Kitimat’s unknown role in the First World War

Ninety-seven years ago, long before the townsite was founded in the 1950s,  Kitimat was to play a short, now forgotten and unlucky role in the First World War with the launch of a vessel in New Westminster called the  War Kitimat as one of the many emergency new ships commissioned by the British government to replace vessels lost to Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare that was sinking convoys taking vital supplies across the Atlantic.

(Note: The ship may not have been the Valley’s only role in the First World War. I have been told by Haisla members that it is believed that a couple of men from the Haisla Nation may have served in the armed forces during WWI. However, no one I have contacted, so far, has been able to confirm that information. If anyone can confirm, this story will be updated).

During the First World War, over nine million gross tons of British ships were lost due to enemy action, both submarines and surface raiders. The worst losses came in the three months ending June 1917 when over 1.4 million gross tons were sunk.

In December, 1916, the Prime Minister David  Lloyd George’s British Government appointed a “shipping controller” to manage a worldwide shipbuilding program to replace the lost vessels, to be built quickly, efficiently and to a series of standard designs. Although the vessels were often different, they were called “standard ships.” It was the Great War’s equivalent of the Liberty Ships built during the Second World War.

Many of the orders were placed with Canadian companies, others with the Japanese shipyards and British owned or controlled shipyards in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Canada created or contracted 19 emergency shipbuilders which built 137 cargo ships and 15 trawler/minesweepers. Some of these yards were purpose-built, others were repair yards that were converted to construction yards; seven were in BC, nine were in Ontario and Quebec, and three were in the Maritimes.

Orders were also placed with shipyards in the United States, but when the Americans entered the war in 1917, those ships were requisitioned by the U.S. Government.

All the ships’ names were given the prefix “War” no matter where they were built in the world.

The Canadians built both steel hulled and wooden hulled cargo vessels, including the War Kitimat, as well as yachts and sailing yachts (which likely became the war time “trawlers”). The British built 12 different types of “dry cargo” vessels, five types of “coasters” plus tankers.  The United States also built wooden hulled cargo vessels (slightly larger than the Canadian versions) and various types of steel hull cargo ships.

The government of France also contracted Canadian shipyards for its own vessel building program.

In Canada, the BC Marine Railway Company was one of the prime contractors, and the job of building four ships was awarded to the New Westminster Shipbuilding & Engineering on Poplar Island, which can be seen today from New West’s Esplanade at Westminster Quay.

The First Nations of the area had used the island for generations and in 1871 the island was designated an Indian Reserve. During the small pox epidemic of 1889, with many members of the Vancouver area First Nations struck down by the disease, a hospital was built on the island. It is believed that many of those who died of smallpox were buried there. Because of the association with disease and death the island was abandoned until 1917, when the war time necessity meant a shipyard was built on the island.

The War Kitimat under construction in New Westminster (Canadian War Museum)
The War Kitimat under construction in New Westminster (Canadian War Museum)

New Westminster Shipbuilding had the job of constructing four “war” class wooden hulled freighters, 2300 gross tonnes, 3300 dead weight tonnes, 250 feet long with a beam of 43.5 feet, with 322 nominal horse power triple reciprocating steam engines powered by two water tube boilers, turning a single screw capable of ten knots.

The company built four ships, the War Comox, War Edensaw, War Kitimat and War Ewen. The War Comox was first launched in April, 1918, but completion was held up as the shipyard waited for equipment from suppliers. That led to pressure to build, launch and complete the War Edensaw, which was launched in June 1918, and the War Kitimat, which was launched on  Sunday, August 18, 1918.

The War Kitimat immediately ran into trouble. According to the Times Colonist, right after launch the War Kitimat ran aground off New Westminster and had to be lifted off the Fraser  river bed by using jacks until was raised enough so that tugs could attach lines and tow it to deep water.  About a week later, the War Kitimat was  towed to Victoria for repairs and further fitting out (possibly to the Foundation Company shipyard which was also building five of the war class vessels. Foundation is now Seaspan’s Point Hope Marine)

The War Kitimat did make at least one voyage to Great Britain, but by the time it arrived, the war was coming to a close. After the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the ships were no longer needed and the British government sold most of them to shipping companies. (All the ships were UK registry, not Canadian)

Flag for Lloyd Belge line
Flag for Lloyd  RoyalBelge line

In 1919, the War Kitimat was sold to the Lloyd Royal Belge S.A. line of Antwerp, Belgium and renamed the Serbier.

