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Sir James Douglas











Laid down at Victoria, British Columbia, in 1864, and launched early in January of the following year, the Sir James Douglas was a small wooden ship, 116 feet long, built of pine on oak framing; following the best practice of the day, she was copper sheathed as a protection against worm. The boiler, a three furnace tubular type, was built locally, but the resources of the young Colony could hardly produce the engine, which was a two cylinder diagonal imported from England, not unlike a smaller edition of the Napier machinery without gearing.

When the Victoria Harbour dredging scheme, for which she had been built, fell through for lack of money, the humble origin of the Douglas was no handicap to a rise in the world, and she was employed by the Government of the Colony as a passenger steamer on the run from Victoria to Comox, calling at Nanaimo. She could take some fifteen or twenty passengers below, although there was no sleeping accommodation and, by the standards of the time, she was a handy ship,

". . . is a tolerably good sea boat, steams well, and was faithfully put together by the contractor."

In this role, the Douglas became extremely popular, partly because of her original officers who, in these early days of Pacific settlement, played a more than usually important part in the communications of the Colony. Captain William R. Clarke had come out to British Columbia as gunner of HMS Forward and had taken his discharge on time expiral, from the Royal Navy at Esquimalt; the first chief engineer, Mr. William A. Steele, was a Dundee man who would later serve, at different times, in most of the well known steamers of the Pacific coast, including the Beaver of Hudson Bay Company and surveying fame. The purser was another naval man, Mr. Edward Quenell, who remained in the ship for several years; all of these were men of character and ability who later rose to leading positions, Quenell becoming Mayor of Nanaimo in 1894.

In 1883, the Douglas was lengthened by about twenty feet; this operation, by no means unusual even in modern times, will often increase the carrying capacity while providing, at the same time, a little more speed for the same power, or perhaps a reduction in fuel consumption with no loss of speed. In this case the surgery was extremely successful, it being recorded that:

". . . her rate of speed increased from 8 and 8½ to 10 and 10½ knots per hour, on a smaller quantity of fuel than formerly. The agent reports that she is now in good order and will last 8 or 9 years."

Thus improved, the Sir James Douglas, by now relieved from her former role of passenger carrier, was the work-horse of the West Coast until the arrival of the Quadra in 1892. She was continually engaged in the work of light station supply and construction, she laid cable for the Canadian Pacific Railway, carried out survey work for the British Columbia Government, and conveyed inspection parties on innumerable official occasions. It is recorded that:

"The average number of officers and crew aboard the Sir James Douglas was 12, and the cost of provisioning the vessel was 53 cents per diem per man."

By this time the boilers were beginning to show signs of trouble and with the advent of the new ship, the Douglas was paid off and lay in reserve. The vessel was put up for sale without success and it was noted that in 1897 the chief engineer of the Quadra, Mr. Grant, who had formerly been chief of the Douglas, overhauled and white leaded the engines, one suspects as a labour of love.

The end came in 1899:

"No use has consequently been made of the steamer for seven years and efforts have been made several times to dispose of her. In October of this year tenders were invited publicly and the highest offer received was from Mr. R. Winkleman for $1,292.50."

One cannot help wondering about the odd fifty cents but the offer was accepted, and the Douglas disappeared from the Department of Marine and Fisheries.


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Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024