Twin Cities: San Francisco and Victoria

Image PDP01898 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

Circa 1858 or 1859 Correspondent’s rendering, Image PDP01898:  courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

Probably the best reward for my having been so well immersed in researching our West Coast maritime history over the years, was coming across certain aspects of it that have never been written up let alone spoken to in the past. What with having been born and raised in Victoria, a city whose history and culture was supposedly all of British origin, I was much surprised to discover how so closely linked it was with ports down along the U.S. west coast throughout the later half of the 19th century. Indeed the tentative title of my current book project is Twin Cities: Victoria and San Francisco.

Regardless of its longstanding British standards and social habits, Victoria in its early formative years was transformed into very much an American wild-west frontier town after becoming so closely linked to San Francisco both socially and economically back in the mid-1800s. To start with, both cities are somewhat similar geographically what with their being bounded by ocean waters on three sides. As it is, San Francisco remains as one of the largest ports along the Pacific since this unique geographic feature protects an incredibly large open bay. Although its harbor is much smaller in size, Victoria was to become another very active port along the Pacific coast of the Americas. Fort Victoria, a quiet and peaceful Hudson Bay Company trading post, underwent a dramatic transformation once the Fraser River gold rush of 1858 was underway and both Vancouver Island and New Caledonia (today’s mainland British Columbia) were absolutely overrun with Yanks eager to pan a good dollar out of the river bars. Victoria, which was to be transformed into just another American wild west town, was to maintain its close ties with California right up until the arrival of Canada’s trans-continental railway, the C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) to Pacific tidewater at Port Moody in the summer of 1886.

But regardless, as time went on I finally began to unravel and get to the bottom of the story as to how British Columbia’s capital city was so closely connected to the U.S. west coast throughout the 19th century. Having been totally immersed in researching and writing west coast maritime history over the years, one particular shipwreck I became obsessed with, and whose remains are still yet to be found, was that of the U.S. flagged steamer George S. Wright which was lost on a voyage returning to Portland, Oregon, after a run freighting mail and cargo up to Alaska. It was while scanning through Victoria’s paper of the day, the British Colonist, tracking news of her disappearance and loss, that it really came across how much sea-going traffic remained running between U.S. ports and Victoria well into the later years of the nineteenth century.  On February 28th, 1873, residents of Victoria opened their copies of the Daily British Colonist to read, “Terrible Marine Disaster!” Probable Loss of the Propeller Geo S Wright with all on board!” The American screw steamship was on its way south from Alaska to Portland in late January that year.

The Captain of the George S. Wright took on some risk and put all her crew and passengers in danger by taking the outside route through Hecate Straits to cross Queen Charlotte Sound rather than through the Inside Passage that winter. As it was, the steamer which was only 117 feet in length and of 184 gross tons, would have been overloaded with all the cargo and passengers they had taken on. Captain Thomas J. Ainsley had put to sea from Kluvok, their final Alaska stop, after loading some 800 barrels of salmon, 100 barrels of oil, along with some skins and furs on 25th January.  They then headed out into a snow storm which would have made for treacherous sea conditions out in Hecate Straits. Still her Captain was most keen to get back into Victoria as soon as possible since he was engaged to a woman who lived there. The steamer was under the command of Captain Ainsley, “an experienced pilot” who, as it happened, was “…the brother of a Mrs. Mouat of this city” according to the British Colonist.  In its March 7th paper, it went onto provide a list of the steamer’s officers and crew and reported that “Capt. Ainsley, it is stated, was shortly to have been married to a young lady of this city…Chief Engineer (John) Sutton leaves a large family in this city; so, too, does Assistant Engineer Minor; B.F. Weidler, the Purser, was a brother of George W. Weidler, steamship agent here.”

Victoria’s harbour was to remain an incredibly busy port following the Fraser River gold rush what with steamers and ships of sail arriving in from Portland and San Francisco as well as ports throughout Puget Sound. The local papers would keep track of ships tied up in Victoria’s Inner Harbour or over in Esquimalt waiting their turn to unload and listed not only all the goods being delivered up onto her wharves but also all the passengers aboard and what they were here for This flurry of activity continued on well into 1859 and in its June 25th paper that year Victoria’s British Colonist reported on how the city had come to the forefront as a major marine centre on the Pacific by listing the ships currently sitting in port at both Victoria and Esquimalt at the time: the steamers Otter, Governor Douglas, Caledonia, Colonel Moody and Eliza Anderson; the ships Thames City, Carnatic, Eliza and Ella, barks Euphrates, Carrie Leland and Caesar, brigs Katie Foster and Hamburg, steamship Forward, along with the Royal Navy’s Tribune, Satellite, Pleiades and Plumper.