On January 12, 1920, the Serbier, on a  voyage from Cartagena and Oran to Antwerp with zinc ore and general cargo on board, sprang a leak in her engine room during a “raging gale” in the Bay of Biscay and sank  80 nautical miles (150 km) off Penmarc’h, Finistère, France at 47°38′N 6°10′W. Her Capt. A. Canfrère and the crew were rescued by the French ship SS Docteur Pierre Benoit.

How the ship came to be named War Kitimat isn’t certain. It was probably named after the Kitimat River since other vessels in the War category were named Skeena, Stikine, Babine, Niagara, Ottawa (others were named for cities like Halifax or Toronto).

The Belgian shipping company did not give up on the name Serbier. It purchased another US-built War cargo ship, first named the War Hound by the British. After the US entered WWI in 1917 and took over the building there it became the Lake Huron, a US Navy Transportation Service mine carrier. From later in 1920, Royal Belge operated the new Serbier until 1924, when it passed through French, Norwegian, Danish and then as the Advance,  Finnish ownership. The Advance was seized in Panama by the United States in 1941 and renamed the Trojan. After the Second World War, the US returned the ship to Finland. It sailed as the Advance until it was sold a Greek shipping company in 1965 and scrapped at Piraeus in 1966.

Of the ships under British control, 821 ships were ordered by the UK shipping board and 416 were completed. Fourteen were lost to enemy action. The remaining orders were cancelled but often completed by the shipyards.

Many of the “war” or “standard” ships passed through various owners.

During the Second World War many played their original role and took part in the convoys that crossed the Atlantic.  Many were sunk during those crossings. Others, sold to growing Japanese shipping interests in the 1920s and 1930s, were sunk by US destroyers and submarines. Others like the War Hound /Serbier survived to the 1950s and 1960s.

Of the War Kitimat’s sister ships built in New Westminster, the War Comox was sold to an Italian company, renamed the Guidatta and scrapped at Genoa in 1925, The War Ewen was sold to a German company, renamed the Etienne Marcel and scrapped in Germany in 1925. The War Edensaw, under the original name, was carrying Admiralty stores from Constantinople to Malta,  when it caught fire on June 25, 1919 and sank 94 nautical miles east of the St. Elmo Lighthouse on Malta.

As for Poplar Island, it was zoned for industrial use but no one could come up with ideas for how to use the island.   New Westminster sold the island to Rayonier Canada in 1945, where it became an anchorage for log booms on the Fraser River. The successor company, Western Forest Products sold it back to New Westminster in 1995,  The island is still a wilderness area in the middle of urban Vancouver and subject to treaty and land claims negotiations with the area’s First Nations.

Related links
Poplar Island: A History as Thick and Colorful as the Trees

Emergency Shipbuilders of World War I

World War One Standard Built Ships

World War One Standard Built Ships (this is a different site to the one above)

Vessels Built by B.C. Marine Railway Co

The Ship’s List (database of ships, link is to Lloyd Royal Belege entry)

 

Editor’s Note:   Up until now Kitimat has not had a reason, unlike other communities, to mark Canada’s role in the First World War.  We suggest that should the District of Kitimat choose to do so either this year or in the next three years, August 18, the date of the launch of the War Kitimat might be an appropriate date, in addition to Remembrance Day on November 11.

District of Kitimat calls for plebiscite on the Northern Gateway project

Phil Germuth
Councillor Phil Germuth listens as District of Kitimat Council debates his motion that would have required Enbridge to enhance monitoring of leaks on the pipeline in the Kitimat watershed. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

District of Kitimat Council voted Monday night to hold a plebiscite on whether or not the community supports the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

District council and staff will decide the actual question for voters and the date for the plebiscite in the coming couple of weeks.

A staff report described a plebiscite as “a non-binding form of referendum,” as defined by the BC Local Government Act.

The council decision comes after the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel released its decision on December 16, that approved the pipeline and tanker project along with 209 conditions.

After the release of the Joint Review decision, the District of Kitimat issued a news release saying, “Kitimat Council has taken a neutral stance with respect to Northern Gateway. Council will take the necessary time to review the report in order to understand the content and reasons for the decision.”

