The West Vancouver Ferries: 1909 to 1947 by Phil Collings
Before 1909, there were few privately owned properties in West Vancouver and no scheduled ferries or boat service. Inhabitants of the Pilot House at Caulfeild Cove (Skunk Cove in those days) would put up a flag to summon passing boats. These were usually tugboats and not very comfortable.
In 1905, John Lawson bought development property in West Vancouver and, as part of his proposal to land buyers, set up a scheduled boat service. The West Vancouver Ferry Company was started in 1909 by Lawson and three partners. This first service ran from Hollyburn Wharf at the foot of 17th Street through the First Narrows and across Vancouver Harbour to the foot of Columbia Street. In 1910 and 1911, they had two boats – the 34 passenger "West Vancouver No.1" which started life as a Columbia River fish boat called "Eileen", and the 40 passenger "Sea Foam", slow but sturdy, which could pull a barge with the settlers' furniture and effects.
The Ferry Company was not profitable as a commercial venture however, and by 1912 Lawson had poured $11,500 into it. But in 1912 the Municipality of West Vancouver had been set up, and Lawson was able to sell the Ferry Company to the Municipality for $6,000. Since the ferries were in reality a necessary service for the inhabitants in the absence of bridge access, this seems like a natural development.
In the hands of the Municipality the service expanded. In 1913, the Ferry Terminal at the foot of 14th Street was built with luxuries such as a Tea Room, a ticket office, and a freight shed . Soon a bus service was set up to deliver passenger from the Ferry Terminal to their doors - ironically the Blue Buses have survived the ferries. And a programme for construction or acquisition of larger ferries was set up, as follows:
1912 – the "Doncella" – 80 passengers – 65 HP Atlas gas engine (bought new from Tacoma)
1913 – the "Sonrisa" – 120 passengers – 100 HP Atlas gas engine (built locally to order)
1914 – "West Vancouver No. 5" - 140 passengers (she really was the 5th ferry, but why she and the next ferry didn't rate names isn't recorded) – 110 HP gas engine, later she was re-engined with 135 HP diesel . She was bought new. This ship came to a dramatic end: see COLLISION below.
1925 – "West Vancouver No.6" – 200 HP diesel engine, later re-engined with a 300 HP diesel (bought new from SR Wallace Shipyard in North Vancouver).
1935 – the "Bonabelle" – where this name came from is recorded. It was the result of a school competition. (Passenger capacity not given). She was engined with the 135 HP diesel salvaged from the "West Vancouver No.5" and was built locally to order.
1935 – 1936 – the "Hollyburn" – passenger capacity not given – engined with a 230 HP Union diesel. Built to order by North Vancouver Ship Repairs. She still survives and can be seen, rather the worse for wear, in Coal Harbour (as of 2003).
Riding on the Ferry
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. Occasional trips, in the nature of excursions, were run to the Great Northern Cannery, Caulfeild Cove, and Horseshoe Bay. In the summer, trips were run around Stanley Park to the English Bay bathing beaches. The drawback was that you disembarked on a float, and if the worst came to the worst, you might have to swim ashore.
Among the more colourful passengers were the hikers and skiers bound for the Hollyburn Mountain Lodge and cabins, laden with their weekend supplies in huge knapsacks. They walked up after having walked across the city and having taken the ferry. These were hardy people!
The frequent trips to the foot of Columbia and back took the little ferries the length of the First Narrows, through currents, tide rips, and dense marine traffic , everything from put-putting fish boats to the great trans-Pacific ocean liners . Nowadays the passage has been dredged and, what is more, the smog has been brought under control so that pea-soup fogs are a thing of the past. And everyone has radar too. It's a remarkable tribute to the skippers and crews that in all those thousands of sailings there was only one serious accident.
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. He suffered a bad cut on the head.
The Alice lowered a boat, the ferry Sonrisa appeared, and the survivors were taken off the sinking No. 5 which ended up beached for the night off Brockton Point. She was a total loss but her almost new engines were salvaged and used in the "Bonabelle" .
Curiously, the "No.5" was sunk twice. Some years before the fatal collision, her mooring lines had been snubbed too tight while she was docked overnight at the old Hollyburn wharf, and the falling tide heeled her over till she filled up. Sailors being as superstitious as they are, this incident was recalled when she was in the later collision.
The Last of the Ferries
The opening of the Lions Gate Bridge spelled the end of the ferry system, but the World War II reprieved it for a few years. It appears that security concerns curtailed bridge use at times. But at midnight on February 8, 1947 Captain G.B. Warren sounded the whistle of No. 6 and sailed for the last scheduled service from the foot of Columbia Street to Ambleside Pier.