True Stories and Tall Tales

The Alpaca 1 at Prince Rupert in 1997. The vessel was launched as the Alpaca in Nova Scotia in 1927, but spent most of her years on the west coast as the Cooperator 1. (Lonnie Wishart Photo)

For a place with so many stories, the Northwest Coast has surprisingly few good old-fashioned tall tales. In my newspaper days I always had to dig pretty deep to find a ghost story for the Hallowe’en edition. Our version of the tall tale is instead usually an undercurrent of myth, urban legend blended with fact, in retelling our actual history.

I was reminded of an example of this by a widely reported story about a brass propeller being stolen in Vancouver last Friday. The fellow who owned it said he’d salvaged it from the wreck of the packer Texada, a boat reportedly once owned by Al Capone.

Just about every waterfront in North America must have at least one boat with purported links to Capone. I’m reminded of the Alpaca, last seen in these parts about a decade ago. The Alpaca’s Capone story was a hoary old waterfront tale by the time I arrived here.

The real history of the Alpaca is well known. She was launched in 1927 at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, for rumrunner George Morel of Sandy Cove. She changed ownership a few times when Prohibition ended, and in 1936 the Kyuoquot Trollers’ Association brought her through the Panama Canal to serve on the west coast as Cooperator 1.

It’s hardly uncommon on the waterfront to stretch a story into a more interesting shape. Alpaca had seen use as a rum-runner, and Capone was a memorable Prohibition character. It was believable to link the two; the Fitz Hugh, with actual connections to Capone, survived as the Vancouver yacht Virginia Hope. The tale grew that Alpaca’s name came from AL PAcino CApone, and that detail allowed the tale to become sworn fact.

The history of the vessel wasn’t allowed to interfere with the story. In 1998 Iain Lawrence dug into every aspect of the tale, even talking to mafia historian William Balsamo. Just for starters, Alphonse Capone didn’t even have a middle name. No part of the Alpaca legend has ever stood up to the slightest scrutiny.

Yet this wasn’t a deliberate white-wash – not like the post-Titanic reinvention of Charles Hays as a visionary, instead of an American robber baron leading the charge on what John Houston famously described in 1909 as “the story of a thousand blunders.” The Alpaca is just one of a hundred little tall tales that have found stubborn life in Prince Rupert.

But in the end the tall tales just detract from the true stories. Good writers want their stories rich with authentic detail. Last week a writer researching a story asked us how many buildings survived at North Pacific Cannery (29), and what sort of trees grew across the Slough on Smith Island (spruce, hemlock and cedar). That attention to detail is a far cry from taking the old stories at face value and running with them.

The thing is that the true stories of this place are incredibly rich and diverse. From the big stories, such as the founding of Metlakatla or the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, to the little stories, such as the Battle of Kelly’s Cut or the recovery of the Kazu Maru, there’s no need to make anything up. I’m not above the occasional tall tale, but in the case of Prince Rupert the truth is far more interesting every single time.

(First published in The Northern View, August 17, 2011.)

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.