Twin Cities: San Francisco and Victoria

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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