On January 16, 2012 the council adopted a resolution “that after the completion of the JRP process, the District of Kitimat survey the residents of Kitimat regarding their opinion on the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.” After the JRP decision, the District reaffrimed that it would “undertake a survey of Kitimat residents to determine their opinions of the project now that the JRP has concluded its process.”

District staff had recommended hiring an independent polling firm to conduct the survey, pointing to a pollster’s ability to craft the appropriate questions and provide quick results.

Council quickly shot down the idea. A motion by Councillor Mario Feldhoff to use a polling firm did not get a seconder.

Councillor Rob Goffinet, who made the motion for the plebiscite, noted that even as a politician he doesn’t answer phone calls from unknown numbers. He said, “People do not want a pollster to phone them and do a check list how do you feel on a project. How can we be assured if someone in or out of their home will answer a call from a pollster? I would give total responsibility to every adult citizen of Kitimat who has a point of view to express it in a yes or no ballot.”

Councillor Phil Germuth added, “Those are the same companies that went out prior to the last provincial election and said one party was going to wipe it out and we know what happened there.” Germuth was referring to BC Premier Christy Clark’s come from behind majority victory which was not predicted in the polls.

Germuth told the meeting he believed an unbiased question could be posed in the form of a referendum on the Northern Gateway project. “I have full confidence in our staff that they will be able, along with some assistance from council, to develop questions that are not going to appear biased. It should be very simple, yes means yes, no means no.”

Councillor Mario Feldhoff, who earlier in the evening had, for the first time, declared that he is in favour of the Northern Gateway project, told council that he preferred using a polling firm because it could come back with a “statistically significant” result.

Council voted six to one in favour of the plebiscite. The lone dissenter was Councillor Edwin Empinado who told his colleagues that a mail-in ballot, another of the options presented by staff, would be more inclusive.  Empinado said he was concerned that a plebiscite would mean a low voter turnout.

Warren Waycheshen, the district’s deputy chief administrative officer, told council that the plebiscite would have to be held under the provisions of BC’s Local Government Act which covers elections and referenda, but with the plebiscite the council would have more flexibility in deciding how the vote would take place. The act would still cover such things as who was eligible to vote and the use of campaign signs.

Mario Feldhoff
Councillor Mario Feldhoff reads a statement at council, supporting the findings of the Joint Review panel on the Northern Gateway project. (Robin Rowland/Northwest Coast Energy News)

The neutrality that council had maintained for at least the previous three years began to break down during Monday’s meeting meeting when Germuth proposed a motion that would have required Enbridge to install within Kitimat’s jurisdiction a detection system capable of locating small volumes of leakage from the pipeline, a measure that is likely beyond the recommendations of the JRP decision.

It was then that Feldhoff became the first Kitimat councillor to actually declare for or against the Northern Gateway, telling council, saying he agreed with the JRP, “The overall risk was manageable and the project was in Canada’s interest. On the whole I am in favour of the conditions and recommendations of the JRP… Not only am I a District of Kitimat Councillor, I am a Canadian. To my mind, opposition to the JRP Northern Gateway report at this stage is yet another case of NIMBY-ism, not in my backyard.”

In the end, at Feldhoff’s urging, the council modified the original motion, so that it called on the District to meet with Enbridge to discuss an enhanced pipeline leak detection system where a leak could “impact the Kitimat watershed.”

It’s not clear what Council will do with the result of the plebiscite, since it is “non-binding.”

 In the past two years, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers councils, together with Kitimat Stikine Regional District and the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District, all voted to oppose Northern Gateway. Those were all council votes, taken without surveying local opinion.

Most of the decisions are in the hands of the federal government which has 180 days from the release of the JRP report to approve the project.

 

Why BC should watch the Australian election: LNG and natural gas are suddenly a top issue

Could the future of northwestern British Columbia’s hoped for natural gas boom depend on the outcome of this weekend’s Australian general election?

While the mainstream media in North America has mostly been following the personal feud between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott or speculating whether or not Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s party will make a ripple or a splish, a natural gas crisis has rocketed high on to the Australian election agenda.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about Aussie politics, but I couldn’t ignore all the LNG and natural gas Australian election related stories that suddenly started showing up in my alerts.

