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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

Second S.S. Beaver Now at the Bottom of Cowichan Bay

Well, it would appear that it’s the end of the line and Davy Jones’s Locker for the good ship Beaver II.

s.s. beaver II a

The second S.S. Beaver open to the public in Victoria’s Inner Harbour during Centennial celebrations.

As if Cowichan Bay hasn’t had enough trouble in recent years with derelict ships and barges that, seemingly beyond the government pale, are free to rust away at anchor then to sink and to a foul a public waterway. Go figure.

The Beaver II is, or was, a replica of the historic Hudson’s Bay Co. steamship Beaver which has been termed “the first smokestack on the northwest Pacific”.

What a difference in just six years! It was in June 2008, in the Cowichan Valley Citizen, that I wrote that the modern S.S. Beaver was going to star in her fourth Centennial celebration in 40 years after undergoing a $1-million dollar refit in time for British Columbia’s 150th anniversary.

Popular as an excursion ship, the inspiration of Royal Canadian Navy officers, she’d suffered some stormy seas since she was fabricated from a former ammunition carrier in the mid-’60s.

She must have been a ship of wonder to whose who boarded her over the past four decades.

Surely they marvelled at her small size, and that the original Beaver was sailed halfway round the world to her future home in British Columbia waters, then mostly uncharted and among the most dangerous on the Pacific Coast? That was in the day of sail, and during the infancy of steam power, when the blossoming British Empire demanded the almost-impossible of it servants, military and colonial, as routine.

The original Beaver’s story has been told repeatedly in books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and various historians have noted that we’re indebted to this rather ungainly looking little steamship for being Canada’s westernmost province, not an American state.

“…In deciding the question as to whether what is now British Columbia would be absorbed by the American union or become part of a distinctive culture of its own, the Beaver, especially in its early days along this coast, played a highly important and perhaps decisive role,” wrote the late Derek Pethick in his biography of Sir James Douglas.

“Beyond doubt by helping the HBC it served to withstand and triumph over the economic competition of independent American traders, [and] it did much to affect the final outcome of the contest for the political control of the area to which it had been assigned by the ‘Company of Adventurers’…”

That’s quite an achievement for just 310 tons of iron, oak and teak!

Ultimately wrecked off Prospect Point, Vancouver, the original Beaver survives in the form of thousands of souvenirs forged from her recovered copper and brass, and as museum pieces.

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The original Hudson’s Bay Co. steamship on the rocks off Prospect Point.

In 1966, when it was announced that a replica of the ancient side-wheeler would be built, Victoria’s ‘Lighthouse Philosopher,’ W.A. Scott, revealed he had the Beaver’s bell. The prized relic had been given to him by an unnamed Victorian who’d found it while scrounging about the grounded wreck as a youngster. As the ‘hero of soap box oratory and the champion of the lost cause,’ Mr. Scott had put the bell’s resonant tone to use in more than one tilt with the establishment before loaning it for service aboard Beaver II.

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Who’d have recognized the former ammo carrier in its Beaver II makeover? All thanks to Lt.-Cdr. Dusty Rhodes and fellow history buffs.

A project of the RCN and B.C. Centennial Committee, the replica was built from an ammunition carrier for the 1966 centennial of the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. After 10 months’ exhaustive research in museums and archives in Vancouver, B.C., and Vancouver, WA (the Beaver’s first port of call upon reaching this coast), it was found that the ammo tender’s dimensions were virtually identical to those of the original steamer.

Under the scrutiny of the late Lt.-Cdr. W.E. ‘Dusty’ Rhodes, RCN, the conversion was begun with enthusiasm, plywood sheathing transforming the modern lighter into an exact look-alike for the old Beaver. Finished to resemble the steamer as she appeared upon her arrival in the Northwest in 1836, the second ship to carry this famous name became a hit of the 1966 festivities.

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With a museum below decks and a crew resplendent in authentic uniforms of the period, Beaver II was primarily designed to visit west coast communities which otherwise would have missed out on celebrations. As an added touch of realism, besides Mr. Scott’s bell, she boasted the original Beaver’s giant wheel.

(Do you suppose that the original S.S. Beaver’s bell and wheel are now resting on the bottom of Cowichan Bay?)

