For over forty years the Union Steamship Company vessels plied the coastal waters of southwestern British Columbia. In so many cases they were the only contact with the outside world for the all villages, lumber camps, and canneries. This fleet with its red stacks is now a thing of the past. Aircraft and modern highways have dealt a final blow and with this most of these remote settlements with their post offices are today in memory only. Some of these stops were literally floating residences where the children learned to swim early. The Union Steamship Company was based in Vancouver with fourteen vessels, all with names starting with “C”, with one exception. These ships were a common sight, whether along the east coast of Vancouver Island or the mainland north of Prince Rupert to Anyox. Ship markings form a separate story and are very hard to find. It is the post office cancels of the stops of these vessels that fit into a British Columbia postmark collection.
When the Union Steamship Company bought out the Terminal Steam Navigation Co., it acquired the Bowen Island Estate – a conglomerate with hotel and pleasure facilities. This was within one hour of Vancouver. It was the first call on the run to Squamish to connect with the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (P.G.E.), now the British Columbia Railway, which then ran only to Quesnel.
There were six stops on the way from Vancouver to Squamish. Bowen Island – established January 11, 1894 with a P.O. A stop at Anvil Island – est. Aug.1, 1896 and closed Aug.28, 1950. Then on to Porteau on the coast – est. Feb.1, 1912 and closed Dec.11, 1928. The industry here was Deek’s Gravel Co. Next was Britannia Beach – est. Jan.1, 1907. Copper mining was to give this office a long life. The B.C. Mining and Smelting Co. has set up a mining museum there now. Whalen Pulp & Paper Co. was the reason for Woodfibre, near the head of Howe Sound, est. March 1, 1920. Finally there was Squamish, the start of the railway to Quesnel, est. July 7, 1892.
The longest trip was along the lower B.C. coast from Vancouver to Anyox. Many of the stops were for the canneries tucked away in the inlets and fjords. All phases of life depended on these red-stackers making calls. The route could be up the mainland coast, or alternate to the east coast of Vancouver Island and through the treacherous Seymour Narrows.
The following are the ports of call on the six-day trips on either route. On the Island, the first call was at Alert Bay, chiefly an Indian settlement, est. Oct. 1, 1885 on Cormorant Island. Sointula, a Finnish settlement on Malcolm Island – est. Dec.1, 1912. Port Hardy on the northern tip of the Island – est. Oct.1, 1904. Then came a turbulent passage across Queen Charlotte Sound to the cannery at Namu – est. Aug.1, 1912. Bella Bella was an Indian village and the centre for this area – est. Oct.1, 1936. The cannery at Rivers Inlet was established Jan. 20, 1890 and closed Sept. 1942. Lumbering and paper was the backbone for Ocean Falls – est. Aug.1, 1912. Surf Inlet was established Sept. 1, 1916 and closed Sept. 8, 1926. The Belmont Mines with gold and silver was the source of revenue here. The cannery at Butedale was a cargo-filler and was established July 1, 1917. Timber was the reason for Swanson Bay with its Whalen Pulp Mill Co. – est. Sept. 1, 1907 and closed Feb. 28, 1942.
Prince Rupert was the largest port of call. The terminal of the Grand Trunk Railway and the focal point of the fishing industry have kept this port on the map. It was established Dec. 1, 1912. North of Prince Rupert were three more stops – Alice Arm with the Dolly Varden Mine and its silver – est. April 1, 1916, Copper put Anyox on the map with the Granby Mining and Smelting Co. Today there is no trace of this township – est. Jan. 1, 1912 and closed Aug. 31, 1939. The turnaround point was at Stewart at the head of the Portland Canal – est. April 1, 1905.
A local run to Vancouver Island touched the isolated northern tip. This area was heavily treed and lumbering was equal in importance to the fishing industry. Sayward was the lumber centre – est. Dec. 1, 1911. Port Neville was established November 1, 1895. Then it was across the narrows to Simoam Sound, a floating village with lumber interests. The Indian settlement at Kingcome Inlet was the final call – est. April 1, 1905.
Today’s Sunshine Coast with its Dogwood Ferries is home to thousands of residents and tourists alike – a far cry from the early twenties, when all the necessities depended on the Union Steamship line. Selma Park – Sept. 3, 1946, closed April 4, 1969. Roberts Creek – est. Aug. 1, 1904. Halfmoon Bay – est. Jan. 1, 1915. A place called Red Roofs was a call but had no post office. Sechelt, the fishing resort, was established March 1, 1896. Today’s popular Savary Island with its silver sands was established June 1, 1913. It is just a quick trip across to Campbell River, home of the great Tyee salmon.
British Columbia’s coastline is like a spider’s web and those little red-stackers were the spiders spinning the commercial routes. It took a hardy crew to cover this area and to see it done through the four seasons of the year. Tall timbers reached down to the high tide lines with endless tides eating away at the rocky coasts and sliding over silver strands with fingers of lacy foam. Tall mountains frowned over the inlets where fishermen trolled. Heavy snows and shrouding fog made life difficult. Man pitted his strength and ingenuity against nature and navigated on steady schedules to supply these little out-of-the-way villages so that life could be sustained with vital needs.
We should be grateful to our earlier pioneers for the wonders they wrought. If one had cancellations from all of the post offices where the red-stackers of the Union Steamship Company called it would be an interesting and invaluable memento of an era now become a picturesque part of our history.
- Post Offices of British Columbia by George Melvin.
- The Jot Book.
First published in The Guideline, Journal of the VIPS, April 1986
by Lester Small
About Lester Small
From 1984 to 1988, there were a number of articles about Canadian postal history (most of them about British Columbia) in The Guideline, the newsletter of the Vancouver Island Philatelic Society. Almost all of these were written by Lester Small (Member #341). Lester – a clerk at the Victoria Post Office – was also active in the Greater Victoria Philatelic Society. He organized the junior programme of the GVPS, and looked after the junior stamp club for 35 years.