North with the Nascopie
Cruise brochure, ca 1938
The famous HBC steamship Nascopie was the workhorse of the Company’s Eastern Arctic service for her entire career. From 1912-1947, Nascopie was a familiar sight to residents of the Canada’s north. Each summer she set out for Hudson Bay by way of Newfoundland, Labrador, Baffin and northern Quebec. Along the way she dropped off supplies for the coming year, and picked up the previous year’s furs as well as additional cargo such as salmon.
From 1912-1930 Nascopie was based in British waters, in ports as varied as Ardrossan, Scotland, Liverpool and St. John’s, Newfoundland – at the time, still a British possession. Winter 1930 found her back in Ardrossan, where she had been built, for an extensive refit. The resumption of her scheduled sailings in the summer of 1933 marked the last time the annual voyage of resupply included a translatlantic leg. From now on Nascopie would be based in Canadian waters in her new home port of Montreal. So ended a tradition that stretched back to the voyage of the Nonsuch in 1668. But that wasn’t the only change.
One of the goals of the ship’s refit was the provision of improved accommodation for passengers. Nascopie had always been used to transport HBC staff as well as government officials to the Arctic. The new idea was to attract tourists as well. Travellers could book passage for all or part of the voyage. Rail connections from Moosonee, ON and Churchill, MB made a circular routing possible. Or tourists could choose to make the round trip, a journey of three full months. Fares included travel, accommodation and all meals:
Montreal – Moosonee 30 days, $350
Montreal – Churchill 40 days, $400
Montreal – St. John’s 90 days, $850
Interested parties were asked to contact the Fur Trade Commissioner’s office for further details.
Advertisement from The Beaver, 1933
In its inaugural tourist season Nascopie carried over 90 passengers. Not surprisingly these included 15 Inuit, 19 missionaries, 23 HBC men, women and children and 24 “government”: employees of whom 14 were RCMP officers. But it also included about a dozen tourists from the USA and Germany including Dr. Colin Ross, a “newspaper correspondent” and his family. Also on board – Canadian Boy Scout Eric Liddell of Point Grey, B.C. Liddell was the first recipient of a brand new prize: a roundtrip passage on the Nascopie underwritten by the Fur Trade Department and offered through the Boy Scouts Association of Canada. From June to October, under the guidance of Insp. Wunsch of the RCMP, Liddell had the opportunity to experience and learn about seamanship and navigation in polar ice conditions, the fishery, the Inuit and First Nations as well as the RCMP itself.
The novelty of the Arctic cruise experience proved popular: in 1939 fully 21 people signed on for the full summer cruise. While first and foremost a working vessel, Nascopie nonetheless made efforts to meet the somewhat different needs of her tourist passengers. That year a ceremony for “crossing the line” – well-known in more southerly latitudes to mark a passenger’s first transit of the Equator – was established for those crossing the Arctic Circle. Presided over by two passengers, costumed as King Boreas and Queen Aurora, the festivities were cut short when a fierce Artic gale blew up sending everyone below decks! Passengers’ needs were seen to by a crew of stewards, mostly young lads in their middle teens, who signed on for the summer season.
Relaxing on board the Nascopie
The outbreak of World War II saw Nascopie exchange her regular colours of black, white and buff for drab grey paint. Her portholes were painted out and she was armed with a pair of guns. Despite this 10 Americans took the summer cruise in 1941 which would prove to be the last year that she carried tourists. After the war, although there was still interest, there was no room for tourists. The ship’s available space was spoken for by increasing numbers of medical specialists hired by the federal government to provide primary health care to the native population. In the summer of 1946 over 1500 X-rays were taken and clinics were held in every one of her ports of call.
Any plans HBC might have entertained to revive the summer tourist cruises were scuttled when the Nascopie hit an uncharted reef off Cape Dorset and sank in July 1947.