Her formal debut, on July 23, 1966, had to undergo a sudden schedule change when winds gusting to 35 knots cancelled ceremonies at Victoria’s exposed Clover Point, where Chief Factor (later Governor and Sir) James Douglas landed to found the future provincial capital in 1843. Thousands had lined Dallas Road to watch the re-enactment of 123 years later, but the colourful ceremony had to be staged in the calmer waters of the Inner Harbour.

Throughout 1966-67, Beaver II visited dozens of B.C. and American ports. No fewer than 50,000 Washington residents trooped aboard during her visits below the line. In March 1971, after two years in mothballs, she was refitted for our centennial as the sixth Canadian province, when Canada became a nation ‘from sea unto sea.’

She had a succession of private owners as a charter vessel over the past 37 years and not all of them were kind to her. That changed in 2008 with her expensive rebuild for the province’s 150th anniversary celebrations, according to Jonathan Hendriksen, one of the team out to put the replica “back in all its [sic] grace and beauty”. She was up to snuff for the 2010 Winter Olympics, apparently.

More recently, however, Beaver II was moored in Cowichan Bay to await a date with a Mexican scrapyard.

She may get there yet. But first they’ll have to raise and patch her up for the long tow south.

Mid-evening, May 7th, only days after Lori Iannidinardo, Area C Director of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, predicted that she’d follow the ill-starred Dominion to the bottom of the bay, the Beaver did just that. Sliding stern-first, she pulled away from her moorings and vanished beneath the waves, leaving a stench of oil and diesel fumes.

Apparently she’d begun to list days before. In an interview in the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial, Iannidinardo expressed concern for the eelgrass beds which have been transplanted to help Cowichan Bay’s natural environment recover from decades of industrial use.

Making her complaints all the more galling is the fact that, for more than a year, she and Cowichan MP Jean Crowder have been urging the federal government to enact legislation to enable the Coast Guard to deal with abandoned boats, of which an estimated 200 litter the B.C. coastline. Many of them, as did the Beaver II, pose pollution threats to the environment.

All of which is another story. As for the good ship Beaver II,  this appears to be an ignominious end to her naval and civilian career. Not altogether unlike the equally dismal fate of her illustrious predecessor, the first and real S.S. Beaver, which was allowed to run onto the rocks through negligence.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L0VvY-gLMw

23 Comments

  1. Hello
    I will let you use a good picture of the SS Beaver,If in returned you could link my video to this page.
    Or you can embed this video in this page.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L0VvY-gLMw

    Let me know
    Thanks Andrew

    • Hi, Andrew: I finally got around to taking you up on your offer and adding your video link at the end of the article. You can see that the Beaver has developed a list and that the pilings were all that were keeping her afloat.
      Well timed on your part as, the very next day, she went down. It’s a damn shame–and another environmental mess for Cowichan Bay to endure. –TWP

  2. The Dominion isn’t on the bottom of the bay. It was towed to Mexico for scrapping.

    http://www.cowichanbayvillage.com/2013/06/22/goodbye-dominion-i-off-to-the-scrapyard/

    • Hi. I can’t remember now if I said she was still in Cow Bay? Anyway, she’s finally done with–a great relief to Cow Bay folks, I bet.

  3. I am a BC historian and have recently been doing research on surveys of the BC coast (Vancouver, Richards, Jackson & Pender)for a presentation I am putting together. A few years ago I became quite taken with the Beaver’s history then was excited to hear that a replica had been built. But! I didn’t get a chance to see it. Thank-you for this history follow-up on her fate.

    • The military mapmakers of old (they were mostly Royal Navy officers) have always intrigued me, too. And Mt. Richards is right here in my own backyard, the Cowichan Valley, named for an officer and a gentleman of great modesty. For all of the B.C. geographical features he christened, he resisted the temptation to showcase himself. Hence we have Mt. Richards, a rather modest namesake for one of our finest cartographers.
      And, of course, the replica of the SS Beaveris here, too, at the bottom of Cowichan Bay. Glad you found my post of value to you. Please call again! –TWP

  4. back in 1990 – 92 I was the Entertainment coordinator for the SS Beaver and even had my first wedding on the ship… was so much fun cruising every weekend… especially Fireworks and the Christmas Cruises. Fantastic ship… How did it get abandoned like that… how could they let her rot?

