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Tugboating along the West Coast
Since the mid-19th century, West Coast tugboats, with their captains and crews, have been providing marine towing services that have been instrumental to the economic development and settlement of British Columbia.
While British Columbia has historically had an abundance of natural resources to exploit, the heavily indented coastline, tricky waterways between islands, treacherous coastal weather conditions and mountainous interior made it difficult, if not impossible, to transport materials and products to and from the coast. Tugboating therefore provided a necessary link in local, regional, national, and transnational transportation and shipping networks.
The first coastal tugboats were large, wooden-hulled structures that served two main functions: towing larger sailing and steam vessels that were unable to reach the ports and harbours on their own, and transporting passengers and freight. Starting in the 1860s, local shipbuilders adapted their designs according to the needs of local industries and small, growing communities.
As tugboats towed log booms and barges full of wood products and minerals for processing and trade, they quickly became essential to the development of the forest, pulp and paper, and mining industries in the province. They were also useful in the construction and operation of the Canadian Pacific and other railways, transporting wood for construction, coal for fuel and coastal goods for trade across Canada and beyond. With the advent of canneries, tugs even contributed to the development of a commercial fishing industry by towing series of small open-sail fishing boats and barge loads of fish to the canneries.
By the turn of the 20th century, West Coast tugboats were evolving into a distinct vessel type specially suited for the unique topography, water and weather conditions along the Pacific Coast. During the tugboat building boom of the 1920s, the typical locally-built tug was 21.3 to 30.5 metres (70 to 100 feet) long, with a 6.1- to 7.6-metre (20- to 25-foot) beam and a triple-expansion steam engine. The design would change little until after the Second World War. Elsewhere tugs tended to be larger, more powerful deep-sea tugs or smaller harbour tugs. The late 1950s to the early 1970s witnessed high levels of tug, barge and towing-gear construction. Steel replaced wood as the material of choice and diesel replaced steam. Design lessons learned during this period led to the implementation in the 1970s of the first set of regulations and union standards for tugs in Canada.
For over a century and a half, tugboats have towed log booms and barge loads to and from sawmills, pulp and paper mills, mines, work camps, canneries, ports and isolated communities; they have assisted large vessels dedicated to international export to navigate through the difficult coastal waters; and supplied railway companies with construction materials and goods for transport across the country and beyond. Tugboats were virtually the only source of transportation for natural resources and goods to and from the West Coast.
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Hon. Catherine McKenna Parks Canada History and Archaeology
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