Before 1960: Origins

Prior to 1960, the internal water transportation needs of the province of British Columbia were served entirely by essentially unregulated, privately operated services.  This page provides a short history of how the province became involved in providing ferry services, creating a publicly owned entity which was the ancestor of today’s BC Ferries.

A system of railway bridges had been envisaged as a solution to transport problems of BC’s offshore islands as far back as 1867. A water crossing had been proposed for the north end of Vancouver Island where bridges could be built. This plan did not materialize since the rough terrain dictated a more southerly mainland rail route, so that before the advent of air travel the islands were entirely dependent on marine transport.

The Union Steamship Company of British Columbia Ltd, incorporated in 1889, served the coast extensively until the mid 1950s.  Together with the Black Ball Line, which dominated ferry operations in the US Puget Sound directly south (with a BC subsidiary) and the Canadian Pacific Railway’s BC Coastal Steamship Service, Union served the needs of the province without major upset until the acceleration of postwar development. The main services to Vancouver Island relied on miniature ocean liners which became inadequate with swelling demand for transport of highway vehicles.

The early 1950s saw Union Steamship rapidly expand its cargo fleet, but it started losing long-haul passenger traffic; expanding air services became serious competition  securing, for example, almost all Queen Charlotte Islands passenger traffic. Indeed, passengers were forced to use the airlines when Union’s entire coastal operations were strike-bound for two months. In 1956, Black Ball displaced Union to serve Bowen Island. Stiffer competition on main cargo routes, declining passenger revenues and lack of economical fleet replacements contributed to Union Steamship’s downfall. Negotiations to increase federal subsidies on Union routes collapsed and the company decided to discontinue passenger services. Union’s cargo services continued through 1959 when sold its assets to competitor Northland Navigation.

Black Ball and Canadian Pacific’s ferry services were also in difficulty.  A crisis occurred in 1958, when CP’s employees struck for more pay and were joined in sympathy by Black Ball’s workers.  The BC cabinet invoked the Civil Defence Act which allowed the government to take possession of, and use the property and undertakings of, Black Ball for such periods as might appear necessary. (Note that Canadian Pacific’s services were under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which elected not to intervene).

But Black Ball employees struck again in defiance of the Act and ignored an injunction to return to work. Simultaneously the Premier announced that the government would establish its own ferry service to Vancouver Island forthwith, declaring that “the Government of British Columbia is determined that, in the future, ferry connections between Vancouver Island and the Mainland shall not be subject either to the whim of union policy nor to the indifference of federal agencies”.

Further, in 1959 Canadian Pacific withdrew its night steamers from the Vancouver-Victoria run and reduced winter service. This may have precipitated action by the province which then declared that it was entering the ferry business only to provide a connection between lower Vancouver Island and the Mainland, because of the decline in Canadian Pacific’s service.