Requiem for the passing of a Queen

First published in THE NORTHERN VIEW, March 25, 2009

Every time I glance up from my desk I see the Queen of Prince Rupert. In this instance she is a detailed model presented to the City by BC Ferries in 1988 and now in the collection of the Museum of Northern BC. In profile her sweeping bow evocatively recalls the Otto Thoresen Vikings that were so influential in the 1960s. The QPR, as she is affectionately known, will be officially decommissioned in a few weeks.

Awhile back, during a review of old travel stories about Prince Rupert, I photocopied the front cover of the Spring 1966 issue of Beautiful British Columbia magazine and pinned it up on a cork board in the office. It shows the Queen of Prince Rupert on the launching ways in her original blue-and-white. She was “a new Queen in the royal household of the British Columbia Ferry Authority’s fleet,” set to “begin her reign” opening a new run from Kelsey Bay to Prince Rupert. “Enthusiastic British Columbians” spoke both “literally and figuratively” of the route “as a new north-south highway for the province.”

And here, in the May 27, 1966 issue of Time magazine, it is noted that there were already 17,000 passenger reservations for the first season of operation and Alaskan Visitor Bureaus were on 24-hour duty to accommodate the expected surge of tourists. She has been a keystone of our tourism industry ever since.

Except for a brief stint as the Victoria Princess in the summer of 1980, the QPR has sailed these waters since she was launched. She was involved in notable mishaps that are still recalled on the Prince Rupert waterfront. In 1967 she was aground on Haddington Reef near Alert Bay. In August 1982 she grounded in Gunboat Passage, and in a memorable incident in July 1970 she was able to come astern of the Taku to remove vehicles and passengers after the Alaska ferry went aground at West Kinahan. I vividly recall sitting with towboater Charlie Currie, studying his photographs of these incidents and learning his perspectives on what had happened.

In 1996 I ran a Hallowe’en newspaper feature that playfully suggested that the rumours of her being haunted just may be true, and I was swamped by a flood of protest from offended locals. It was a risk I knowingly took. Hallowe’en fun or not, I had taken the name of the Queen in vain.

The Queen of Prince Rupert has a special place in our hearts. She is part of our lives, a character in our memories. Virtually every person who has lived in Prince Rupert over the past four decades knows her and has a personal story to tell about her. For myself, I most strongly recall how I thought of her as almost a living thing, when we all depended on her so much after the loss of the Queen of the North.

Yet there’s no describing how we truly feel for her. It’s that wild January ride to the Charlottes, or that placid, summer run to the Charlottes spent half-dozing in the sunshine on the aft deck. It’s the kids racing around, playing pinball and raiding the snack machines, on that memorable trip south. The QPR is in the special memories of four decades of visitors to our coast. She was home to more than one generation of Prince Rupert seamen.

When the beloved Chilcotin sailed south for the last time in 1958, crowds spontaneously lined the docks and the bluff above the Government Wharf. These are bittersweet moments in the life of a coastal town. We’re excited to see and touch the Northern Expedition, ready to feel for her as we did for her honoured predecessors, but we do so with a respectful nod to the past.

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