Original North Pacific, by Robin Oliveira
Almost one hundred fifty years before Trevor Brice began building his magical North Pacific Yachts, another North Pacific entered the waters of the Salish Sea. Nimble and speedy, the San Francisco-built wooden steam sidewheeler was a good deal larger than Brice’s trawlers. Accounts vary, but the 1887 Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States lists the North Pacific at 166.8 long with a beam of 29 feet and a hull depth of 10.3 feet. For more than three decades, she dominated the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Back then, the rugged geography of British Columbia and Washington Territory necessitated water travel for the burgeoning population of white settlers, just as it had done for the coastal Indians for some ten thousand years before. In the last quarter of the 19th century, a fleet of steamships—dubbed the Mosquito Fleet— skimmed waves and thwarted storm and current to carry passengers and freight into the inlets and bays of Puget Sound, up myriad shallow rivers, across the choppy Strait of Juan de Fuca into the rocky harbors of Canada, and even venturing as far north as Alaska. Because wind and tide played certain havoc on schedules, profits were always at risk, and every second counted in the race to offer the safest and fastest freight and passenger service on the sound.
In a little known piece of Pacific Northwest history, that virtual race became an actual one.
Commissioned by the wealthy Starr brothers of Portland Oregon, the North Pacific arrived in Seattle in 1871 with the sole purpose of competing with Fitch & Wright, the company that owned the formidable Olympia, a 180 foot, brig rigged sidewheeler with a thirty foot beam and a hull of seasoned-white oak that had ruled the waters of Puget Sound as king of the Olympia-Victoria route. Immediately, a rivalry ignited, culminating in a race in June of that year between Victoria and Port Townsend, which North Pacific won in two hours and forty-one minutes, beating Olympia by a then astonishing three and a half minutes. Further races culminated in cutthroat competition and diminishing ticket prices that ended with the Starrs paying Fitch & Wright a subsidy to leave Puget Sound shipping altogether. This withdrawal rendered the sound the North Pacific’s domain. But that didn’t stop others from trying to best her. In 1876, the SS Dakota challenged her, but North Pacific exceeded her previous record and solidified her position as speed queen of the Salish Sea. None would surpass the North Pacific in speed for another decade.
With elegant lines and a walking beam engine, the elite sidewheeler regularly and reliably churned the waters of the Sound for the next three decades, and for a single year in 1881, ran passengers up and down the Columbia River. During the 1898 Alaskan gold rush, she ferried hopeful miners up to Alaska and dispirited ones home. She abruptly met her end at two a.m. on a July Sunday morning in 1903, when she struck Craven Rock off Marrowstone Point in thick fog on her regular route from Seattle to Victoria. Stove in at the bow, she quickly took on water. Lifeboats were lowered as the ship sounded her whistle five times. The tug C.B. Smith out of Everett responded to the distress call and attempted to tow her to the beach after the remaining passengers had been transferred to the Smith. But in a storm of ill luck, the tug beached, and the hawser was thrown off. The historic steamship neglected to lower her anchor, drifted into deeper waters, and sank nose first, an exciting part of Northwest maritime history disappearing forever into fifteen fathoms of water.
Is it coincidence that almost exactly a hundred and fifty years later, in 2004, Trevor Brice would reincarnate the name of North Pacific?
Perhaps. Brice tells me had no knowledge of his modern trawlers’ predecessor. But the two incarnations of North Pacific share many desirable traits: elegant lines, reliability, flexibility, uncompromising beauty, and detailed craftsmanship.
And perhaps more likely, a residence in the Pacific Northwest.
But what is unlikely is that I, an author writing a book set in 19th century Seattle, would discover that historic North Pacific and feature it in my new novel just as a new North Pacific 45 was capturing my family’s heart.
To be delivered in March of 2021, our own North Pacific will soon be plying the same waters as that old and lovely sidewheeler sent to turn the Mosquito fleet on its head. We can’t wait.
Copyright by Robin Oliveira
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