The North Vancouver Ferries: Their Lives and Retirement
By Clare Sully-Stendahl
Today, the Seabus ferries over 6 million passengers a year between Vancouver and Lonsdale. But it only started operation in the late 70s – and folks have been needing a ferry service to cross the Burrard Inlet for much longer than that. For 58 years at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the five North Vancouver Ferries that made the crossings each day, connecting Vancouver and North Vancouver long before the bridges were constructed and through the war years. And some members of the fleet had lives that continued long past their retirement, enjoying “second careers” that lasted even longer than their ferrying beginnings.
Weekly autopass tickets for North Vancouver Ferries and a passenger ticket stub, overlaid on three “commute signs.” From the collection.
Vancouverites have always needed a way to cross the inlet, especially before the opening of the Second Narrows and Lions Gate Bridges in 1925 and 1938. In the 1860s, this service was provided irregularly by a rowboat operated by a man known as “Navvy Jack,” a Welshman who came to Canada for the Cariboo Gold Rush and ended up building a home in West Vancouver. In a matter of decades, however, there became a need for more of a ferry service than Navvy Jack and other small passenger boats could provide.
May 12th, 1900 saw the first trip of the North Vancouver Ferry No. 1, a steam-powered passenger ferry eventually operated by the North Vancouver Ferry and Power Company. By 1904 North Vancouver Ferry No. 2 had added vehicle service to the route, with its double-ended design that allowed vehicles (including, in its early days, wagons) to board and disembark on opposite ends. Ferries No. 3 and No. 4 followed, and the last of the North Vancouver Ferries was built in 1941. This vessel, North Vancouver Ferry No. 5, was in almost constant operation during the war years, ferrying shipyard workers between the Burrard Dry Dock and North Vancouver Ship Repairs.
Photograph of worker in the engine room of Ferry No. 3 and a key tag to the room. From the collection.
The early North Vancouver Ferry service may have been an improvement in some ways over Navvy Jack’s rowboat, but it was still a far cry from the Seabus we have now. The Burrard Inlet a hundred years ago was a significantly smoggier place, and the ferries didn’t have the radar and navigation systems of vessels today. The North Shore News writes that the “history buffs at the North Vancouver Museum and Archives tell a story of a North Vancouver-bound ferry that left its Vancouver dock on Columbia Street in a dense fog. After completing the sailing the captain instructed the passengers to disembark, only to be informed by the passengers that they were not in North Vancouver at all but rather right back at the same Vancouver dock that they had just departed.” (The West Vancouver Ferry Service, meanwhile, suffered a much more tragic outcome from a fog-related collision when the West Vancouver Ferry No. 5 was struck near Prospect Point by the CPR ship Princess Alice, killing one passenger, Mrs. William E. Burritt.)
Although they may not have had the most advanced technology for dealing with the fog, the North Vancouver ferries had several other ways to ensure safe and reliable sailing. Perhaps the most unusual was the employment of a one-armed trumpeter on shore. Helping the ferries with navigation was Joe Bustemente, a Chilean trumpeter hired by the North Vancouver council to play his instrument on foggy days to guide the ferries in. Joe lived on the waterfront by the ferry landing at the beginning of the 1900s, and is remembered as being “the most dependable of men” who was there with his trumpet for each landing.
Memorial sculpture at the North Vancouver waterfront to Joe Bustemente, by sculptor Ryszard Wojciechowski. Photo by Mike Wakefield for North Shore News, from https://www.nsnews.com/community/neighbourhoods/the-one-armed-chilean-tr....
Although the North Vancouver Ferries carried almost 112.5 million passengers over the course of 40 years, the opening of the Second Narrows Bridge and the Lions Gate Bridge by 1938 began to render the ferries impractical to maintain for civilian use after the Second World War. By 1958 the North Vancouver Ferry Service had completed its last sailing. But the end of their ferry days didn’t prevent some of the fleet from having long, diverse retirements.
