The Legacy of North Coast Boatbuilding – -Wahl’s Shipyards, Prince Rupert (from Wahl to Spiller)
Over 100 years of wooden boatbuilding on the North Coast have left their mark. While wooden boats don’t last forever, if well-maintained they can live a long time. In many harbours along the BC coast and beyond, you are bound to find a boat that was built in the north, and probably built by the Wahl family and in the later years Alec Spiller, father of Commodore’s Boats current owner Bosun (Bo) Spiller. The legacy continues as many of those same wooden boats tend to be restored or repaired today at Commodore’s Boats.
The Wahl Shipyards were by any measure the most successful Prince Rupert boatbuilders, and one of the province’s most notable. As many as 1100 boats came down the Wahl ways over 50 years, and their distinctive lines are recognizable in harbours all along the BC coast.Wahl’s Shipyards, Prince Rupert
Ed Wahl, a cabinet maker from Norway, had first come to North America at the end of World War I to fish with his brother in Alaska. Back in Norway he married Hildur Olsen, and the young couple emigrated to Canada.
“Dad, he went to Norway and got married and came right over again. He knew Mom when he came to this country but then he come over to see how things were and he figured that this is what he wanted so he just went over and married my mother and came right back again,” said Iver.
They lived first at Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island, where Ed logged. Then in 1923 the family moved north to Port Essington, travelling in Ed’s little gillnetter, the Viking. There he fished and also began boat building. ‘He just started on his own,’ said son Iver. “It came natural to him, I guess.”
Hildur assisted him, helping to rib the boats and plank them. Times were tough and they could seldom afford labour. The first boat out of the Port Essington shed was the Norman which he used for gillnetting and to travel to Prince Rupert to get supplies. He built a number of gillnet boats for the canneries. That was in the transitional days when powered gillnets were permitted in northern waters (beginning in 1924).
Around 1928 or 1929 the Wahls left Essington to join a new fishing settlement that was starting in Dodge Cove on Digby Island, across from Prince Rupert. The first boat out of the Dodge Cove shed was the Fram.
In Dodge Cove, the business became a family venture. Besides Ed, Hildur’s brothers Ole and Otto worked in the shed and Ed’s sons joined in as soon as they were old enough. “I guess that he figured that we were all going to be boat builders,” said Iver. “So we all wanted to work with Dad, because he was a wonderful man to be with, you know”. At the age of ten, Ernest sanded the hulls. Iver’s first job was to putty nail holes. He also tended the steam box fire, swept the floor and packed wood.
For years, the Wahls worked only with hand tools. They didn’t even have a band saw in the early years of the Depression, though Ed managed to save enough to buy one from Paul Armour later on. He kept fishing during the summer to make extra money, putting it back into the business to buy tools and enlarge the boat shop.
Wood was easily obtained in the 1930s. Fir and oak came from Vancouver, while most of the yellow cedar came from John Group at Oona River. Jimmy Donaldson of Brown’s Mill, near Port Essington, also supplied them with a good deal of lumber. “If he had a good log, he always used to let us know that he had it,” Iver recalled, “and then Dad would ask him, tell him what he’d like to have cut, and he’d saw it. Then we got our own mill.”
Production increased phenomenally during World War II. The Japanese boat builders in Cow Bay, Osland and the canneries were expelled from the coast in 1942, while at the same time most canneries were renewing and enlarging their aging fleets to meet the increased demand of the war. Wahls built for all the canneries on the Skeena – Nelson Brothers, BC Packers, Canadian Fish, North Pacific, Cassiar. There weren’t quite so many boats for Inverness because they used mostly seine boats.
Local red cedar was usually used for planking on the smaller gillnetters, but larger boats were built of imported fir. Finding enough wood was a constant problem. To meet the increased demand, Wahl built his own sawmill in 1946 next to the boat shed. Four men worked milling while three hand loggers logged and beach combed. The canneries helped gather wood as well.
Just as the war-time demand for boats was building, another war-time demand hit the Wahls. The boys Henry, Iver and Ernest, were called up to go into the army. It would be impossible for Ed to run the business by himself. A recruitment officer came over from Rupert and visited the boat shop. He agreed that two boys could stay, but one would have to enlist.
