|The Greeter Ship|
Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library
"A miserable old sailing bark known as the ROBERT KERR that ended her days in ignominy as a coaling barge on the Vancouver, BC waterfront, once won a humanitarian reprieve. But let us go back to the start.
The ROBERT KERR was built in Quebec City in 1866. Unfortunately, her sailing days ended prematurely. On 6 September 1885, in a heavy fog, she hit the outcroppings of San Juan Island, seriously damaging her forefoot on the rocks, ending a troublesome ocean voyage that started in Liverpool, 30 Sept 1884. Pummeled by one storm after another, sickness, plague and quarrelsome, almost mutinous hands, the vessel was jinxed from the start of that voyage. Her rigging and hull badly damaged by the heavy seas that constantly swept her decks. Much of her canvas was ripped to shreds and then to make matters worse, her master, Capt. Edward Edwards died at sea after the ship had rounded the Horn en route to British Columbia.
First officer John Richardson then took command, and with his responsibilities inherited the crew troubles. The most unsavory crewman was William Anderson who was involved in arguments or fights with nearly every man aboard. For these assaults, he was marked in the log-book almost as much as the weather. Once he stuck a cotton hook deep in the cheek of his shipmate Seraphim Fortes. (Fortes was a genial colored man who later became one of Vancouver, BC's most beloved personalities as the lifeguard of English Bay.) Till his death, he always said he was glad when the KERR struck San Juan Island for he felt the vessel was jinxed.
Getting back to that last voyage; the slow-to-anger Richardson finally had all he could take and must have barged into the troublesome AB with a vengeance, as the log lists Anderson as being confined to Sick Bay for an indefinite period.
The ill-fated ROBERT KERR after her stranding was towed to Vancouver Harbor and was at anchor there when the great Vancouver fire of June 1886 broke out. "Joe" Seraphim Fortes, the deep scar still in his cheek and still attached to the vessel, emerged as a hero, alone responsible for saving scores of lives in that disaster by directing people to the ship.
When Fortes died in 1922 he was highly honored, and a drinking fountain stands in his memory today in the park at English Bay.
Shortly after the fire, Captain William Soule purchased and beached the KERR alongside the Hastings Mill and there careened and repaired her. Having lost his family home in the fire, the Soules took up residence on the ship until a time when a charter could be secured and the vessel sent back to sea.
When Vancouver was incorporated as a city, the old bark, then a waterfront landmark, was gayly decorated with all of her flags flying. Her role in the great fire had gained her a place of prominence in the hearts of the local citizenry.
Canadian history writer B.A. McKelvie further relates the vessel's role in the great fire.
"When the residents of Vancouver fled from the red holocaust that was sweeping down upon them that Sunday in June of 1886, many of them turned towards a battered old sailing ship that was anchored off the burning community. It was the ROBERT KERR, damaged on the rocks of San Juan Island, brought to Vancouver and sold by the underwriters to Captain William Soule, who superintended the loading of ships at Hastings Mill.
The ROBERT KERR was invaded by men and women in rowboats, in Indian canoes and on rafts and logs, seeking sanctuary from the flames. At first, the watchman hesitated to allow them aboard, but all objections were overcome and some 15 to 200 persons found safety on the decks."
Captain Soule and his family took refuge on the German bark VON MOLTKE loading at Hastings Mill during the fire. After the ROBERT KERR became the Soule's home, the joy of living aboard a sailing vessel never diminished for the two children. But Mrs. Soule had to call upon her reserve many times to keep her floating home 'Shipshape and Bristol fashion.' One dark, stormy night while she and her children were left alone on the vessel, it began to drag anchor and was in grave danger of slamming into other vessels at the Mill. She and her children, in a herculean effort, readied the second anchor and managed to get it over the side, which was just the grip needed to prevent a collision.
The ROBERT KERR became known as the 'greeter ship' in the harbor and the skippers and officers of vessels calling at the mill often came aboard to dine or to take afternoon tea much to the credit of the gracious Mrs. Soule.
When the Soules decided that shoreside living might be more convenient, Capt. Soule decided to get rid of his charge in a unique way. He sold chances on her at $100 each in the local saloons and waterfront establishments. Tickets were printed and circulated with the words, 'Grand Raffle of the good ship ROBERT KERR.' The response was amazing. He sold 80 shares, but whether by law or by chance, the raffle failed to come off. Instead, the ship was sold to Canadian Pacific Steamship Co, then in dire need of a coal tender to supply its great Empress liner fleet in Transpacific service. The Kerr was the only hull around large enough and strong enough to meet their needs. She measured 190.5' and was rated at 1,123 tons. Her holds were spacious and she could more than pack her weight in coal. Thus the vessel was purchased for $7,000 on 3 October 1888 and reduce to the role of a coal hulk. She, however, played a vital role in supplying the celebrated liners that put Vancouver Harbour on world maps everywhere.
After hard usage, the ROBERT KERR was placed in drydock to tighten up the seams in her wooden hull, and in 1891 was sold by CPS to Canadian Pacific Railroad. For 20 years she carried coal between Ladysmith and Burrard Inlet, at the far end of a towline.
It was a sad day for the maritime community of Vancouver, BC when word reached the city that the familiar grubby humanitarian ship would no longer be seen traveling through Canadian waters. In a heavy fog, under tow of the tug COUTLI, the KERR slammed into Danger Reef off Thetis Island on 4 March 1911, with 1,800 tons of coal and there stuck fast.
She died hard, however, and for years, her bones lay bleached in dismal disarray for all to see. Termed by man a 'black drudge' she nevertheless had kept company with Empresses. As late as 1927, the KERR's bell was presented to the Vancouver City Museum and still tolls the memories of the past.
Gibbs, Jim. Pacific Square Riggers, Pictorial History of the Great Windships of Yesteryear. 1987. Revised edition by Shiffer Publishing.
The wreck of the Robert Kerr is listed as a dive site HERE