August 11 marks the 70th anniversary of “the opening of a new era in the history of the peninsula” and the “wake-up call for the sleeping beauty that is the Sechelt Peninsula”, as The Coast editorialized. News in 1951. The landmark event that sparked these noble statements was the arrival of the first on-drive-off car ferry service to the Sunshine Coast. It was provided by a private shipping company called Black Ball Ferries.
Black Ball had American roots. It operated ferries successfully for many years in Washington State waters, but this service became so vital that most of its assets were nationalized by the state government on June 1, 1951. The parent company, Puget Sound Navigation Co., ended up with only a handful of ferries from its old fleet of over 20 and with only one international route between Port Angeles and Victoria.
Captain Alex Peabody, Chairman of the Board of Puget Sound Navigation, wanted a new challenge and he didn’t have to go too far to find one. The ferry service in British Columbia at the time was poorly managed by the Canadian Pacific Railway whose Princess Line provided inefficient, infrequent and inconvenient service from downtown Vancouver to Nanaimo and Victoria (with subsequent service to Seattle). The Sunshine Coast was only accessible by small passenger ships, such as Commuter and Machigonne, and larger Union Steamship ships which could only carry cars as freight.
Peabody believed he could provide a more attractive service suited to the growing number of prosperous postwar families who owned cars and wanted to hit the roads to explore the province.
To avoid direct competition with the Canadian Pacific Railway as he launched his business in British Columbia, Black Ball initially focused on developing a route between Horseshoe Bay and the Sunshine Coast. This required an initial capital outlay of approximately $ 500,000 to pay for the two terminals and the ferry upgrades. The ferry chosen was the 25-year-old Quillayute, which could carry 48 cars and 600 passengers. There were initially five departures per day in each direction, one every three hours. The fare was $ 3 / car (one way) and $ 1 / passenger (one way). Black Ball has not changed these rates for 10 years!
Black Ball chose Gibsons Landing as the terminus for West Howe Sound. Residents were delighted with the possibilities offered by the car ferry service. Same-day travel to and from Vancouver, in your own car, has become possible for the first time. The increase in tourism was expected to bring economic prosperity to the coast. Local businesses would thrive. It can certainly be argued that the arrival of the car ferry service represents the most important event in the history of the Sunshine Coast.
Black Ball did everything to make August 11, 1951, a day to remember. Banners and flags adorned the streets of Gibsons, an RCMP honor guard was on hand to greet the Quillayutes as they arrived from Horseshoe Bay, school children sang Canada songs, and no less than three bands provided musical entertainment . A ceremonial ribbon was cut by Chuck Winegarden, an early pioneer who had worked with George Gibson himself.
The ferry service became very popular very quickly: in the first five and a half months, Black Ball said it handled 66,593 passengers, 10,000 cars and 3,554 trucks. To meet demand, Black Ball put a larger ferry, Bainbridge, on the route in the summer of 1952 and later added more crossings. (Bainbridge was renamed Jervis Queen in 1963 by BC Ferries.) As Black Ball service expanded, it became very clear that Gibsons Landing should be abandoned in favor of a terminal that was built on flat land, could handle more traffic, and could provide more parking spaces for outgoing foot passengers. The solution was to move the terminal to Langdale, which happened in June 1957.
In 1953, Black Ball expanded to provide service between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay in Nanaimo. The ferry on this route was Kahloke (meaning ‘swan’ in the Chinook language), a steamboat built in Philadelphia in 1903 as Asbury Park and later renamed the City of Sacramento when it became a ferry on San Francisco Bay. She ended her ferry career with BC Ferries in 1977 under the name Langdale Queen. In 1955, Chinook II, Black Ball’s most modern ferry, was also added to the Nanaimo route. She was later named Sechelt Queen by BC Ferries.
Black Ball ferry service between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay began on August 21, 1954 after the Madeira Park-Earls Cove road was paved with an interest-free loan of $ 500,000 from Black Ball to the Government of British Columbia. . Quillayute has been assigned to this route.
Black Ball now had three new routes but only four ferries to handle them. They were in desperate need of an emergency ferry to avoid any disruption in the event of a breakdown. At the end of 1955, they acquired the Scotian, a former Halifax-Dartmouth ferry, renamed it Smokwa (meaning ‘crane’ in a Salish dialect), and put it into service on the Gibsons route on 2 May 1956. Smokwa was the first ferry to arrive at the new Langdale terminal in 1957.
Labor disputes with the ferry unions in 1958 created a “summer of chaos” (as the Vancouver Sun puts it) in this BC centennial year. The union representing Black Ball workers threatened to strike on June 21 after already shutting down the Canadian Pacific ferry system. Premier WAC Bennett, tired of the turmoil and devastating effects it was having on tourism and on residents of Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, declared a state of emergency under the civil defense to thwart a Black Ball strike. The tactic didn’t work because the Black Ball workers got out on July 18 anyway. However, the government quickly obtained a court order forcing the workers back to work and they returned on July 23. Nonetheless, Bennett was so enraged that he announced that the BC government would launch its own ferry service, which he did in 1960 with the route between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay. The service was initially managed by the BC Toll Highways and Bridges Authority. It was then reorganized and known as BC Ferries.
Prime Minister Bennett apparently had more than one route to the Victoria area on his wishlist. Much like the Governor of Washington State 10 years earlier, he wanted to usurp nearly all of Black Ball’s assets, including its fleet of five ferries and terminals. The British Columbia government quickly reached an agreement to acquire the assets of Black Ball, and on November 30, 1961, Cabinet approved the purchase for $ 6,690,000. In the end, the ferry service to the Sunshine Coast under the Black Ball name lasted just over 10 years. Later this year, we will be celebrating 60 years of BC Ferries service in Langdale.