"The Good Company"
The Union Steamship Company began operations in 1889, with cargo steamers Comox, Coquitlam and Capilano servicing the camps, canneries and settlements of the BC Coast. Operations extended into Alaska when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896.
By the turn of the last century, "the Union", as it was affectionately known, was the lifeline of the Pacific Northwest. Settlements and camps far more numerous and larger than today's depended completely on the company for news, mail, supplies and transportation. The arrival of every boat drew a cheerful crowd.
In 1917, with an influx of English capital, the company ventured into the excursion and resort business with the acquisition of 7 acres at Sechelt and the steamers Chasina and Chilco. "Selma Park" at Sechelt was its first destination resort.
In 1920, the Union purchased Captain John Cates' Terminal Steamship holdings on Bowen Island and began to renovate. The hotel was enlarged and re-named Mount Strahan Lodge. Fine clay tennis courts were added. A salt water “pool” was created in Deep Bay, between the causeway and Sandy Beach, by surrounding the area with large logs. Much later, in the 1950’s, a freshwater pool was built near the hotel.
Over 100 ‘bungalow’ and 50 ‘camp’ cottages were built in Deep Bay and around the Lagoon. A dance pavilion, said to be the largest in British Columbia, was built on Snug Point, near the ferry landing. It could accommodate 800 couples on its sprung-wood floor. "That floor was wonderful for dancing," recalls Jean Jamieson. "It was unique to the area, if not to B.C. as a whole."
The Union staged its grand opening of the refurbished hotel and dance pavilion on the 24th of May, 1921. Business went well and by 1923, the company commissioned a new flagship to be built in Scotland. The Lady Alexandra arrived in service in 1924 with tons of Scottish sand in ballast, which was placed on “Sandy Beach” in Deep Bay.
The luxury cruise era
Capable of carrying 1400 passengers in true luxury, the Lady Alexandra offered daily cruises to Bowen Island for $1 and advertised popular summer evening dance cruises on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Passengers could dine, drink and dance on board, a novelty in Vancouver until well into the 1950’s. The "Moonlight Cruise" (dance cruise) left Vancouver around 8 pm and returned at midnight sharp, with the band playing "Aloha Oh".
In addition to the Lady Alex, the Union operated the Lady Cynthia,(above) Lady Cecilia and Lady Evelyn on the Bowen Island run.
By 1922, the Union was ready to expand again and purchased Davies Orchard. In 1928, they built another 20 cottages amid the orchard trees. Long-term renters of these cottages established lovely gardens and held annual garden contests. Islander Marion Moore recalls “delivering milk to the cottages and admiring the lovely rock garden in front of Mrs. Hewitt’s house, which was on the slopes above what is now known as the Boardwalk.”
By the 1930’s, in addition to the day-visitors, families were returning to rent the same cottages for the entire summer season. Many visitors to Bowen today have stories of happy summers spent in one of the cottages.
Tourism peaked between 1937 and 1946. The Lady Alexandra alone recorded 137,000 passengers in 1937 and in 1946, 101,000 visitors were said to have arrived on Bowen via one of the Union’s “Ladys” or by Sannie boats from Horseshoe Bay.
In 1941, the Canadian Pacific Railway acquired a controlling interest in the Union, only to sell it when tourism began to fall off after the Second World War. Many factors influenced the decline in coastal tourism at that time - the increasing popularity of the personal automobile is certainly one of them. CPR sold its interest in 1955 and in 1956, the Union lost its Bowen Island franchise to the Black Ball Ferry Company. In 1959, the Union fleet was sold to Northland Navigation. For many years the Lady Alexandra was a floating restaurant in Coal Harbour, Vancouver, but in 1980, she was stripped and then scuttled in Redondo Beach, California.