A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Canadian Shipping Between the Wars 

The period between the outbreak of the first world war and the coming of the Department of Transport in 1936 was marked by many fluctuations in our shipping, due to war, depression and changes in technical methods. The great fleet of wooden sailing ships which had reached a high point in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had disappeared without replacement by more modern tonnage, and the rump of a merchant marine which struggled on through the depression years was hardly significant in terms of the twentieth. Some modernization, and a government shipbuilding programme, had resulted from the demands of the great war of 1914-18, but the bubble of the boom years which followed the armistice had collapsed to reveal a chilling air of depression. The Canadian ship owner was barely able to survive the economic blizzard which swept the trading world.

Photo: Canadian Exporter

The Canadian Government Merchant Marine.
Typical of first world war standard ships, the Canadian Exporter is launched from the yard of J. Coughlan & Sons at Vancouver on December 27, 1919. The CGMM house-flag, with a beaver in the hoist, is draped over the starboard forecastle rail.
(Public Archives)

The upswing of government wartime shipping was too late for the war and obsolete for the peace. Early in 1918, because of the serious Allied merchant ship losses by enemy submarines, the Canadian Government decided to create, own and operate a strong merchant marine. In all, 63 cargo ships, in six standard types, were especially built and three more were added from existing Hudson Bay services of the Department of Railways and Canals. These 66 ships, with a total deadweight of 391,212 tons, were collectively known as the Canadian Government Merchant Marine, a company incorporated in 1918 by Dominion letters patent.

The first of the fleet was the Canadian Voyageur, delivered to the company by Canadian Vickers in February 1919. Deliveries continued through 1919 and 1920, and regular sailings were established to the United Kingdom, Australia, South America and the West Indies, and in the home coastal trade. It was an ambitious undertaking, almost without parallel in the democratic countries; unfortunately, about the time that the full strength of 66 ships was delivered in 1921, there was a decided drop in freight rates and the first two years of operation, which had been encouraging, were followed by a recession. Inward cargoes dropped in volume and voyage losses became inevitable.

Photo: Triple expansion engine

Triple expansion engine.
Built by Collingwood Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. in 1907, this engine is similar to that fitted in the Chesterfield, Grenville and other Upper Lake ships. It differs from the usual marine design in that the piston rod and crosshead are separate. The connecting rod has a wedge-type upper end. Note the thrust block with adjustable collars.
(Public Archives)

As a result of this decline it was decided to dispose of the smaller and less profitable ships and, by 1933, the company had rationalized its services; the South American run was dropped in 1921, revived for a while after 1928, and was finally discontinued in 1933. The Atlantic service to United Kingdom ports ran into difficulties in 1929 when the obsolete tonnage employed could no longer compete with post war ships of more modern design, and this too had to be abandoned. The last operation of the Canadian Government Merchant Marine, the Australia and New Zealand trade, was maintained continuously till 1936, in which year the company disposed of its remaining vessels.

Financially, this direct involvement by government in the highly competitive and sensitive business of shipping was a disaster. The original investment by the Dominion had been approximately 80 million dollars; on winding up the company, the total operating loss, exclusive of interest on capital or depreciation, stood in the region of 82 millions. On the credit side, there had been created a body of experienced merchant marine officers and men. The country would be glad of these men on the outbreak of the 1939 war but in the years of depression, as in other maritime nations, there was a surplus of mates and masters, and the crews quarters of many Canadian steamers were occupied by certificated officers. Many left the sea never to return.

On the technical side of the shipping scene, the changes which had been wrought over the years of war and depression were equally great, but new ships were costly to acquire in a country which was barely emerging from an economy based on natural resources as distinct from industrial production. Wood had given way to steel, sail had disappeared except in the fishing fleet, and even there the slender topmasts of the schooners were being housed for all time with the advent of the diesel engine. In ocean freighters the compound steam engine had long ago been superseded by the more economical triple expansion and, unaware of the impending revolution of the large oil engine, sea transportation had settled down to the scotch boiler and the three-crank triple, immensely reliable and easy to run. Unfortunately, this era of distinctly finite improvement typified by ships fitted with "three legs and a pump", as engineers called the usual engine room arrangement of the triple expansion engine, had changed the once challenging philosophy of the old marine engineer to a religion of unquestioning faith which, for many years to come, would survive at the expense of progress.

