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Stretching for 101 feet, with a beam of 33 feet and capable of hauling 109 tons, the SS Beaver was a behemoth of a steamship and it would earn its place in history as the first steamship to ever operate in the Pacific Northwest.
Serving the remote parts of the west coast of British Columbia, it helped boost up the maritime fur trading industry and even became an important part of the Royal Navy during its time.
Built in Blackwell, England of oak, elm, greenheart and teak, her keelson was quite large, consisting of one stick of greenheart, 12 inches square and measuring the entire length of the keel. She was launched on May 9, 1835 from Blackwell Yard and it is believed, according to published accounts, that King William IV himself, along with several members of the Royal Family, were on hand to see the ship be launched. A Duchess is also believed to have done the christening of the ship before it was launched. Sailing out of London a few months later on April 29, with Capt. David Home at the helm, she would make the long trip around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. On March 18, 1836, nearly one year after launching, the SS Beaver would arrive at Fort Vancouver. She would be the first steamship to round Cape Horn from London to Fort Vancouver.
For the next half century, the ship would be an incredibly important part of the industry and life on the west coast. Primarily serving the trading posts of Hudson’s Bay Company between Alaska and the Columbia River. It would prove to be incredibly useful during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858-59 when it helped to maintain the control of the British in the area as thousands of prospectors flooded in.
For many of these years, she was captained by William McNeill, who also owned a large piece of land in the Oak Bay area and now has a road named after him there. He had taken over from Captain Home, who went on to retire at one of the posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Sailing so close to his home, whenever McNeill passed by the Gonzales and McNeill Bays, he would sound his steam horn and his son would get on the horse and buggy and ride out to meet him to provide him a lift home from Victoria’s harbour.
A few years later, the Royal Navy took the ship under its wing and chartered it to map out the coast of British Columbia. During the Chilcotin War, it provided assistance to the navy as well.
It was not always a happy time on the SS Beaver, and there are records of a mutiny sometime in 1838. A deposition exists from W.H. McNeill, John Kennedy and Peter Duncan that alludes to this fact.
Several communities in British Columbia also owe their existence to the SS Beaver. It would help establish several coal mine communities in the province including Fort Rupert.
According to one account, The Beaver arrived at the Columbia River and a group of First Nations people from the north end of Vancouver Island happened to be nearby. They were interested in the coal that the blacksmith was using and asked him where he got it. They then told him that there was a great deal of it where they made their home. Word quickly spread and the Beaver was ordered to proceed to the north end of Vancouver Island to ascertain if there was coal there. Coal was found, and the harbour was named McNeill Harbour, before its name eventually changed to Beaver Harbour.
Fort Victoria, which would become the capital of British Columbia as Victoria, was also established thanks to the SS Beaver.
For several years she would serve as a ferry for dignitaries who would go between the Colony of Vancouver Island and the mainland.
In 1840, James Douglas, the founder of British Columbia, took the Beaver to Alaska where he talked with the Russian governor and was able to secure the right to for the Hudson’s Bay Company to acquire the ability to occupy certain areas of Alaska’s southern portion for cattle and provisions. During this voyage, Fort Langley was burned to the ground and the men on the Beaver landed and helped rebuild the community.
In January of 1853, it took Governor Douglas to Nanaimo, then a First Nations village, where two Natives were arrested and executed, making them the first executed men in the history of British Columbia.
The important history of the SS Beaver would come to an end thanks to some drunk crew members. After it was purchased by the British Columbia Towing and Transportation Company in 1874 for $17,500, she would become a towboat and remain in that role until July 25, 1888.
It was on that day that a drunk crew ran the ship aground near Vancouver’s Stanley Park. The ship would stay there, wrecked on the rocks, until it sank four years later in July of 1892 thanks to the wake of the Yosemite passing by. By this point, the ship had been stripped by local for years, looking to get souvenirs that they could keep. Charles McCain removed 500 kilograms of bronze and copper fittings and turned them into a variety of things including coins, key-chains and jewelry.
Prior to its full sinking, the wreck was a popular place for people to picnic.
It was said in a book released in 1894, about the SS Beaver, that “on account of the large number of souvenirs of this celebrated old craft that have reached most, if not all, civilized countries since she met her fate…”
Eventually, the Vancouver Maritime Museum decided to get involved and they took several remnants from the SS Beaver and put them into their facility. These included two drive shafts for the paddle wheels, and the boiler.
The wreck was surveyed for several years through the 1960s, and a plaque was installed to commemorate the site of the sinking.
By the 1990s, a survey of the shipwreck site found that the ship had mostly disintegrated from rot and currents.
Today, the SS Beaver Medal is presented for maritime excellence and it recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the marine sector of the province of British Columbia.
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