    • A fair question and one that I’m afraid I can’t answer. Apparently they intend to let her ‘rot’ all the way now as she’s still on the bottom of Cowichan Bay. Because the feds have refused to legislate that derelict ships/vessels must be disposed of (properly) by their owners or order the Coast Guard to step in when they abandon them, there we are.
      Our regional MLA Jean Crowder, NDP, tried to have a private member’s bill to this effect approved in the House of Commons earlier this year but was shot down.
      There’s some irony here in that both S.S. ‘Beavers’ ended their careers as wrecks,it being legend that the original ship, being operating in her dotage as a tugboat, was lost because her captain and crew were drunk. There’s been no suggestion, I must add, that liquor played a role in ‘Beaver IIs’ demise. Thank you for your comment. -TWP

  5. A church in Langley has what it claims is the S.S. Beaver’s bell. I do not know for sure if it is original but it looks the part.

    • I’d have to go into my files but if memory serves the Beaver‘s bell is in the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

  6. Is in the Vancouver Museum and has been for 60 plus years. My great grandmother donated it as my great uncles were using as target practice in the 2nd Narrows after she was grounded.

    My great grandfather was JJ Nickson.

  7. The
    Beaver
    ’s ship’s bell and ship’s binnacle were re
    moved from the wreck by Capt. Marchant, her
    master when she went ashore at Prospect Point, by order of my father, who owned her, and a bell was removed by the boy, Ralph Nickson” (son of J.J. Nickson, superintendent of construction, Capilano Water Works) “and subsequently given to the Vancouver Merchants Exchange, as you say, by his mother, Mrs. Nickson of Sechelt, is not, I know it is not, her ship’s bell, but the bell from the dining saloon, which was rung at mealtime by the steward.”
    Note: the inscription—see photo N. Bo. 19—beneath
    the bell which hangs in the Vancouver Merchants Exchange, reads in part: “S.S. Beaver. First steamer on Pacific” (should be North Pacific) “etc., etc. …
    The above relic—the bell from the saloon—was presented to the Exchange by Mrs. Nickson, etc.

    Check out the Vancouver Martime Museum site for the years. The Nickson’s came to Canada in 1880 from Scotland and England. My father was the son of Martha Nickson, the daughter of JJ and Jane Nickson.

    I hope this sorts out the misinformation that the builder of the replica has or had the original SS Beaver Bell.

    • Thank you, Tricia! –TWP

  8. I believe that I know the whereabouts of the Beaver’s bell

    • Hi, Fritz: If memory serves, it’s in the Vancouver Maritime Museum, is it not? Or are you referring to the bell on the replica (S.S. Beaver II) that sank in Cowichan Bay?

  9. Hi. Just wanted to know if there are other replica steam ships still in operation -from this period – in BC.

    Thanks!
    Barry

  10. certainly like your web-site but you need to test the spelling on quite
    a few of your posts. Many of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very troublesome to inform the truth however I will definitely come again again.

    • I remind readers that this site uses English-Canadian not English-American. So, yes, there are differences in spelling (e.g. cheque for check). And that’s the way it is. –TWP

  11. i,ve been working on a scale model of the beaver for a few years now ,if anyone is interested

    • Hi, Dave: That sound like an ambitious project; what are you doing for plan and dimensions? The folks at the Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre have a fabulous exhibit of scale models–true works of art. You might wish to discuss your project with them?

  12. I’m a shipwright at HMCS DOCKYARD and just came across some great photos of the recreation of the Beaver using an ammo lighter.They did the job outside my old shop in 1966, it looks strange seeing a steel boat put on a fake wooden skin.They did do a fantastic job with what they had.Cheers.

    • Hi, Mike: Thanks to L/Cdr. Dusty Rhodes I got to see the Beaver during conversion before she assumed her new role as the Beaver II. Then to go aboard her when she docked in the Inner Harbour as a Centennial showboat. What a shame she ended up on the bottom of Cowichan Bay. (Which is sort of in my backyard, as it happens, as I now live in Duncan.) Thanks for your email. Cheers, TWP

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