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dave obee The birth of B.C. Ferries

By Dave Obee

They were called fast ferries, but the fast ferries of 1958 should not be confused with the ones that were launched four decades later.

The two fast ferries announced by Premier W.A.C. Bennett on July 17, 1958, were designed to provide a new link between the north end of the Saanich Peninsula and the Canadian side of Point Roberts on the Lower Mainland.

The new service was designed to provide a convenient, stable link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Bennett made his announcement after Canadian Pacific's 10 steamships had been tied up because of a strike for two months, and on the same day that Black Ball's two ferries linking Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay were to be stopped by a strike as well.

In June, Bennett had invoked the Civil Defence Act, which enabled the province to seize the Black Ball ferries to keep them running. He was still fuming that the federal government, which had jurisdiction over the CP ships, had not made a similar move.

"The government of B.C. is determined that in the future, ferry connections between Vancouver Island and the mainland shall not be subject either to the whim of union policy nor to the indifference of federal agencies," Bennett said.

The premier was probably not just poking the federal government with his comment. He had been angry for years that CP refused to increase and improve its money-losing ferry service on the coast.

"The government has given lengthy consideration to the problem of ferry connections between Vancouver Island and the mainland -- even to the extent of resorting to the Civil Defence Act when these connections were threatened by strike," the premier said.

"Our experience since taking over the ferry operations has been of the best so far as far as the staff, officers and crew. The public, however, has been placed in a most awkward position by repeated statements from union leadership hinting at the possibility of cessation of service and by delay caused by overworked ferry facilities."

Bennett promised that there would be two ferries, maybe more, on the new government-operated service. Tenders would be called as soon as plans were drawn, he said, and the work would provide additional winter work for B.C.'s shipbuilding industry.

He said the new service would be run by the B.C. Toll Highways and Bridges Authority, but admitted that he did not have the answer to one key question. "I have no idea of the cost," he said.

Local shipbuilding companies were more up to speed on these things. They said the cost would likely be $3 million apiece. Bennett said the mainland terminal would have good access because of the Deas Island Tunnel and the freeway to be built north and south of the tunnel.

Government officials said they wanted vessels similar to the Kahloke or the Chinook, the two Black Ball ferries used between Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo.

Bennett's announcement was greeted warmly by just about everyone. The mayor of Victoria, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the leader of the opposition Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and Harold Husband, the president of Victoria Machinery Depot, were all thrilled to hear the news. So were labour leaders and officials at Washington State Ferries.

Canadian Pacific and Black Ball brass refused to comment.

Community officials raised concerns about the impact on the Saanich Peninsula. Brahm Wiesman, a capital region planner, said increased ferry traffic would put more pressure on the Patricia Bay Highway, which was two lanes wide at the time.

Saanich was also starting to plan for a major new shopping centre where the Pat Bay and Trans-Canada highways met. A new ferry terminal at Sidney would have an impact on that as well, because the amount of traffic to and from the Peninsula would increase.

In an editorial, the Colonist welcomed Bennett's announcement, but said that the ferry service should be regarded as an extension of the Trans-Canada Highway system. In that case, the federal government should provide half of the capital cost.

Harry Young, the business editor at the Daily Colonist, said in a column that the new service could pay its own way if it had the right vessels and the right terminals. He suggested following the Washington State Ferries model, with loading and unloading at the bow and stern. That meant that in 10 minutes a vessel could move 100 cars out and 100 more cars in.

He noted that Washington State and Black Ball ferries were running with crews of about 18 people. The CP ships needed up to 110 crew members on board, he said.

The Victoria Daily Times also commented on the ferry announcement, and took the chance to take a couple of shots at CP's ferry service.

"The days of the 'luxury liner' from Victoria to Vancouver are over," it said. "So are the days of the ship which requires a large working force."

The Times said it was possible that the CP service would have to be curtailed if the government's new line proved to be a success. "What is needed is relatively inexpensive and speedy service between the two points by an age which transportation for cars as an essential of life."

The government pressed ahead with its plans for a new ferry service even after the employees of Black Ball and Canadian Pacific were ordered back to work, and ferry service was restored.

The first two "fast ferries," named Sidney and Tsawwassen, were based on the Coho, built by Black Ball in 1959. They went into service on June 15, 1960. That fall CP ended its Vancouver-Victoria run, unable to compete with the government's service.

In 1961 the province bought Black Ball's Canadian vessels, giving it the route between Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay. It took more than a decade, but CP finally gave up on Nanaimo service.

Fifty years after strikes cut off the mainland, Bennett's navy is still going strong -- but it is now known as B.C. Ferries.

Posted July 20, 2008


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