There had, of course, been brilliant minds at work on the frontiers of sea technology, but the developments of the water tube boiler, the marine steam turbine, and the change from coal to oil, were to influence the high speed passenger liner and the needs of naval constructors more than they would the board rooms of ordinary ship owners. The eight knot steam tramp of the nineties had risen only to the ten knot well deck steamer of the first quarter of the twentieth century, plodding along, as she would through two wars and innumerable ocean convoys, to dominate the commercial fleets of the world.

Meanwhile, the unrelenting sea, changeless in character but ever changing in its manifestations, was teaching hard lessons to those who would learn, and shipping men of all nations were probing for answers to a number of uneasy questions. The faith and vision inherited from the great practical engineers of the Victorian era had been disturbed by a continuing presence of disaster at sea by stranding, collision and fire, culminating in the icy tragedy of the Titanic in 1912 and the Empress of Ireland disaster of 1914. The design of ships, particularly as to their subdivision by watertight bulkheads, and the provision of enough lifeboats, had become the subject of international review and, interrupted only by the war, many improvements would be made towards the safety of life at sea.

Photo: Shipping on the Pacific coast, 1920

Shipping on the Pacific coast, 1920.
The five-masted auxiliary schooner Esquimalt is seen passing the CGS Estevan. Two three-masted schooners are in the background.

Not only had ships become bigger, but the sea traffic of the world was changing in response to a more sophisticated age and the ways of a whole generation of seamen trained in the ways of masts and yards had to be adapted to a new discipline; unrealized by many at the time, the change from sail to power would eventually provide an equally great, but entirely different, challenge to the ingenuity of man. Some problems, such as the stowage of bulk cargoes, which had been familiar to Canadian shippers of lumber and grain from earliest days, remained in more acute form. The carriage of timber deck cargoes, piled high above the rail to the detriment of seaworthiness and the encumbrance of working arrangements, had caused much loss of life among seamen in the seventies, and now the filling of steel ships with loose grain poured down from giant elevators required fresh safeguards, by way of shifting boards and ventilation, to mitigate a serious hazard to the steam tramps of the Western Ocean.

With the advent of the oil business a new risk faced shipping. Before Confederation such oil as was required for lamps and lubrication was shipped in wooden barrels, a highly dangerous procedure which was but little understood. Following the Pennsylvania oil strike of 1859, and the subsequent discovery of oil in the Caspian Baku area in 1873, the trade began to increase and better methods of shipment were urgently needed. Mineral oil was then shipped in cases instead of barrels, each case containing two five gallon tins, and the case oil trade became a world wide business conducted by many different types of ship. Because these cans were so difficult to dispose of, many under developed countries became littered with rusty metal just as the Arctic is now littered with oil drums. In the decade 1870-80 the first bulk tanks were built into ships; the oil tanker, from this modest beginning, would rise to include the largest vessels in the history of the sea and, in the intervening years, it predicated an entirely new technology for ships and ports.

In the Great Lakes, the six hundred foot bulk carrier and the package freighter had emerged as specialized ship types, almost unseen by the seamen of the salt oceans to whom the grain elevator and the ore chute of the giant terminals of the inland waters of North America were, as yet, but pictures in the illustrated magazines. Isolated by geography, but immensely practical and forward looking from contact with the heartland of the industrial United States, the big laker was becoming inbred from lack of touch with the outside world of shipping at the very moment when it was making progress by throwing off the shackles of an ultra conservative sea tradition. Today, with the opening of the Seaway, not only has the size of ship increased, but the versatility of shipping is shown in the construction of both lake and ocean ships with results which have been for the betterment of both.