George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer

Farewell To Beaver And Princess Royal

During the late 1880's two ships which have appeared many times in our narrative passed into history.

The earlier and more famous of the two was the Hudson's Bay Company steamer Beaver, the first steamer to appear on the northern Pacific Coast of North America. Beaver was built 1834-35 on the Thames. Her hull was of oak and teak, fastened with copper nails. The London Register described her as "steam propelled, one-and-a-half deck, two masts, stern square; figurehead, a beaver, framework wood; length one hundred and one and four-tenths feet; breadth, below main-wales, at the centre of the paddle-shaft twenty feet; depth in hold, eleven feet; two engines, each seventy-five horsepower."

The engines, made by the well-known firm of Boulton and Watt, were not used on the outward voyage. Instead, Beaver was rigged as a brig and came under sail from London via Cape Horn to Fort Vancouver in one hundred and sixty-three days. From her arrival in 1836 she was kept busy in a variety of chores. We have noted her part in the investigation which led to the founding of Fort Victoria, and to the discovery of coal and founding of Fort Rupert. We have seen how Beaver was used a few years later to tow the schooner Recovery to Nanaimo, bearing the Brierley Hill miners, and a few years later again how she was used to tow Princess Royal into Victoria harbour with Maria Robinson, Cornelius Bryant and Mark and Elizabeth Bate on board.

But times changed, and despite her years of service, Beaver was considered by 1874 to have outlived her usefulness to the Company. In that year she was sold to Henry Saunders, a merchant of Victoria, for use as a tow-boat. So she remained until 1888 when one ill-omened day while under charter to the Hastings Sawmill Company, she struck on the rocks of Observation Point at the entrance to Burrard Inlet. All efforts to refloat her failed, and winter's tides and storms soon reduced even her stout hull to wreckage.

We have already narrated the building and first voyage of Princess Royal. For the next eighteen years she was employed in annual voyages between London and Victoria, omitting only one year when she was employed elsewhere. One of the prime purposes for which she was built was never carried out. Leaking seams caused by the stresses of that first voyage caused the Company to have second thoughts about the advisability of carrying long spars as deck-load, and according to Chief Factor Douglas there were "other reasons" which he did not specify. In spite of this, Princess Royal discharged her duties faithfully and kept her A-1 status with Lloyd's right up to her final survey in 1885.

Shortly after that survey, Princess Royal was sent to Moose Factory on Hudson's Bay to pick up a load of furs. In leaving with her load, she encountered a terrific blizzard such as we now know as a "white-out". Her master of the past four years, William Barfield, was an excellent seaman, but the blizzard was too much for the ship to make headway. Barfield attempted to anchor, but the ship "losing all anchors became unmanageable, as last resource Captain succeeded re-enter but broke back on bar, went ashore inside causing total wreck and entire loss cargo..."

Barfield and his entire crew made their way safely ashore, where friendly Indians helped them make their way back to Moose Factory. Barfield then walked five hundred miles to Montreal on borrowed snowshoes, to report the loss of his ship and to arrange for the return of his crew to England.

The wreckage of the Princess Royal drifted ashore near the mouth of the Moose River. It was used by wandering Indians for temporary shelter and for salvage of such parts of her superstructure and fittings as they could use. According to one account, in trying to obtain pitch they built a fire on the deck, but instead of simply softening, the pitch caught fire. One native recalled having seen a container of water on board which by some miracle had not frozen in the sub-zero temperature. He ran to get it, and threw it on the smouldering fire. The `water' was coal-oil for the ship's lanterns. Fed by this accelerant, the blaze spread rapidly, and as the Indians fled in terror and amazement the hulk of the Princess Royal was reduced to a few charred timbers. These were dispersed in the high water and floating ice of spring break-up.

In a way, it was a fitting end

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