By Paul Dillon
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying light.
– Dylan Thomas
For almost three decades she sailed the inside passage between Vancouver and Alaska, wearing the Canadian National Steamship Limited's crisp red, white and blue funnel colours, the largest private passenger vessel ever built on the B.C. coast.
Today, the TSS Prince George II lies rusting away on a Britannia Beach dock, haunted some say by the ghosts of another era, her engines dead and opulent interior rotting; gone but not forgotten.
The slow demise of this once venerable vessel strikes a chord with Kathy Dohnalek. She sees the Prince George every morning from the windows of the Old Customs House Gift & Gallery in Britannia Beach.
"It's such a shame to look at her the way she is today," Dohnalek says. "I can't help but see her as more than just a pile of wood and metal. Ever since I first walked onto it years ago I felt it belongs in one specific spot, that she's got a spirit of her own and that maybe there's someone out there who can bring her back to what she used to be.
"Maybe it's like King Arthur's tale, where just the right person has to pull the sword from the stone."
Like Excalibur, the Prince George has attracted a steady stream of heroes and villains intent on retrieving her. A respected cruise ship whose inaugural voyage from Vancouver attracted hundreds of the city's movers and shakers, the past 20 years have been a history of bungled business deals, unpaid bills and court actions.
As recently as March, the ship was being promoted as the centrepiece of the Ladysmith waterfront redevelopment, a floating hotel and convention centre. True to form, that proposal sank under a flurry of bounced cheques, suits and counter-suits between Limbourg Investments, the company that holds the ship, and Sea Vision Enterprise Ltd., proponents of the venture.
It has been an ugly finale for a well respected vessel. Despite the indignities the Prince George has survived, a last point of contact with an era where the passenger ship was more than just a floating hotel, stubbornly refusing to "go gently into that good night."
The story of the TSS (twin screw steamer) Prince George II begins in Ketchikan, Alaska on the morning of Sept. 22, 1945. A fuel tank explodes aboard the three-funnelled Canadian National Steamship passenger vessel Prince George, killing a crew member and forcing her passengers to abandon ship. Despite the best efforts of the crew, the bravery of the captain who beaches the smoking ship away from the dock, and the port's fireboats, the blaze reduces the 35-year-old Prince George to a mass of twisted metal.
CN Steamships calls upon W.D. McLaren, a prominent Canadian marine architect to design a new ship to join the line's Princes of the North fleet, which competes with the Canadian Pacific Railway's Princess vessels along the Alaskan route. She is the most important new vessel to be completed in the years following the Second World War, a time when yard work was largely confined to the conversion of government vessels and war ships to peacetime operations.
The Yarrow shipyards in Esquimalt built the 5,800-tonne ship for a cost of $3 million, one-tenth the cost of constructing the same vessel today. When she was launched on Oct. 6, 1947 the George joined the Prince Rupert as the flagships of the CN Steamship line. She was the largest private passenger ship ever built on the west coast, the last in a long line of CNS passenger vessels, nine of which were built in the U.K. and brought to this coast by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company.
Three hundred-thirty-five feel long, 52-feet abeam and drawing 24 feet of water, the new Prince George II was powered by a pair of six-cylinder Uniflow steam engines generating 7,000 horsepower and a cruising speed of 18 knots. In 1980, a refit superintendent at the Yarrows yard described those engines as the smoothest of their era, the result of state-of-the-art post-war naval technology.
"She runs as quiet as kittens in cream," he said.
The interior of the vessel was as well-appointed as the engine room. She was originally designed to carry 322 passengers, all but 28 of them in first class outside cabins finished in maple, birch and teak. Each berth had folding beds and could be converted into sitting rooms during the day. There were eight public rooms, including a smoking room, ballroom and supervised children's playroom spread over seven decks.
There were numerous ship-board activities during the day, dancing lessons, shuffleboard, cards and ping-pong. Less ambitious travellers might meet over a glass of wine from the vessel's extensive wine cellar in its well-appointed bar, enjoy a movie or variety show or attend lectures about the history of the north.
Passengers enjoyed varied menus that on any given night might include a Greek salad, Dungeness crab bisque, roast leg of lamb Mount Olympus and peach melba at tables littered with a 16-piece silver service.
They could debark several times during each seven-day cruise to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Alaskan coastline. During her first voyage, the 230 members of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce might have strolled out to view totem poles, the glacier at Tracy Arm or followed the trails of gold prospectors.
The first three decades of the Prince George's life passed virtually without incident. Broad abeam, powerful and reliable, the vessel made as many as 20 round-trips each April to September sailing season, carrying upwards of 100,000 passengers during her long service. She was a familiar sight steaming out beneath the Lions Gate Bridge for ports of call along the B.C. coast and into Alaskan waters. And, unlike the Prince Rupert, whose run of bad luck reached mythic proportions, the George's record for safety was virtually unblemished.
One of the few accidents involving the ship occurred Oct. 18, 1952. The Prince George ran aground at Ripple Point in Johnstone Strait while its radar was on the blink. According to H. W. McCurdy's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, only the presence of Captain E.B. Caldwell on the bridge prevented a more serious accident. He sighted the point and ordered "hard over," resulting in the vessel striking a glancing blow which tore a 10-foot wide hole in the hull. The ship was towed to Vancouver and made the front pages of the daily newspapers two days running.
While the Princes of the North were avoiding rocks, reefs and gales, they could not elude the passage of time. In 1956, the Prince Rupert was sold for scrap, leaving the Prince George the last passenger vessel flying the CN Steamship colours and signalling the gradual closing of an era of west coast maritime service.
Norman Hacking, for three decades the Vancouver Daily Province's shipping reporter, wrote this bitter account of the final days of the Rupert, then 46 years old.
"There is a heavy pall of dust and soot everywhere. Carpets have been torn up and cabins stripped, and the only furniture remaining is a few chairs under covers. Mirrors are heavy with grit and the old-fashioned panelling that looked so smart in 1910 looks distressingly shabby.
"In the wheelhouse the brass telegraphs which once shone so brightly are a dull green. The wooden steering wheel is still bright, polished by the hands of her many quartermasters. Soon the Prince Rupert will be no more, a victim of old age and changing habits of transportation."
Prophetic words considering the current condition of the Prince George.
Next week, Finding new owners