In essence, the boundary between the United States of America and what was British territory at the time never really stood for much throughout the years following the Fraser River gold rush right up until July 1871 when the colony finally joined Confederation as the province of British Columbia.

The Rewards of having a website: More Rum Running Tales


Even though it’s been going on three years now since my last book, The Real Story of West Coast Rum Running hit the streets, it is still proving particularly rewarding having a website up where folks are able to connect with me via my Blog. The latest response I received was from David Ferguson, who pointed out that it was his father, “Davie” Ferguson, on p. 267 standing out on the deck of the distributor boat, Ryou II, behind George Butts and “Sparky” Miles. “My father’, Fergie, appears in some of your pictures, but not in the text. I am not surprised. He almost always kept his thoughts, and certainly his feelings to himself.”

Then there was Gary Cullen over in Tsawwassen who filled me in on the tale of Rosie Broun, a young lady living out on Port Roberts right next to the border in a big house known as the ‘goat ranch’ or ‘snake farm.’ Here she was operating an aerial tramway for loading boats running in across from Washington state. Here on dark nights when there was no one around liquor cargoes were loaded and run south. Also, another woman down in Renton, Washington, contacted me to fill me in on her husband’s great uncle, Louis Bussanich’s, adventures back when he was actively involved in the trade. He and partner, J. Rice, made the news in Victoria after they were busted in October 1928 by Canadian Customs in the Hoozit, “one of the neatest speedboats brought into Victoria” for being in Canadian waters eager to pick up a load of liquor without reporting themselves. Bussanich later died down in Puget Sound after his ‘fast runner’ was shelled by a U.S. Coast Guard boat and sank.

Another person who contacted me just so happened to be the niece of Sidney V. Elvy who was cook aboard the mother ship Federalship when she was seized on March 1, 1927, off the California coast. After the steamer was brought into San Francisco all the officers, crew, along with the owners, were jailed and put on trial. During their search of the steamer, the Coast Guard happened to come across a poem in Captain Stuart Stone’s cabin titled “Hail, Ale, Gang’s All Here!” After being found innocent of all charges and the crew were all set free, Sidney V. Elvy signed on aboard the 76-foot schooner, Noble, as cook. Upon their return from Rum Row, Ensenada headed back home to Vancouver and encountering thick fog while searching for the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait on January 1st, 1928, the Noble was caught in heavy swells off Escalante Reefs and sank with Sidney Elvy, along with three other crew members, losing their lives.

Still, what was probably most rewarding connection I’ve made so far, was with Norma Warris, whose father was David Stanley, a ‘business’ partner of Archie MacGillis who was operating his big-time rum-running operation out of Coal Harbour while Prohibition was underway south of the line. After her filling me in on all that her dad was well immersed in, she most kindly passed over his original documents that he had held onto from those days. I felt I had struck it rich! And the wireless message featured above? It was sent out by Archie MacGillis over to David Stanley in Honolulu who was taking care of their trade operations in Hawaii. And do note, that a 1924 dollar is worth some fifteen dollars in today’s money.

Wreck of the Uzbekistan

Wreck of the Uzbekistan

This past August I found myself on the incredibly beautiful and fabulous West Coast Trail which runs along the outside coast of Vancouver Island.  I was assigned to Pachena Point light station for a month-long posting working as a relief lightkeeper but what was particularly moving was that I was sitting right beside the Graveyard of the Pacific where my father had been involved with a rescue operation of a ship up on the beach some 77 years earlier.

On April 2, 1943, in the midst of World War II, HMCS Outarde the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper which my father, Dick James, was serving aboard as an Able Seaman, happened to be engaged in minesweeping operations out in Juan de Fuca Strait. Then they received orders that they were to proceed at full speed to the scene of a stranded ship up on the beach just two miles down from Pachena Point. This was the Russian lend-lease freighter S.S. Uzbekistan which had been launched from a shipyard in St. Nazaire, France in 1937 and measured 326 feet in length and was 3039 registered tons.

The freighter slipped her moorings in Portland, Oregon, the morning of April 1st, 1943, and was bound for Seattle where she was to load lend-lease supplies for Vladivostok. Unfortunately, with a southeast gale blowing bringing with it limited visibility, once up along the outside coast of the Olympic peninsula, they missed seeing the light of the Umatilla buoy. Then when they did finally see a flashing light they mistook it as that of the Umatilla. They had made a grave error, instead, it was that of the Swiftsure buoy sitting out off the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. As a result, the captain held his ship on a steady northerly course which had them headed right into the outside coast of Vancouver Island. To make matters worse both the lights at Cape Beale and Pachena Point had been shut down following the shelling of the Estevan Point light station a little farther up the outside coast by the Japanese sub I-26 on the 20th of June the year before.

