Home > ALL POSTS > Canada’s “Uber” Steamers To British Columbia’s Coastal Cities and Alaska
Canada’s “Uber” Steamers To British Columbia’s Coastal Cities and Alaska

Canada’s “Uber” Steamers To British Columbia’s Coastal Cities and Alaska

The Union fleet became synonymous with pioneers and loggers, and for 70 years, ships sporting the company’s black and red funnels plied the coast, servicing logging camps, canneries, mines, and coastal communities. ‘

  • The Union Steamship Company was the first line to use Vancouver as a homeport.
  • The Klondike gold rush galvanized the Union Steamship Company to begin operations in Alaska.

LtoR: Steward announcing the first call to Dinner; Coastal Departure.

  • The company was founded in 1889 by John Darling, the director of a New Zealand shipping company who recognized a great need for a scheduled service that would transport supplies and work crews to various northern BC sites.
  • He also realized there was little competition in Vancouver.
  • Darling assembled an assortment of vessels, creating a successful business.


 Aboard a Union Steamship steamer in the late 1940s…


“Chilcotin” at Union Steamship Co. Wharf – Ketchikan, Alaska – 1950s…


The Union fleet became synonymous with pioneers and loggers, and for 70 years, ships sporting the company’s black and red funnels plied the coast, servicing logging camps, canneries, mines, and coastal communities. The Union Steamship Company was the first line to use Vancouver as a homeport.


As early as 1889, Darling also noted a growing market for coastal tourism but lacked the money for dedicated tourist ships. Instead, company executives built multi-purpose ships and promoted excursions whereby passengers could enjoy traveling aboard a “working” ship.

Great video of Union Steamship and Bowen Island… 


During WWI, the company reduced the number of ships cruising to Alaska each summer to four.

While the Union Steamship Company was the smallest of the three BC cruise companies that handled cruises to Alaska, it built up a great tradition that resulted in several published histories of the company: Whistle Up the Inlet and its sequel Echoes of the Whistler by Gerald A. Rushton, Union Steamships Remembered by Art Twigg and later The Good Company by Tom Henry.



Comox, Capilano, and Coquitlam were a trio of early Union steamships assembled and launched in Vancouver. Most of the Union fleet that was used for servicing logging camps and pioneer settlements were small, rough steamships. The wooden-hulled Cassiar was probably the most famous, if only because loggers were allowed to wear caulk boots on board, or even to bed. It was also equipped with an onboard bar and jail.

Dinner Menu onboard SS Catala July 2, 1940.

When the Union Steamship Company decided to get into the tourist excursion business, it acquired steamers that were a cut above the company’s usual vessels. These boats received the “Lady” prefix, in keeping with their elevated status. The first was Lady Evelyn, followed by two former Royal Navy minesweepers (Swindon and Barnstable) that were re-launched as Lady Cynthia and Lady Cecilia.


The flagship of the Union’s day or overnight excursion fleet was Lady Alexandra, built-in 1923-24. During the depressed 1930s, the ship provided an exotic, if brief, getaway for hundreds of Vancouverites who could afford the $1 round-trip fare to Bowen Island. It boasted a promenade deck that ran three-quarters of its 225 ft (69 m) length and an excellently equipped restaurant. Maintaining order on a ship carrying up to 2,000 partying passengers often proved challenging—crew members had to lug drunks off the ship, stacking them like cordwood onto freight dollies. In 1937 alone, Lady Alexandra carried 171,000 passengers.

After WWII, many former warships were again purchased by steamship lines and converted to passenger liners. One such example is the former Royal Canadian Navy corvette that the Union Steamship Company turned into the steamer Chilcotin. Alas, the company’s haste in the uneconomical conversion of war surplus vessels, along with management failure to secure greater tonnage prior to the war, encouraged its decline. In the end, the remaining active Union fleet was sold to Northland Navigation Company.

