Remembering BC Ferries' First Sailing

Posted by Howard on Aug 11, 2011 - 6 comments

One of my early memories is of travelling down the rutted road of the Sunshine Coast with my father to ride on the first sailing of the new car ferry across Howe Sound. I can’t remember exactly how we travelled—it may have been in the old 1942 sweep-back Nash Dad owned in those days, although it is hard to imagine that old rattletrap surviving the epic of washboard that the Sunshine Coast highway was in those days. I do remember Dad enticing me along for the ride by saying there was going to be a celebration including a boxing match, which excited me. Not so much because I liked or knew anything about boxing, but because I thought an outing like that would be sure to include things hotdogs, candy floss and popcorn. When we got to Gibsons however, Dad presented me with a choice: we could stay there and take in the festivities or we could actually embark on the ferry on its first trip. “For the rest of your life you’ll be able to say you were on the first trip ferry ever made. It’s a chance to be a part of history,” he told me. I think he was in a hurry to get into Vancouver. I didn’t give two pins for history and agreed to take the ferry option under the mistaken impression the boxing matches would take place aboard ship, with attendant hotdogs. Alas, the crossing on the M.V. Bainbridge offered no more in the way on on-board entertainment than its successor vessel does today and I remember feeling quite let down. This memory had faded over the years but I was reminded of it by an excellent article by Sechelt realtor-historian Gary Little, which notes that the event took place exactly 50 years ago as of Aug. 11.

The new service was operating under the name of Blackball Ferries, a company headed by a man named Captain Peabody. I must have run into him, because I have a distinct memory of a very scrawny old gent whose name struck my six-year-old brain as being so hilarious I had trouble not bursting out laughing. As far as that goes, his company had a pretty unlikely name too. Blackball? A referrence to his experience in the U.S., perhaps? He’d been operating ferries for years in Puget Sound, where he’d just been evicted by government takeover. But Washington's loss was BC's gain. He moved north with a few spare ships and was soon doing more business than he’d ever done down south. In fact he had such a lively tiger by the tail he couldn’t keep up, and in 1961 an impatient BC Premier W.A.C.Bennett followed Washington’s example by taking over Capt. Peabody’s operation and making it into a crown corporation known ever after as BC Ferries. Today it operates 35 ships and is the largest ferry system in the world. Until I read Gary’s article I thought the sailing we took that August 11 day in 1951 was merely the first sailing the across Howe Sound. I assumed the bigger and more important runs to Vancouver Island had started earler. Now thanks to Gary I know that the island crossings had not yet begun and that trip on the shimmying, shuddering old Bainbridge was the Blackball-cum-BC Ferries’ first trip ever. It was a more historic occasion than even by father could have envisaged. Not that I cared at the time. I just wanted a hotdog.