LNG train “on ice”

This morning came the alert that Chevron has put the development of another train at its giant Gorgon LNG facility “on ice” (as a pun enabled headline writer in the Western Australian put it)

Chevron and its partners in the Gorgon LNG project on Barrow Island are expected to postpone work on detailed design and engineering of a fourth processing line at the mega project until at least next year as they battle to contain the soaring cost of the foundation development.
As reported by WestBusiness at the weekend, Chevron’s latest internal cost review is understood to have placed a final cost on Gorgon’s three-train venture of up to $US59 billion ($65.6 billion), or 13 per cent above the last confirmed budget revision of $US52 billion.
Chevron is refusing to discuss the status of the cost review and is understood to have told its Gorgon team to “value engineer” in the hope of substantially reducing the latest overrun on a project that was originally supposed to cost $US37 billion to complete.

 

Raw logs all over again

For a resident of northwestern BC, one thought comes to mind from the media reports on the LNG situation in the Australian election, it’s raw logs all over again.

It appears from those media reports that while Australia has huge reserves of shale-based natural gas, the way the country has structured its LNG boom, major industries and consumers are becoming alarmed that domestic natural gas prices for both will soon skyrocket. There are calls for whatever party wins the election to pass legislation that would create “domestic gas reservation” so that Australians won’t see the gas exported while they pay higher prices for what’s left over.

Most of the shale gas reserves are in Western Australia, while the population—and industry– are concentrated far away on the east coast.

That is leading to another controversy, demands that eastern Australia develop its coal gas reserves, which, of course, brings to mind Shell’s decision to forgo development of coal gas deposits in the Sacred Headwaters and the ongoing fight by the Tahltan First Nation to stop Fortune Minerals’ open pit coal mine in the Sacred Headwaters at Klappan.

Then there’s another vexing issue that northwestern BC is facing and soon have to deal with. In the election, some Australian politicians and unions are calling for curbs on the use for temporary (and not so temporary) foreign workers.

Another factor is the growing cost of natural gas extraction and LNG export, which has, in the midst of the election campaign, pitted Chevron against Australian unions, with Chevron executives (as they did in other contexts before the election call) pointing to Canada—that means Kitimat, folks — as the cheaper alternative.

Rising prices

The Australian has reported that a poll, commissioned by the nation’s manufacturers, so it is somewhat suspect, that:

Manufacturers  will today claim that most Australians want a policy of domestic gas reservation and that this would sway voter intentions, a move set to renew the acrimonious debate over rising gas prices.
Manufacturing Australia will release a survey it commissioned where 35 per cent of people said it was “quite likely” and 13 per cent “extremely likely” that it would sway their decision at the election if a party made a policy pledge on the issue.Those uncertain stood at 21 per cent.

In one Australian riding, a local candidate wants one per cent of Australia’s gas be reserved just for the State of Queensland.

Bob Katter flew through Gladstone as fast as the wind whistled through Spinnaker Park on Monday, where he told local media he wanted to reserve a domestic gas supply for Australia and scrap the 457 visas that bring foreign workers into the country….

Mr Katter said mineral processing was under enormous pressure in Australia with copper processing wiped out in northern Queensland and to counter that, the Katter Australia Party would reserve 1% of the gas supply for Queensland.
“Because of the escalating skyrocketing cost of coal, gas and electricity in the past eight years, one per cent of the gas will be reserved for the benefit of the people in Queensland if not Australia,” he said.

“That gas will be used to produce electricity at prices our retirees can afford, and young families can afford, and most importantly that our mineral processing plants have prices for processing they can afford.”

 

Coal gas

Another story in The Australian quotes James Baulderstone of the Australian energy company Santos:

THE NSW gas industry has warned of higher gas prices, job cuts and a significant risk to the state’s energy security if the coal-seam gas sector is not developed.
James Baulderstone, vice-president of eastern Australia at Santos, said without indigenous gas of its own, NSW had no ability to control its energy supply security.
“NSW faces prospective gas shortages as long-term contracts underpinning the state’s gas supply expire over the next two to three years, the very time in which the commencement of LNG exports from Queensland will see annual gas demand in eastern Australia triple,” he said.
“Looming natural gas shortages in NSW could be avoided by the timely and balanced development of the state’s already discovered reserves of natural gas.”

