Prince Robert

Few especially built ships for a trade have become the orphans of economic circumstances faster than a trio built for a Canadian railway company.

The Prince Robert arrived at Vancouver from the British builders in May 1931. The ferry was the first of the trio that went into service connecting Vancouver with Victoria and Seattle. Prince David was the second ship followed by Prince Henry. Owned by Canadian National Railway, the service competed directly with that of Canadian Pacific Railway’s ships. The onset of the world-wide trade depression hit Canada in October 1929 when the main stock exchanges lost 40% of their quoted share’s value. By the end of 1930, neither railway company paid any dividends. So dire was the dearth of business on The Triangle Trade between the three port cities that the Princes were withdrawn from the route on 15 September 1931 never to return.

Canadian National Railway, part owned by the federal government, had been salvaged from the failure of the Grand Trunk Railway and had been ship owners since 1920. The Grand Trunk Company had, since the formation in 1853, concentrated on constructing its rail network in Eastern Canada and the Maritime provinces. It also provided many of the rail connections with the United States just over the famous international border provided by latitude 49 degrees North. Such was the Grand Trunk’s foresight, that in 1911, they had activated a plan to build a railway line directly southwards from Montreal to the warm water port of Providence Rhode Island, this giving a yearround opening to export and imports for Canadian trade through the USA. The line was never completed, largely because of the death of Charles M Hays (Grand Trunk Railway President) who was amongst those who perished on the Titanic in April 1912.

The Grand Trunk Railway lurched towards bankruptcy from which it was saved by the onset of the First World War in 1914 and the intervention of the Canadian government. There was irony in this, for in 1860, the Grand Trunk had declined to heed the government’s need to build the trans-continental link westwards to Vancouver. This huge and complicated project had been made a conditional requirement by British Columbia to join the confederation in 1871. The Canadian Pacific Railway was formed to build and operate the 2,977 mile link between Toronto and Vancouver which rapidly opened up the potential of the new nation and was an engineering wonder of the Victorian age. Driving across the prairies and through the Rocky Mountains, the rail link was completed in 1885.

Established by the Hudson Bay Company in 1821, British Columbia was an area that contained almost all natural riches from vast forests to high quality coal deposits and even became the scene for several gold rushes. With that British colonising habit for establishing the original settlement on islands, the provincial capital of Victoria was sited at the southern end of Vancouver Island and named Victoria in 1843. The Columbia was Vancouver City, 60 miles away to the north east of Victoria. Burrard Inlet, on the Georgian Strait, provided Vancouver with a fine port and soon became Canada’s exit to the Pacific and, amongst much else, was part of the “All Red Route” across the British Empire from London to New Zealand and Australia. Just south of the border with the USA was Seattle, the largest city in Washington State. Vancouver and Seattle share much in common and their prosperity was much enhanced when, after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the markets in Europe for high value exports (timber and foodstuffs) was rapidly established.

Belatedly realising what they were missing out on, the Grand Trunk built the second trans-continental railway between 1905 and 1912. It served a northern corridor that was more sparsely settled than Canadian Pacific’s southern line and was never as prosperous. The western terminal on the Pacific coast was at Prince Rupert, just south of the Canada - Alaska border. The nagging failure to generate revenue on this new extension, contributed to the eventual failure of the Grand Trunk and, in stages, it became wholly government owned in 1930.

Having arrived on the British Columbian scene, Canadian Pacific were not slow in establishing themselves in shipping services. Best known of these maritime ventures was their Vancouver based route to the Orient providing some of the sinews of the British Empire and profits for their corporate parent back east in Montreal. Less spectacular, but also successful, was from 1901, a ferry service that linked Seattle with Victoria and Vancouver and also the coastal fjord ports of British Columbia all the way north to southern Alaska.

The most profitable and prestigious of all was The Triangle Route, linking the three cities. In the 1920s, with the Pacific North West prospering, Canadian Pacific modernised the service with two ships built by John Brown of Clydebank in 1925. They were the 5,875grt sisters, Princess Kathleen and Princess Marguerite, taking pretensions to royalty from the names of daughters of the main board directors. Because the Triangle Service included night time passages, each ship had 290 berths provided in 136 staterooms; a total of 1,500 passengers could be carried. There was a range of large and usually elegant public rooms.

Powered by steam turbines, each of the pair could travel at 20 knots if required. Canadian Pacific had the foresight to have the ships able to carry 30 cars loaded through side doors. In 1923, Yarrow’s yard at Esquimalt, Victoria built the wooden hulled 1,243grt diesel engined Motor Princess which carried cars, vans and some passengers. Loading could be handled over the bow onto early versions of link span ramps. It was onto this established competitive scene that Canadian National decided to launch their trio so spectacularly and wrongly timed.

The Canadian National trio were designed by R T Wall & Co, of Liverpool, with the order to build them going to Cammell Laird of Birkenhead. The probable reason for the orders being placed there may have been because these builders had just completed five passenger cargo ships for the Canadian government. The size of the new ships for Canadian National were almost the same as the new Canadian Pacific ships; namely a hull of 385ft in overall length a beam of 57ft and a draught of 16ft 6in.

The largest difference was that of required maximum speed. Canadian Pacific were content with 20 knots if required, whereas Canadian National specified 23 knots. This resulted in two thirds of the length of the hull being taken up by boiler rooms and the engine room; the latter into which two sets, each of three stage turbines, were installed. The rest of the machinery space was needed for no fewer than six Yarrow water-tube and oil fired boilers. Additionally, there were two Scotch boilers for low pressure steam driven auxiliary needs. In an age when three funnels, of which two were dummies, unsophisticated travellers equated the number of funnels with powerful engines and safety. The Canadian trio’s three funnels were needed for all those eight boilers. Three funnel separate casings rose up through three decks of accommodation. Trials photos of the Prince David at speed on the lower Firth of Clyde show a mighty amount of oily black smoke pouring out of each red white and blue funnel.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - May 2018 Issue
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