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.

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