Ferry No. 1: From Old Boat to New Home
Perhaps surprisingly, the oldest ferry of the fleet is the one still standing today, making it almost certainly the oldest surviving ferry in British Columbia. A steam ferry built in 1900, the North Vancouver Ferry No. 1 (as it came to be named) was the first of the five ferries commissioned for the Burrard Inlet crossing. After the 1904 addition of Ferry No. 2 with vehicle service, Ferry No. 1 became a standby ferry, but continued to be used for the crossing for over twenty years.
In 1925, the North Vancouver Ferry No. 1 entered into its second career. This was quite the transition – from ferry to tugboat! After being purchased by M.R. Cliff of Vancouver, the ferry was rebuilt at Vancouver Shipyard as a steam tug and renamed Norvan. Norvan’s time as a tug lasted for as long as its ferry years, and the vessel was only retired in the late 1950s because its steam engine had become too outdated. Norvan was bought in 1958 by P.W. Howes, who towed it with his crab fishing boat to Tofino Harbour. There, the anchored Norvan became his home – he lived on the Norvan above decks, while the below decks housed his machine shop.
The old ferry continues to be used as a home to this day – since 1971, Norvan has belonged to Rod Palm and his family. In the late 70s they grounded it on Strawberry Island, about a metre above Clayoquot Sound’s highest recorded tide, and the housework was completed by Rod with beachcombed first-growth cedar. Still a home, it is also now the base of the Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society – a lovely role in a beautiful resting place for a retired old boat.
Taken by “Low Light Mike,” from http://ferriesbc.proboards.com/thread/8134/north-west-van-historical-fer....
Ferry No. 5: Restaurant Restorations
It wasn’t just the earliest North Vancouver Ferry that had an exciting retirement – the North Vancouver Ferry No. 5 also went on to an interesting second life, as the extraordinarily popular Seven Seas Restaurant. After the ferry’s final voyage on August 30th, 1958 the City sold the vessel to Harry Almas for $12,000 and it was moored at the base of Lonsdale. After almost $150,000 of renovations, the ferry was transformed into a spectacular floating restaurant. Almas kept the wheelhouses, engines, and windows, but the car deck became two dining rooms and a kitchen.
The Seven Seas Restaurant was a dining destination for over four decades. At its peak the restaurant had fifty staff members and its 48-foot neon sign was visible from East Vancouver, helping to attract over three hundred people each night. The restaurant was known for its seafood (and frog’s legs!), and the famed weekend buffet included almost thirty dishes and five desserts.
In 1994, Ferry No. 5 was added to the City of North Vancouver’s Heritage Inventory, recognizing its importance as both a member of the ferry service and its decades as a restaurant. Unfortunately, however, by the late nineties worries arose in the North Vancouver city council as to the ferry’s insurance and seaworthiness. Almas refused to pay the insurance bond the council required, and after years of disputes and court proceedings, in 2001 the Federal Court of Appeal stepped in and ordered that the ferry be sold. By the next year it was towed and demolished. During the dismantling it was discovered that the hull was indeed seaworthy – but it was much too late to save the iconic vessel, and it was turned to scrap.
Image of a postcard posted by “Rob,” from https://www.flickr.com/photos/45379817@N08/6779991796.
The North Vancouver Ferries were highly important vessels in Vancouver’s maritime history. In a time before the bridges, they were integral for connecting locals between Vancouver and North Vancouver; and during the Second World War they provided necessary ferry services to crucial shipyard workers. In the case of Ferry No. 1 and No. 5, however, their post-ferry years were even longer than the ones they spent crossing the Inlet – and offer just two examples of the interesting, varied lives retired boats can lead.
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Davidson, Kechura. “The Norvan Celebrates 100 Years.” http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Norvan.php
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Proctor, Sharon. “The Seven Seas.” https://nvma.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/express2.pdf
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West Vancouver Archives. “Navvy Jack Thomas House.” http://archives.westvancouver.ca/destinationstimewalk/routes/hollyburn/sites/hol_navvyJackThomasHouse.html
Wilson, Stevie. “You Should Know: The Awesome History of the Long Forgotten North Shore Ferries.” http://scoutmagazine.ca/2013/02/19/you-should-know-the-awesome-history-of-the-long-forgotten-north-shore-ferries/