A long wharf, with a building, juts out into the ocean. A second building can be seen in the forest behind it.

The Union Steamships arrive in Whaletown

When the Union Steamship company started operations, in 1889, there was a single ship servicing Burrard Inlet. Three years later they expanded their market to include the canneries, logging camps and small communities springing up along the coast. The first reference to a ship stopping in Whaletown is found in an 1899 edition of the VANCOUVER PROVINCE. 

Image credit: the ‘SS Comox’ – City of Vancouver digital photo archives, image Bo P77 via Wikimedia (Public Domain.)

“There was  an elderly gentleman from Whaletown who had come down on the ship for medical reasons. He’d been ill for some time. His name was Hitchcock and I have actually found no listing of him in the gazettes or the early census listing. I have no idea what his occupation was, whether he was a logger or a farmer,” explained Lynne Jordan, former President of the Cortes Island Museum and author of an as yet unpublished history of Whaletown.

She mentioned steamships with names like the ‘SS Comox,’ ‘SS Coquitlam’ and the ‘SS Chelohsin.’ 

A lot of people called the latter ‘Charlie Olson’ because it was easier to say than ‘Chelohsin.’

Most ships came to Whaletown at some point, often going to Mansons Landing either before or afterward. Other ships serviced Squirrel Cove and the eastern side of Cortes Island. 

Big wharfs were built to accommodate those steamships, in many coastal communities. 

Whaletown was no different. There was a small, long wharf when Moses Ireland owned the property. After he left, in 1893, the Drinkwaters added a small store and post office off what is now Bayview Road.

The Thompsons “ … built a bigger wharf so that the ships could come in more easily and safely to unload In downtown. It was considered downtown because so many things were there. There was the store, of course, and eventually there were fuel supplies, but there was also the post office, the library, the church, the clinic and the school just up the road,” explained Jordan. 

Another view of Whaletown in 1910 – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Museum

“The Union Steamships really were a necessity of life for all those living along the coast. They were the connection to the outside world and they delivered supplies that had been ordered from stores and places in Vancouver.”

In the beginning the ships sailed once a week, but this was soon increased to twice a week.

“The ships were notorious for not coming in at scheduled times, but imagine all the orders that were sent to the ship. They included livestock, vehicles, tractors, heavy equipment, as well as groceries and passengers. The ship would stop at little places all the way up to Whaletown. You never knew how much was going to be unloaded, or how awkward it would be. Some places didn’t have wharves, so the steamships had to anchor offshore. Boats would come out to meet them. They’d usually lower the cargo into rowboats or, in some small cases, a barge,” said Jordan.

“Who knew how long it was going to take at each stop?  By the time they got to Whaletown it could be nine o’clock at night; it could be three o’clock in the morning!” They liked to reach Whaletown in the evening and then overnight there before continuing on, but that didn’t always happen.”

The Tooker Library in Whaletown – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Museum and Archives

The Farmer’s Institute erected a small building for outgoing produce, which doubled as a waiting room for passengers. The Women’s Institute held meetings there and used it to store library books, as they moved from school to school. This became the Louisa Tooker library, after the Farmer’s Institute gave the building to the Women’s Institute. 

“The store owners would know who was using the store, or ordering all their goods from Vancouver. If they weren’t there to pick their goods up, they were put into that Farmer’s Institute building until they were able to come. The store owners were not very happy with the people that weren’t using the store.  Eventually one of the store owners insisted that they move the building off of his property.”

The Schoolteacher from Mansons Landing was on board the ‘Cheslakee’ when it sank at the Van Anda dock, on Texada Island, in January 1913. She had been returning home from Christmas break, but was one of the passengers that drowned.

“The ship was eventually raised and patched and then towed to Vancouver. It became the very first ship on the West coast to be extended. They cut her in half in the middle and inserted another 20 feet,” said Jordan. 


SS Cheslakee stopping at Powell River in 1912  from BC provincial archives, image B-00453 via wikimedia (public domain)

The steamship was renamed the ‘SS Cheakamus’ and continued servicing the coast up until the 1960s. 

Mrs. Doris Hawkins and her 9-year-old daughter, from Mansons Landing, were on board the SS Comox when it ran aground on Sutil Point reef off southern Cortes. The ship sank, but not before everyone was rescued. As they were pulling away in the lifeboats, the daughter remembered that her doll had been left in the stateroom.

“One of the crew men actually went back and found her doll for her, which made her quite happy,” said Jordan.

The passengers were taken to Heriot Bay, on Quadra Island, where the spent the night on the SS Cassiar. The following day they were transferred to the SS Coquitlam for the trip to Vancouver. 

The SS Comox was towed to Mansons Landing and beached while they repaired a three foot hole. Then it was towed to Vancouver for more extensive repairs and soon returned to service. 

Almost everyone used the steamships at that time. The trip from Vancouver to Whaletown cost $12,  included dinner, and took about 24 hours. Passengers were issued blankets and pillows, and slept on the benches. 

“One young gal who was coming up to Whaletown to join her parents during school break was so fascinated that she stayed up all night watching every little stop. What was being unloaded? She saw things like a horse, boxes of all kinds of things, groceries and an old fashioned treadle  sewing machine,” said Jordan.

Steamship Chelohsin at Stewart, BC, 1912 – Photo by Charles Bradbury,
Provincial Archives of British Columbia, image H-00560 via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Produce was put into boxes, but animals had to be shipped live because there was no refrigeration. Chickens were crammed into small cages. Turkeys were kept on deck, with their feet tied. Horses and cattle were usually pushed out the cargo doors before the ship reached the dock, and swam ashore to where the farmers or owners were waiting.   

(Click here to access the next installment of this story: Twilight of the Union Steamships)

Top image credit: Whaletown dock in 1910 – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Museum and Archives

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