photos: Photo by Jackie Dives.

The characters on those steamships

Vendor Voices: Bob Dennis tells the story of the union steamships and their many characters

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By Bob Dennis


From the late 1800s to 1958, the union steamship line ran up the coast as far north as Stewart, B.C., as well as up Vancouver Island from Ladysmith North to Port Hardy and from Port Alberni to the small villages in the southeast nearby. Only one union steamship—Lady Rose—remains on that run today.

The ships were painted black and white, with red and black funnels. The union line had its characters when it came to crew members.

The senior captain, who retired in the late ’50s, was Jack Boden. Jack did not like junior crew members and captains. He had it fixed so he worked days on the daytime ship Lady Alexander, so he could spend summer nights at home in Vancouver with his wife.

When he worked summers, while the ship was in the dock at Snug Cove, Bowen Island. Jack would swim.

Captain Boden did not like working on ships, the newer ones, because they had radar. He was an old-fashioned captain! He passed away shortly after he retired.

In those days, with no company pension, most employees had to work over age 65. Some employees would die on the ships when at sea.

Another character was chief engineer Fred Smith. He enjoyed having a drink.

Once before the ship Lady Catala was to leave to go up the coast, Fred and a few crewmembers were in Fred’s cabin having a drink. Drinking on board the ships by some crewmembers took place.

Fred bought a new pair of shoes before boarding ship. When on board, he went to throw an old pair of shoes out of the porthole. He ended up throwing one new shoe and an old one out the porthole. The crew members broke out in laughter.

Another time, on his time off, he was shopping at a liquor store in White Rock. The clerk gave him a postcard from Florida, from Captain McCombe. Fred was not amused.

In the 1950s, union steamship crews were on strike for better wages. The company brought in men from outside the company.

Union Captain Stan Green crossed the picket line to work. The crew wasn’t very happy, but Stan had a wife and four kids to feed.

After union steamships went out of business, Captain McCombe, his son, and Stan Green and a few others went to Northland Navigation Line.

McCombe went to the union to tell them what Green had done (crossing the picket line). Green was then demoted to second mate, and was so upset he ended up resigning and went to work as a captain to Seaspan Tugs.

Captain Lucas, for the Cardena, was on the Port Hardy run. He was a nice guy but had a foul mouth. He was taken off that run.

Captain McCombe was put on the run and unloaded freight with the deckhands. One man who worked on the dock asked McCombe what happened to Lucas. He told the gent that he was taken off because of his foul language. McCombe was a fine one to talk.

On voyages, sometimes, he’d take his pet parrot along. McCombe took him to the officer’s dining lounge. The parrot picked up the foul language—especially when McCombe was present, and Lucas.

Tom Lucas worked the Saturday night cruise with other crewmembers, and played in a band along with his brother Ernie, a deckhand. Tom played the saxophone.

My Dad, Mum, and their friends used to go on the dance cruise to Snug Cove on Bowen Island. They would dance at the dance hall there on a three-hour stopover.

Dad and some of his male friends brought bottles of booze along.

When the ship got back to Vancouver, the paddy wagon was waiting with the paddy wagon driver and members of the Vancouver Police Department to arrest the drunks.

Then there was a captain Wee Angus McNeil from Scotland. The crew knew how he would get startled once he was patrolling the deck. Once he was patrolling the deck and a crew member hid in a life boat and made ghostly sounds. McNeil, startled, ran to the wheelhouse. The officers in the wheelhouse couldn’t stop laughing.

They were a good service, missed by those who travelled on them.

Bob Dennis, the 2017 Megaphone Vendor of the Year, sells outside Choices Market on Cambie at West 19th Avenue. His usual hours are Monday to Friday, 3–6 p.m., Saturday from 1–5 p.m., and Sunday 2–5 p.m.

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