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William Hugh Gillen: First Master of the St. Roch by Lea Edgar

By BCShippingNews 22 March 2018
Captain Gillen (front & center) and the first crew of the St. Roch, 1928. Parks Canada St. Roch Research Collection, item number HCSR-20-18.
A somewhat enigmatic character, Gillen had a long history with the sealing industry and was a respectable choice for the first Arctic trip.

Many associate the St. Roch with her longest serving master, Henry Larsen. But let us not forget that for her first ever voyage into the Arctic, the St. Roch was captained by another man: William Hugh Gillen. A somewhat enigmatic character, Gillen had a long history with the sealing industry and was a respectable choice for the first Arctic trip. 2018 marks the 90th birthday for the St. Roch, and so let us take a look back at the first master of her brand-new helm.

William Gillen was born on January 15, 1872 in Wine Harbour, Nova Scotia. According to his family, he started his sea career at the age of eight. At 20 years old, he began to sail in deep sea ships out of Halifax, mostly to South American and West Indian waters. Early in his career he was on the Liverpool ship Irma when it was dismasted in a hurricane off Cape St. Roque. He was also on board the J.H. Dexter when the vessel was partially dismasted near the West Indies. Drawn by the sealing trade, he decided to travel to the West Coast in 1895 on the sealing schooner Carrie C.W. In 1897, he joined the crew of the Thistle. Gillen also served on board the Beat and J.H. Dexter. By 1898, Gillen was appointed mate on the bark Nanaimo. While working on this vessel, he nearly perished on a voyage to China and spent six weeks in the hospital. Gillen continued to work in the sealing trade and halibut fishery on board Enterprise, Jessie, and Saidie Turpel.

Photo above: Captain Gillen (front & center) and the first crew of the St. Roch, 1928. Parks Canada St. Roch Research Collection, item number HCSR-20-18.

After years working on various vessels and gaining the necessary experience, Gillen was appointed as Coxswain for the Bamfield Lifeboat in 1907. Gillen began to settle down and a year later he married Jessie Paterson Taylor in Victoria. Together they had three children: Iver Jessley, Rupert Otis, and Denver Laredo. Iver and Rupert both served on the MS Patterson at the same time as the St. Roch’s maiden voyage. They even had a chance to meet up with their father at Herschel Island. It appears Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen (master of the Patterson) and Gillen had a good friendship. In 1926, Gillen delivered the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) schooner Nigalik to Herschel Island and returned to Vancouver on board the Patterson. It is likely that this friendship allowed his two sons to work on the Patterson only two years later. Gillen’s youngest son, Denver, took a different path. He became a well-known artist who worked for HBC as an illustrator and is credited with creating the image of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that we all know and love today.

Gillen was hired by the RCMP on May 10, 1928 to take the St. Roch on her first trip to the Arctic. He was tasked with navigating her to Herschel Island as soon as the ice conditions permitted. His compensation was $1,000. If he decided to stay on after Herschel Island, he would be paid $200 per month “and keep.”

With a crew of 15 men, the St. Roch departed Vancouver on June 26, 1928 at 2:00 p.m. The trip was not easy going. The ship leaked and the inexperienced crew were seasick from the constant rolling caused by the egg-shaped hull. On the second day at sea, the engine failed and the sails had to be raised (she was intended to sail for much of the journey anyway). Captain Gillen complained that the St. Roch seemed to dig her nose in and was unresponsive at the helm. As far as he was concerned, the rigging was too light for Arctic work and the steering gear was too heavy. However, Gillen reported an overall positive impression of the newly christened Arctic ship.

The St. Roch reached Herschel Island on July 24, 1928 and the crew carried out various duties in the area before returning to Herschel Island on August 28. At this point in the journey, Captain Gillen and engineer Pat Kelly said their goodbyes to the crew and mate Henry Larsen was put in charge. Gillen, for reasons unknown, decided not to stay on with the St. Roch. But his Arctic career did not end there. Gillen went on to command the HBC Arctic supply vessels Nigalik and Old Maid No. 2. It was from the latter vessel that he mysteriously disappeared.

In 1929, Captain Gillen took the Old Maid No. 2 to the Mackenzie Delta with a deck cargo of 100,000 feet of lumber. The ship was battered and damaged on the return trip but made it safely back to the Port of Vancouver. In 1930, while preparing for a second voyage, Gillen disappeared from the Old Maid No. 2. The police did not know whether he fell and ultimately drowned, or whether something more nefarious occurred. There was no body to examine, so they appealed to the public for information. All that was known was that he left the ship at the Evans, Coleman & Evans dock on Tuesday, June 3 at 4:00 p.m. He said that he was going to make a purchase at a small nearby store and return immediately to the vessel. There were reports that a man was seen returning to the vessel at about 5:30 p.m. An accident may have occurred, however, he also carried with him about $500 in cash which could have been a reason for him to be attacked. On July 9, Gillen’s body was finally located near the North Vancouver ferry wharf, close to where the Old Maid No. 2 was docked. His clothing only contained $161 of the supposed $500 he carried. It was never determined whether he was robbed and killed, or whether his death was an accident.

Captain Gillen, although briefly on board the St. Roch, nevertheless left a lasting impression on the vessel’s story. His life may have been tragically cut short, but his legacy lives on as the daring first master of the historic ship St. Roch.

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