a.m. That trip, including meals and berth, cost $15.00 inclusive. A five day cruise to Rivers Inlet Canneries, Ocean Falls and Bella Coola on board the SS Camosun cost $35.00. The six day cruise to Prince Rupert, Anyox and Stewart on board the SS Catala was $60.00 for the round trip, including meals and berth. Further inquiries were directed to the "City Office, 793 Granville Street, phone Seymour 9331, or to the Union Dock, phone Seymour 306." The SS Catala was the last passenger ship flying the Union Steamship Company colours to arrive in Vancouver, the Captain on landing receiving the news that the company had been sold.

Surprisingly, although many artists traveled on the Union Steamships as they went on sketching and painting expeditions to Phillips River, Desolation Sound, and many other locations, very few of them actually painted the steamships they traveled on. The one prominent exception is E.J. Hughes. Many of his large coastal paintings feature Union steamships and those of other companies going about their business in the 1940s and 1950s. He liked painting them so much, in fact, that he kept painting them into his work for years after the steamships quit plying the Inside Passage. Eventually he began to show the modern, angular B.C. Ferries and deep sea freighters in his paintings, but for a while the magic of the steamship days lived on in his work.


Personality Ships of British Columbia by Ruth Green
      1969, published by Marine Tapestries Publications Ltd., West Vancouver
      No ISBN; 342 pages, illustrated with black and white photographs
      Includes "37 illustrated sea tales of Canada's western ships"
      Also Union Steamship Company of British Columbia - A Compact History by Gerald Rushton

Port Watch - Historical Ships in Vancouver Harbour by Vancouver City Archives
      "A Retrospective Look at 100 Years of Ships and Shipping in Vancouver Harbour"
      1986 Centennial Project, 60 page cerlox bound, no ISBN
      Extensive footnotes, index; illustrated with black and white photographs
      Includes information on Union Steamships, photographs of their ships

Whistle Up The Inlet - The Union Steamship Story by Gerald A. Rushton
      1974, published by J.J. Douglas Ltd., Vancouver
      ISBN 0-88894-057-2; 236 pages, illustrated with black and white photographs
      Includes list of officers; Master Mariners; All-time roster of Union ships


"Savary Island. July 4, 1912. We came here Sunday morning about 4 or 5 o'clock. We had a splendid trip, the waves were lovely and rough. The Cheslakee was so loaded down, that our groceries had to be left on the wharf at Vancouver. We have been having a great time and the cottage is lovely. We have a rowboat, and then the canoe we found 2 yrs ago. Freda Lister that used to be was on the Cheslakee. She got off at Buccaneer Bay. Shes married now."
      From "The Diary of Maud Rees Sherman 1907 - 1915" (private collection)

"May 19, 1913. Then there was the hard winter. A good many tugs were wrecked, the Rosine was a total loss, the Cheslakee sank but is in the docks now being repaired. The Cheslakee was always a little too high for her length but it wasn't enough to hurt. The way it happened was she was going up on her regular trip, and just when she was in the middle of the passage between Powel River and Van Anda she got into such a heavy sea that they put back to Van Anda. She always tipped a little in making a turn but this was nothing if they hadn't left the ports open. But the ports had been left open so she heeled over to port, she couldn't go to starboard her usual direction when listing on account of the wharf so heeled to port and went down on her beam ends and sank. My stateroom the last time we went up on the Cheslakee was on the port side and would be the first to fill. Two girls where drowned in papa's and mama's. While she was being repaired a great big boat the Chelhosin of the outer passage was put on. We went up on her at Easter. Shes almost exactly the same as the Camosun same size and everything she's a beauty. It was kind of rough going up but you'd never notice it, that boat slid through the waves as though she didn't know they were there. She looked splendid with her big black hull and long rows of cabin windows. They kept her clean too with white decks and shining brass. When she hit Savary Island wharf she broke two or three piles. Its a monstrous wharf too. If it had been a small one it would have collapsed like a lot of shavings. We came back on the Cowichan another big boat. On her I experienced the first and and I hope last experiment of standing against the funnel of a big steamer when whistling. We have a summer hotel on the Island now also a post office is to be opened on the Twenty Fourth. Papa's postmaster."
      From "The Diary of Maud Rees Sherman 1907 - 1915" (private collection)

"June 4 1913. We go to Savary on the twenty eighth of this month. We are going on the old Cassiar. It will be nice going on her again. My only objection is that she is too slow. Mama doesn't want to go on her but papa says it will either be the Cassiar or Cheakamus (Cheslakee) and mama absolutely refuses to go on a boat that has once been down to the bottom of the sea. The Cheakamus is safer than the Cassiar though. The Cassiar is nearly as old as Vancouver, and Vancouver is twenty-seven years old. Then whenever she gets a fresh hole in her bottom they fill it up with cement. So by now she is nearly all cement. We have been having fine hot weather lately. My I wish I was at Savary."
      From "The Diary of Maud Rees Sherman 1907 - 1915" (private collection)