History lesson: The Samson V -- The last paddle steamer

By BCShippingNews
March 1 2017
The Samson V
Vancouver Maritime Museum's Lea Edgar recounts the days when the Fraser River was bustling with paddle steamers...

There was a time when the Fraser River was bustling with paddle steamers. While the river is still heavily trafficked today, paddle wheel steam ships have long since disappeared, replaced by the more compact screw propeller vessels. If you wish to ride on a paddle wheeler today, you must board one of the replica ships, such as the MPV Constitution operated by Harbour Cruises in Vancouver or the MV Native operated by Paddlewheeler Riverboat Tours in New Westminster. But to truly gain an authentic experience, visit the Samson V Museum, which preserves the last operating stern wheeler in Western Canada.

The first Samson started operating in about 1884. At the time, the residents along the shores of the Fraser River were constantly dealing with the debris the freshet brought every spring. It would ruin fishing nets, endanger navigation, and damage docks and bridges. The local communities successfully petitioned the government and the first Samson snagboat, the smallest of the five vessels, was put to work. Three more ships were created using parts from previous Samsons because, after about 10 years, their timbers rotted out. For example, the Sampson V was built using the engines from Samson IV. To stop the constant rotting and the need to construct a new vessel every decade, the Samson V was built with pre-cut, pressurized, creosoted timbers that deterred the rotting. Such efforts proved effective, as she has survived in the water until this day.

The Samson V was built at Star (Mercer’s) Shipyards and launched on September 3, 1937. She was christened by Margaret Reid, the daughter of Thomas Reid, Member of Parliament for New Westminster. The vessel measures 35 metres long with a maximum breadth of 9.8 metres. The paddle wheel itself measures 5.3 metres in diameter, 4.72 metres wide, and has 15 individual paddles. She travelled at a maximum speed of 10 knots, but her average speed was seven knots. Samson V generally carried a crew of about 11, including three officers (master, mate, and chief engineer), and eight crewmembers (fireman, winchman, oiler, cook, steward, bosun and two deckhands). The impressive steam winch on the foredeck of the vessel is perhaps its standout feature — it could lift from 48 tons to 72 tons. The vessel’s design, while not unique, certainly proved effective in the hazardous waters of the Fraser River.

Photo above: The Samson V on the Fraser River near New Westminster, March 17, 1938. (VMM item number LM2016.999.012.)

The Samson V continued the hard work of the earlier Samsons by clearing debris, maintaining navigational aids and government docks, performing surveys, assisting other vessels, and completing other necessary tasks on the river as needed. Part of the success of these sternwheelers was their shallow draft that allowed them to go over sandbars, into the shallows, and over fishing nets. This enabled them to reach areas of the river that other vessels could not.

The Samson V also helped dredge the Fraser River so that large ships had access to the various mills and terminals on its shores. In doing so, she greatly contributed to the Greater Vancouver Region’s vital business of the import and export of goods. The Samson V generally worked from New Westminster downstream to the Sandheads lightship and up river above Mission to Vedder and Hatsic and up to Pitt Lake. She could travel about 100 miles in a day. These versatile and varied activities were the central reasons behind why the Samson V not only survived, but actively worked for so many years.

The Samson V chugged along without incident until the 1950s when disaster stuck. On New Year’s Eve, 1954, her berth caught fire. In order to save her, the fire department made the decision to deliberately submerge her. Luckily, this tactic worked and the superstructure and boiler were replaced at Star Shipyards and eventually she was put back into service. She managed to work for another 20 years. Then, in 1979, the federal government announced that the Samson V, the last of its kind on the Fraser River, was to be auctioned off. With this announcement, many maritime history enthusiasts became concerned for the vessel’s future. A group was formed in Mission with the goal of obtaining the Samson V to create a Fraser River Heritage Park for the community. A further 14 communities on the Fraser River also lobbied to acquire the vessel. The decision was made, however, to sell the Samson V to the City of New Westminster for one dollar, with the city agreeing to preserve the vessel as a museum. The museum opened in October 1983.

In September 2017, it will be the Samson V’s 80th birthday. This is a truly remarkable feat thanks to the vessel’s design, proven usefulness, and finally to the passionate champions of maritime history who chose to fight for its preservation. As the only intact and floating wooden sternwheeler in North America, the Samson V lives on to educate, entertain, and give us a glimpse of early life on the Fraser River.

Lea Edgar started her position as Librarian and Archivist for the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 2013. She can be contacted at archives@vanmaritime.com.