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Black Ball Ferries transformed Coast 70 years ago this month

Car ferry service ushered in a new era
N.Black ball-1
Black Ball’s first ferry on the Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons run, the Quillayute could handle 48 cars and 600 passengers.

August 11 is the 70th anniversary of the “opening of a new era in Peninsula History” and the “kiss of awakening for the sleeping beauty that is the Sechelt Peninsula” as The Coast News editorialized in 1951. The landmark event triggering these lofty statements was the arrival of the first drive on-drive off car ferry service to the Sunshine Coast. It was provided by a private maritime transportation company called Black Ball Ferries.

Black Ball had American roots. It operated ferries successfully for many years in Washington State waters but this service became so vital that most of its assets were nationalized by the state government on June 1, 1951. The parent company, Puget Sound Navigation Co., was left with only a handful of ferries from its former fleet of over 20 and with a single international route between Port Angeles and Victoria.

Capt. Alex Peabody, chairman of the board of Puget Sound Navigation, wanted a new challenge and he didn’t have to go too far to find one. Car ferry service in B.C. at the time was being poorly managed by Canadian Pacific Steamships whose Princess Line provided inefficient, infrequent, and inconvenient service from downtown Vancouver to Nanaimo and to Victoria (with onward service to Seattle). The Sunshine Coast was accessible only by small passenger boats, such as Commuter and Machigonne, and larger Union Steamship vessels which could handle cars only as cargo.

Peabody was sure he could provide a more appealing service tailored to the increasing number of prosperous post-war families who owned cars and wanted to take to the roads to explore the province.

To avoid head-to-head competition with Canadian Pacific as it launched its B.C. venture, Black Ball focused first on developing a route between Horseshoe Bay and the Sunshine Coast. This required an initial capital expenditure of about $500,000 to pay for two terminals and ferry upgrades. The ferry chosen was the 25-year-old Quillayute which could handle 48 cars and 600 passengers. There were initially five sailings per day in each direction, one every three hours. The fare was $3/car (each way) and $1/passenger (each way). Black Ball did not change these fares for 10 years!

Black Ball chose Gibsons Landing as its West Howe Sound terminus. Residents were thrilled about the opportunities car ferry service would provide. Same-day travel to and from Vancouver, in your own car, became possible for the first time. Increased tourism was expected to bring economic prosperity to the Coast. Local businesses would thrive. One can certainly make a strong case that the arrival of car ferry service represents the most important event in the history of the Sunshine Coast.

Black Ball pulled out all the stops to ensure that Aug. 11, 1951 would be a memorable day. Streamers and flags adorned the streets of Gibsons, an RCMP honour guard was on hand to greet the Quillayute upon its arrival from Horseshoe Bay, school children sang O Canada, and no less than three bands provided musical entertainment. A ceremonial ribbon was cut by Chuck Winegarden, an early pioneer who had rubbed elbows with George Gibson himself.

Ferry service became very popular very quickly: in the first five and a half months, Black Ball reported handling 66,593 passengers, 10,000 cars, and 3,554 trucks. To meet demand, Black Ball put a larger ferry, Bainbridge, on the route in the summer of 1952 and later added more sailings. (Bainbridge was renamed the Jervis Queen in 1963 by B.C. Ferries.) As Black Ball service expanded, it became very clear that Gibsons Landing would have to be abandoned in favour of a terminal which was built on level ground, could handle more traffic, and could provide more parking for outbound foot passengers. The solution was to move the terminal to Langdale, which occurred in June 1957.

In 1953, Black Ball expanded by providing service between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay in Nanaimo. The ferry on this route was Kahloke (which means “swan” in the Chinook language), a steamer built in Philadelphia in 1903 as the Asbury Park and which would later be renamed City of Sacramento when she became a ferry on San Francisco Bay. She ended her ferry career with B.C. Ferries in 1977 as the Langdale Queen. In 1955, Chinook II, Black Ball's most modern ferry, was added to the Nanaimo route as well. She was later named Sechelt Queen by B.C. Ferries.

Black Ball ferry service between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay began on Aug. 21, 1954 after the Madeira Park-Earls Cove road had been paved thanks to a $500,000 interest-free loan from Black Ball to the B.C. government. Quillayute was assigned to this route.

Black Ball now had three new routes but only four ferries to handle them. They were in desperate need of a relief ferry to prevent disruption of service in the event of breakdown. In late 1955 they acquired Scotian, a former Halifax-Dartmouth harbour ferry, renamed her Smokwa (which means “crane” in a Salish dialect), and put her into service on the Gibsons route on May 2, 1956. Smokwa was the first ferry to arrive at the new Langdale terminal in 1957.

Labour disputes with ferry unions in 1958 made for a “summer of chaos” (as the Vancouver Sun put it) in B.C.’s centennial year. The union representing Black Ball workers threatened to strike on June 21 after it had already shut down the Canadian Pacific ferry system. Premier W.A.C. Bennett, fed up with the unrest and the devastating effect it was having on tourism and on Vancouver Island and Sunshine Coast residents, declared a state of emergency under the Civil Defence Act to thwart a Black Ball strike. The tactic didn’t work because Black Ball workers walked out on July 18 anyway. However, the government swiftly obtained a court order forcing the workers back on the job and they did return on July 23. Nevertheless, Bennett was so incensed that he announced the B.C. government would start its own ferry service, which it did in 1960 with a route between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay. The service was initially managed by the B.C. Toll Highways and Bridges Authority. It was subsequently reorganized and known as B.C. Ferries.

Premier Bennett apparently had more than a single route to the Victoria area on his wish list. Much like the governor of Washington State 10 years earlier, he wanted to usurp virtually all of Black Ball’s assets, including its fleet of five ferries and its terminals. The B.C. government soon made a deal to acquire Black Ball assets and on Nov. 30, 1961 Cabinet approved the purchase for $6,690,000. In the end, ferry service to the Sunshine Coast under the Black Ball name lasted just a bit over 10 years. Later this year we will be marking 60 years of B.C. Ferries service to Langdale.