The Australian Liberal Party (which like BC’s is actually conservative) supports coal gas projects. But it also wants to force energy companies to develop gas reserves they have leased.

Chevron and the unions

Also embroiling the election is the growing dispute between Chevron and the Australian unions.
As the Australian Financial Review reported, Chevron is claiming that high costs are slowing the LNG projects and blaming the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The federal government has rejected claims from Chevron that Australia’s high-cost economy is threatening the nation’s biggest energy project, Gorgon, even as the Maritime Union of Australia demands a 26 per cent pay rise and more than 100 other benefits for its members, including Qantas Club memberships and iTunes store credits.

As Chevron’s $52 billion Gorgon project became embroiled in the ­election campaign, trade union officials accused Chevron of seeking to dodge responsibility for poor labour productivity and high costs.

The union’s demands for employees working for 19 offshore oil and gas contractors around Australia include a 26 per cent raise over four years, no foreign labour without consultation, union control of hiring and four weeks holiday for every four weeks work.

(Note there are accusations of biased reporting during this election, especially from the media owned by Rupert Murdoch. I could find no independent confirmation of union demands for airline memberships and iTunes credits) 

The Australian Labour minister, Gary Gray, who is from Western Australia, and according to reports, in a tough re-election fight, is blaming Chevron and the other energy companies for “failing to control the costs of their staff and contractors.”

“We do need our companies to get better in managing their productivity issues,” he said.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he had studied China’s latest five-year economic plan and concluded Australia’s industrial relations system wasn’t hurting the industry.

Boom or bust?

The Australian Financial Review quotes Chevron Australia managing director Roy Krzywosinski as saying Australia has a two-year window to get ­policy settings right and fix industrial relations and productivity or risk losing out on billions of further investment in liquefied natural gas projects.

It goes on to make a reference to Shell and operations in Canada—again that’s Kitimat folks.

after the unprecedented rush of LNG investment in the past four years, Australia has become the most costly place worldwide for new plants, while new competition is emerging in North America and east Africa.

Shell, which has slowed its $20 billion-plus Arrow LNG project in Queensland, said construction costs in Australia are now up to 30 per cent higher than in the US and Canada.

Mr Krzywosinski said LNG projects are “long-term projects that transcend governments” and Chevron would work with all sides of politics to get policy settings right.

This Australian blogger warns:

The investment surge in LNG – often favourably compared with the Apollo moon program in its magnitude – is in some ways a bubble. Firms have rushed in, extrapolated an endless supply/demand imbalance for their product, ignored global competition, over-paid for assets and developed with little thought to what others were doing, grossly inflating input costs in the process.

The blogger goes on to say

This fallout is typical of the “built it and they will come” attitude that seized energy and mining executives in the final stages of the “commodity super cycle” boom. A similar story, with different dynamics, is playing out in coal and next year in iron ore.
The unions are largely not to blame for the cost blowouts even if they are a party to them. They are, after all, unions. What does capital think will happen if it hands them such a card to play?

Sound familiar?
Australia a mirror of the BC election?

Again it appears from this far off shore, that the Australian election is somewhat mirroring the recent BC provincial election and not only because of the issue of LNG. The Labour PM Kevin Rudd returned to power after three years on the back benches,  coming back after the party dumped PM Julia Gillard.

Like BC, the Australian Liberal Party is really conservative. The Liberal Leader Tony Abbott, wants to abolish Australia’s carbon tax but Abbott is also threatening to fine companies that don’t lower prices if (or when) the carbon tax is abolished.

The polls show that the Liberal Party is leading, but that Kevin Rudd is more popular than Tony Abbott. Rudd is running an attack campaign against Abbott, warning of the consequences of an (conservative) Liberal victory. Sounds a bit like Christy Clark.

Given the split in the polls, with the leader of one party more popular than the leader of the party that is leading the polls, this video of the editors of The Australian which accompanies this story  shows their senior editors are awfully confident, perhaps over confident, about the polls. I know given what happened in BC, Alberta and even Israel, I’d be a lot more skeptical.

We’ll know the outcome of the Australian election by this time next week. As for LNG, given the volatility of the market, who knows?

 

(Editor’s Note: Tony Abbott and the Australian Liberal Party won a landslide victory in the weekend vote)

 (Note some of the Australian media sites appear to be metered and allow only one viewing)