Early Union ships taking tourists to Alaska:

* Capilano I was the first British-built vessel to sail from a BC port carrying passengers bound for the Klondike gold rush in 1897.
* Cutch was a large steam yacht originally built for the Maharajah of Cutch.
Purchased by Union, the ship first handled the Nanaimo run under contract to the Canadian Pacific Railway, but was re-engined for Alaskan service in 1898 and ran from Vancouver to Skagway until it was wrecked south of Juneau in 1900.

* Coquitlam I was rebuilt for Alaskan service in 1897 and briefly took over the Skagway run. The ship stayed in the Union fleet until 1923.

Later Union ships running cruises to Alaska:

* Chilcotin saw Union service from 1947-1958, primarily for Alaskan summer cruises.
* Both Coquitlam II and Camosun III worked the northern British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands routes primarily, but also spent several seasons in Alaska cruise service. In 1958, both vessels were sold to Alaska Cruise Lines and renamed Glacier Queen and Yukon Star, respectively.

  • The company acquired the Frank Waterhouse Company of Canada in 1939 as a wholly-owned subsidiary.
  • The company also owned the Sannie and Howe Sound Ferry Company Limited as well as resort property on Bowen Island, the Sechelt Peninsula, and at Whyte Cliff.
  • Although all vessels were sold to Northland Navigation in 1959, the company remained in the land business.



  • The promotional literature published for the Union Steamship Company of Vancouver adhered to the colonializing picturesque perspective of the mountainous Northwest coast landscape well into the twentieth century.
  • Thus, Aiken Tweedale’s North by West in the Sunlight (1916) describes how his ship ‘passed bays beautiful as the famed Scottish Lochs, – islets as sunny as in the Grecian Seas.’
  • In Port Simpson, ‘the quaint, snug situation and white houses … reminded of some village in Devon or Cornwall, but for the towering mountains in the background.’
  • Then, in 1923, Our Coastal Trips abruptly shifted the perspective to the industrial landscape, drawing passengers’ attention to the coastal paper mills, canneries, and logging operations, with phrases such as ‘canned salmon is very nutritious and contains a greater amount of food element than any other similar product,’ and ‘if it were for nothing else, British Columbia would still be well to the fore on account of this extensive industry.’
  • Tourists were a side market for the company vessels, which carried loggers, cannery workers, settlers, and canned salmon as well as other cargo, but the focus shifted again in the later 1920s and 1930s as the company’s shipping business began to decline due to the centralization of coastal production.
  • Colorful brochures published on an annual basis now promoted short cruises in the nearby Howe Sound area, as well as the company’s cabins, hotels, and picnic sites on Bowen Island and the Sunshine Coast.
  • The message was that it was essential for overtaxed workers and their families to escape the pressures of urban life and engage in healthful recreation, for ‘there is no invigoration so enduring as a refreshing trip on the open sea and a picnic at one of the enchanting sea-nooks dotted along the pathway of Sunshine and Sea-Charm.’
  • Thousands of Vancouverites booked passage for moonlight cruises, company picnics, and other excursions during the summer months until the improvement of the road network into the province’s interior during the post-war period finally brought a sharp decline in the coastal resort traffic.
  • As a result, the Union Steamship Company’s shipping and resort business came to an end in the late 1950s.
  • In examining a half-century of the Union company’s tourism material, my paper for the upcoming Environments of Mobility in Canadian History workshop probes into what it reveals about general themes such as tourism and colonialism, welfare capitalism, gender and recreation, and the impact of steam technology on perceptions of the landscape.
  • Historians of mobility have tended to assume that steamship travel had much the same impact on the passenger’s perspective as did the railway, but I find that steam did not spell an end to the intimate relationship with British Columbia’s coastal environment due to its many narrow inlets, navigational hazards, and sometimes turbulent seas.
  • I also suggest, however, that the erasure of the coastal inhabitants, Native and non-Native, by this tourist literature foreshadowed the depopulation of the coast with the development of new transportation and communications technologies in the 1950s.
View Latest Articles