Part of Our Past - Coastal Steamships & the "SS Princess Maquinna"

The Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum is hosting a travelling exhibit from the Maritime Museum of British Columbia on the wreck of the SS Princess Sophia. While the sinking of The Sophia (the largest recorded maritime disaster on the Pacific Northwest Coast) occurred off of the coast of Alaska, there are numerous links to Vancouver Island and Clayoquot Sound history. One of these links is the role of Canadian Pacific Railway coastal steamers. The Sophia, built in 1911, was a crucial link for miners, soldiers, travellers, etc. between Skagway, Alaska, and Victoria, British Columbia. Likewise, the SS Princess Maquinna, Princess Norah (1929-1941), Tees (1907-1913), Willapa, Queen City (1901-1907), and Maude, linked Victoria to Clayoquot Sound.

"CPR SS Tees at Bamfield". Couresty of Ken Gibson Collection. 

From 1858-1863 in what would later be called British Columbia, gold rush fever was running in the veins of thousands of hopefuls. New rough roads were built for prospectors to travel between sites. It wasn’t much longer before the ‘new western frontier’ would become the 6th Canadian Province, British Columbia. Precluding the incorporation of BC, representatives negotiated terms, include the requirement that a railway would extend to the province.

"In the mine." Ca. early 1900s. Courtesy of Drader Collection. 

BC joined Confederation in 1871, the railway was begun in 1878 and finished in 1885. The Canadian Pacific Railway continued the transportation line from the BC mainland to Vancouver Island and then from the provincial capital of Victoria up the coast to Port Alice. In 1901 the CPR had bought controlling interest in the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company which had originally overseen the routes and operations of Willapa, Tees, Queen City, and Maude. 

One of the most famous steamers, though not the first to service Clayoquot Sound, was the SS Princess Maquinna. In the early 1900s there were 12 CPR steamships in operation. Built in 1913, and serving the coast until 1953, the Princess Maquinna was named after the daughter of a famous Mowachat/Muchalat chief (tyee ha’wilth). There have been and will be many who bear the name Maquinna, though the most famous Chief Maquinna's in present historic records lived at Yuquot, Nootka Sound in the later 18th, early 19th centuries. Written accounts of the chief and his life were recorded by John Jewitt who lived as a slave in the area for 3 years from 1803-1806. Previously Maquinna had also met Captain Cook in 1778.

The SS Maquinna had a double bottom as an extra precaution for navigating the “Graveyard of the Pacific”. Edward Gillam captained the ship from 1914 until the late 1920s. It had 54 state rooms and ample cargo space. There were eight 22-ft lifeboats, fire safety equipment, steel siding, 4 bulkheads. She was 1, 777 tons, sported schooner rigging, and stretched 245 ft in length.

"Maquinna Lifeboat Practice". 1949. Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

The steamships had over 40 stops to make along the coast and radio broadcasters would announce the ships’ progress, alerting locals to its arrival. “Boat Day” was a major event.

"Maquinna Ladies." Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

The steamship’s whistle usually blew around mid-morning as it passed Lennard Island Lighthouse, drawing flocks to the first street dock in Tofino (built 1908). Folks would paddle over from Opitsat. The steamships would become crucial for enabling the cannery businesses up and down the coast. Post offices and general stores relied on the for bringing in supplies and mail from the capital. It returned to Victoria with pulp from the sawmills, canned salmon from the canneries, pickled herring, ore, and passengers. Some of the earliest tourists to Clayoquot Sound would arrive on the ships. Main attractions were St. Columba Church on Main Street, Capt. Thompson’s flower garden, lilies above the Coast Guard Station, scenic views for artists to paint, weavings and carvings by Nuu-chah-nulth locals. Towler & Mitchell’s store was also a stop.

"Towler & Mitchell's Wharf". Ca. 1930s. Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

The next stop would be Clayoquot. Sometimes the ship would linger in the sound for occasions such as dances, concerts, weddings, which were sometimes hosted on the ship.


"Ahousaht". 1919. Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. It would arrive at Ahosuaht around 6pm.

Only a couple years into service, in 1915, the Princess Maquinna assisted the Carelmapu, wrecked on the Gowlland Rocks.

Carelmapu. November 26, 1919. Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

Tragically both lifeboats the Maquinna lowered were smashed in the rolling seas, though 5 crew were able to reach shore. The steamship hit ground herself on Maud Island in Seymour Narrows, but was later re-launched. Nicknames for the ship were “The Good Ship Maquinna” and “Old Faithful”.

"Maquinna - Round Island". Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. Round Island is also known as Felice Island. Often onlookerswould look down from Monk's Point to see steamers coming through Templar Channel. 

During the Second World War the SS Maquinna was the ship that was used to transport Nikkei (Canadians of Japanese descent) to Nanaimo leading up to internment. There are various accounts of that day in Clayoquot Sound that site impressions of how surreal the experience was. 

In the 1950s the SS Maquinna was converted into a barge. In 1962 the ship was disassembled for salvage. The bell went to the Missions to Seamen Museum in Vancouver and the binnacle to Ucluelet Sea Cadets (G. Gudbranson, Group Chairman) in 1953 (later moved to Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communicatio and Traffic Services building at Amphitrite Point). The steamship was replaced by the Veta C which ran for only a couple years. In the 1950s, more roads were being built on the coast, making the steamships less vital.


Greene, Ruth. “The ‘Good Ship’ Princess Maquinna – Old Faithful: 1912-1962.” Personality Ships of BC. West Vancouver, BC: Marine Tapestry Publications Ltd., 1969.

Hardy (nee MacLeod), Mary. “Maritime Musings: Boat Day at Tofino.” Islander. December 6, 1998.

Horsfield, Margaret. Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot and Tofino 1899-1929. Nanaimo, BC: Salal Books, 2008.

Moore, Bill. “The Good Ship Maquinna.” British Columbia Lumberman. June 1977.

Musk, George. Canadian Pacific: The Story of the Famous Shipping Line. Toronto: Holt Rinehart and Winston of Canada Ltd., 1981.

Tate, Brian. “Maquinna and Jewitt families reunite”. Ha-Shilth-Sa. Vol. 30, No. 16, August 14, 2003.

Turner, Robert D. The Pacific Princesses: An Illustrated History of Canadian Pacific Railway's Princess Fleet on the Northwest Coast. Winlaw, BC: Sono Nis Press, 1977. 

Westerly Staff. “The Princess Maquinna’s many links to Ucluelet and the West Coast.” The Westerly News. Thurs, February 28, 2008.