British Columbia's Sub Culture

Posted by Howard on Oct 13, 2011

BC has quite a sub culture. It is known around the world today as a centre for min-submersible technology, with several companies supplying remote-controlled equipment to the world market, not to mention the redoubtable Phil Nuytton and his deep-water Newt Suit. This particular trend dates back to a company called Hyco, founded by three commercial divers, who, defying expert advice, built a series of successful deep-water submersibles called Pisces during the 1960s. But BC’s involvement with submarines goes back much further than this.
One of the delightful anomalies of BC history is the Richard McBride government’s acquisition of two submarines at the outset of WW I, ostensibly to provide better defence of the BC coast but more likely to get the attention of the federal government. If so, it worked. The only provincial navy in Canadian history lasted exactly three days before being taken over by the feds. What is less known is that during the same period BC became a builder of full-sized military submarines and turned out a series of vessels for the Russian and American navies. The two events were connected in that James Paterson, the Seattle shipbuilder who built the two state-of-the-art subs purchased by McBride, set up the shipyards that later turned out eleven H-class submarines on the shores of Burrard Inlet.
There was a simple reason for Paterson’s move to BC and it was nothing to do with the nice scenery. He had an order for five H-class subs from the Russian navy and he couldn’t build them in Seattle because at that stage of WW I the US was trying to remain neutral and couldn’t be seen to be supplying armaments to a combatant nation. So in August 1915 Paterson leased an 800-ft. site at Barnet between the CPR tracks and the shore and set up a temporary shipyard. A suspicious federal government inspector who viewed the works in October noted that there were 460 men working night and day and there were already five submarine hulls well under way. Paterson’s contract only required him to complete five bare hulls that would be knocked down and shipped to Russia where they would be reassembled and fitted out. The work was completed on time and the Barnet yard disassembled in early 1916.
In 1917 Paterson got an order from the Russian navy for six more subs and this time set up an erection site on the CPR railyards right in downtown Vancouver. The second group of six hulls were completed with the same efficiency and punctuality as the earlier five and by August 1917 they were knocked down and packed in crates ready for shipment to Vladivostok. Here the project ran into a slight hitch: the Czarist government of Russia had been overthrown and its Bolshevist successor cancelled the order. It could have been disastrous for the project’s backers but what they lost on the swings they gained on the roundabouts: in April 1917 the US had decided to join WW I after all, and now THEY needed subs. So the ships that had been built in BC to escape US neutrality were now hustled back across the border to aid US war preparations—too late, as it happened. By the time they were commissioned, there was nothing much happening on the west coast and after a few years they were transferred to the east coast where they were broken up without seeing further action. The H-class design was one of the most successful early submarines and some of the Russian ships served for almost fifty years, rejoicing along the way in such names as Marxist, Trotski, and Kommunist.
So ended BC’s first plunge into the submarine world. It would not be the last.
See Building Submarines for Russia in Burrard Inlet by W. Kaye Lamb, BC Studies No. 71