Rust in Peace
It's better to burn out than it is to rust… Neil Young
Just short of her 50th birthday the SS Prince George now sits steaming in her berth at the Britannia Beach wharf, burnt to the waterline after a fire razed the ship late Sunday afternoon.
With a history as long as her 335 foot length and a past as colourful as her red, blue and white smoke stack a piece of West Coast history went up in smoke this week, the final chapter in the story of the Prince George written in flames that licked high into the night sky over Howe Sound. The blackened hull was still steaming late this week and fire investigators will not be able to begin an investigation until the hull cools. Neither the firm hired to sell the Prince George nor fire investigators have determined whether the vessel was insured for fire damage.
The fire was attended by the Britannia Beach Volunteer Fire Department at about 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon after local residents reported smoke and flames coming out of one of the vessel's portholes. Shortly after, Squamish Fire and Rescue was called to assist.
Chief Pat Hampson of Squamish Fire and Rescue says attempts were made to get to the seat of the fire, but fire crews could not open two bulkhead doors necessary to access the area one deck below the main deck where the fire is thought to have originated.
"The doors could have been jammed by something and it doesn't seem they were distorted by the heat yet," Hampson says.
Christopher Wilson, Canadian Agent for Limbourg Investments Ltd., the company hired to find a buyer for the Prince George, says "people were interested" in purchasing the vessel, which had an asking price of $1.7 million that included taking over the present mortgage.
"It has been on the verge of being sold for quite some time," Wilson says.
At the time of the fire the ship was leased by a film production crew from Courageous Productions Inc. that had just wrapped up filming. It is unclear whether anyone remained in the ship.
Shipkeeper Charles Lucas and his three children escaped the burning vessel unharmed, but lost all of their possessions. A benefit fund for the family has been initiated.
On Sunday fire crews were ordered off the vessel as the superstructure gained heat and, as Hampson says, "the vessel was nearing the dangerous flashover or backdraft situation." The nearly 10,000 litres of diesel fuel on board was in danger of exploding and firefighters pondered towing the burning vessel into Howe Sound.
A barrier has been set up in the water around the Prince George to contain any contaminants that may have escaped from the fire.
It's not the first time the Prince George name has met a fiery end. The original Prince George burned to her waterline in Ketchikan, Alaska on Sept. 22, 1945 when a fuel tank exploded aboard the Canadian National Steamship passenger vessel. One crew member died and passengers had to abandon ship.
After the first ship burnt, W.D. McLaren designed a new ship for CN Steamships' Princes of the North fleet. The Prince George II was built at Yarrow Shipyards in Esquimalt at a cost of $3 million. The ship was launched on Oct. 6, 1947 and was the largest private passenger ship ever built on the West Coast at 5,800 tonnes. She was 335 feet long and had a 52 foot beam.
The new ship was designed to service the Vancouver-Alaska run, and did so until 1975. CN announced the Prince George would retire at the conclusion of the 1975 cruising season, but the end came earlier when a fire, caused by faulty wiring, broke out while the vessel was docked in Vancouver. The fire gutted 20 staterooms and caused $400,000 damage — the Prince George has drifted on strange waters since.
It served as accommodation for strike breaking mill workers in Port Angeles, as a floating hotel during Expo 86 and in 1989 she was towed to Valdez, Alaska as floatel for crews cleaning up the Exxon oil spill. This summer the Prince George hosted a party of bikers and was recently foisted as a possible temporary solution to Whistler's employee housing shortage.
Tales abound in Britannia Beach about spirits which haunt the staterooms of the once majestic ship. The Prince George was originally designed to carry 322 passengers, all but 28 of them in first class outside cabins finished in maple, birch and teak.