HMCS Outarde, with my father aboard, arrived offshore at the scene of the stranded vessel late the afternoon of April 2nd to find her grounded some 150 yards off the beach sitting broadside up against a rocky shelf just off the mouth of the Darling River. While there were some U.S. coast guard and Canadian naval patrol vessels sitting offshore ready to assist with a rescue, it was the Outarde’s whaler carrying a landing party of 11 men that were able to make it in alongside the Uzbekistan. Unfortunately though, as the whaler approached the stranded ship and what with a strong sea pounding against her hull, she was carried around inside her bow. Here the whaler was caught in the breakers and hurled forward in the surf to be swamped but luckily was deposited upright among the rocks well inshore. The Russian crew who had all landed safely and were camped out just up off the beach went down to lend the whaler’s crew a hand.

After signaling between ship and shore, the Outarde’s landing party left the beach that evening to head off to Pachena Point where arrangements were made to accommodate the sailors. Here they received a good meal and beds for the night. The next morning the Outarde flashed a signal to Pachena instructing the landing party to head out on the trail for Bamfield where they would be picked up to rejoin their ship.

So there I was some 77 years later after this major ship loss, out on Pachena Point. Then with some half-decent weather and a good low tide one afternoon, I hiked down the beautiful West Coast Trail to her wreck site. It required a bit of searching and with some scrambling out over the rocky shelf, I finally came across what little was left of the Uzbekistan. There it was, its huge boiler sitting out there with the surf pounding over it.
boiler in the sea

Still with us, Johnny Schnaar’s Kitnayakwa

Kitnayakwa Rum Row, Ensenada, early 1930s. Fraser Miles photo.

It was only a short time after my rum running book came out that I began being contacted by folks with more tales to share and tell. I was particularly intrigued to hear from Susan Ben–Oliel who revealed that she and her husband were the current owners of Johnny Schnaar’s fast purpose built ‘runner Kitnayakwa.

Susan Ben–Oliel said that “there is an interesting story and one word behind the acquisition of the Kitnayakwa – my husband found it on the Seattle Craigslist! It was initially in bad shape and was partially

The Kitnayakwa
The Kitnayakwa as she was originally found. (Photo from the Susan Ben–Oliel collection.)

submerged when we had it brought up to Canada in July 2009 (on the back of a flatbed truck)” Over time (and much more slowly than they would have hoped) they have been trying to restore it. They later painted the exterior and built a lean–to to cover it and a deck around it. It sits right at the edge of their lake house (on Echo Lake, at Harrison Mills). Susan says “at least close to water if not in it.”

Throughout the U.S. Prohibition years, there were two different ways that Canadian rum runners carried out their operations in southern British Columbia waters. The bulk of the trade involved a variety of Canadian small vessels delivering up liquor orders to American boats. This took place in a generally safe manner within B.C. waters such as Haro Strait which the Victoria Daily Colonist of the day described as filled with small islands serving as “Oases of Scotch in a Sea of Saltwater”. The other method entailed taking on a high level of risk by delivering up booze directly onto Washington State beaches which was otherwise described as ‘jumping the line.’

One mariner who proved particularly adept at this very lucrative undertaking was Johnny Schnaar. After hauling liquor out of Victoria’s Inner Harbour for Fred Kohse in the initial years of the trade, Schnaar soon figured that he’d probably do even better with a boat of his own. Right up until Prohibition finally ended in December 1933, Johnny designed and had built five fast wood hull shore boats. The fourth one built in the boatyard of Tomotaro Yoneda on Chatham Street, Victoria, was the 45 foot 8 inches long Kitnayakwa which was powered by two high speed Lee gas engines capable of delivering 1,036 horsepower to her twin screws, which were good for up to forty knots. What was amazing is that some 91 years after her launching in Victoria in 1928, the Kitnayawka is still with us.

Courtesy of Brian Kilpatrick collection

Following the end of the prohibition years in December 1933, the owners of the rum trade’s fleet of boats had to look for other pursuits in order to keep them working or just sell them off. As it happened, a number of fast runners were turned into lovely yachts, one being the Kitnayakwa. Sometime around 1938, Gordon Kilpatrick, who was living out at Point Grey in Vancouver at the time, bought her and she became his family’s yacht “Kitty”.  Then when his son married in 1945, the young couple lived aboard her for a year until they could have a house built ashore. Mr. Kilpatrick sold her off sometime in the late ‘40s and many years later she finally ended up in the hands of Susan Ben-Oliel and her husband.

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