“To this day I think it was the toughest decision our Dad ever made, to say which one had to go,” said Iver. “The General asked Dad which one, we’re going to take one, but which one are you going to let go he said to dad, and Dad had to make that decision. Well he couldn’t say nothing. We were all right there. Well, he says, take the youngest one, and that was Ernest. So we thought, Henry and I, to heck with this. Ernest’s not going alone, we’ll all go. So we were all prepared to go, you know, but Dad he took it so tough, that we decided that we’d stay, and Ernest went.”
Ernest spent two or three years in the army. He stayed in the force after the war, but contracted tuberculosis and lost one lung. While in Vancouver General Hospital, Ernest took a math course and a drawing course. After that, whenever they needed plans for boats that fell into the steamboat classification, Ernest created them.
Still the demand for boats grew. Their record year was 1944, when they launched 47 boats in ten months, including forty gillnetters and 7 halibut boats. North Pacific Cannery records show that in 1944 Wahls supplied the cannery with’ two 32′ boats for $1050 each, four 30′ boats for $735 each, and two 15′ seine skiffs at $115 each.
In 1946 , Ed Wahl was featured in a Waterfront Whiffs column. Wahl said they built 43 boats in 1945, and in this year there were plans for 30 gillnetters, two halibut boats, a troller and a packer for Canadian Fishing Company.
‘Mr. Wahl says that he builds his gillnetters in three sizes, the basic moulds of each being similar. The 30-foot model is the standard boat used on the Skeena River fishery, while the 31-footer is designed for the rougher waters off the river mouth. The 32-foot model is popular among fishermen who fish in the inlets and in the rougher costal waters. Mr. Wahl’s shop has capacity for building five of these small vessels at a time, in addition to other work. The covered shop will accommodate a vessel of 65-foot length on the marine ways… This Digby Island enterprise, which is known among fishermen all along the coast, is carried on by Mr. Wahl with the assistance of his six sons and 12 hired employees. Mr. Wahl is proud of the assistance given by his six sons, even though two of them are a bit on the young side. Ray and Raoul, who are twins, will make good boatbuilders when they get older he believes. The four older ones, Henry, Ivor, Ernest and Bob, are already pretty handy in the shop.’ (Prince Rupert Daily News, March 2, 1946)
As many as thirty-six men worked in the yards then. “It was really hectic,” remembered Iver. “It was from eight in the morning till eleven at night. We took turns to got to town on Saturday to get all the supplies and that. Then a lot of the guys, sometimes you got half a day off. That’s the only time you got your time off. Then on Sundays you get half a day off. The whole crew. We were 26 men in the shop at that time. But we were crawling over everybody, just like sardines in a can.”
Through the 1950s, modernization of the fishing fleet continued, and Wahls were the premier boatbuilders of the north coast. On one momentous occasion, they launched seven boats in one day: one large gillnetter, 46 feet, five 34-foot boats and a halibut boat built for Don Lindstrom. By the time the last two gillnet boats were launched, the tide had gone down so low that they dropped and capsized when they hit the water. “No ballast, light as a feather,” Iver remembered. “But nothing hurt. They looked so funny with the keel up in the air.”
In the early days, each of the boys had his own job. Iver started with caulking, but had to quit that when the constant pounding caused hearing problems. But as business grew, they all worked together. Iver would plank one side while Henry planked the other. Henry and Iver did the main construction of the hull and the planking, while Ernest and Bob put the top work on, the deck, the wheelhouse. The twins helped with the planking, holding on to the end.
They seldom used plans to build a boat, only five or six times when someone would buy blueprints and have the Wahls build from them. Iver found, when working with a large crew, it was easier using blueprints. “It’s hard the way we done it. You had to put a man on the job. He had to measure everything out for us before you can go to work yourself.” Iver described the process. “When you plank the boat, there was two men on each side to put the planks on and Henry and I were sawing them, cutting them out in shape. Boy, you sure didn’t have much time to stop and light a cigarette. You got so used to cutting planks, you don’t need to measure any more. Both Henry and I, we got so used to it that we just looked at it. The only time you actually measured up, was when you got to the top. To get the right sweep to the boat, the sheer line. You didn’t have much time to start fooling around measuring. Dad, he taught us that. He was very strict. He didn’t like to see lumber wasted either. We had to pick the boards to make the right curve. He taught us that.”
By the end of the 1950s there was so much business that the Wahls decided to expand. In 1959 they opened a second, larger boat shop in Prince Rupert, at Fairview, near the Co-op plant and just a hop across the harbour from Dodge Cove. Twenty-two men were working at Dodge Cove, and fifteen at Fairview. “Both yards have plenty of work lined up to keep full shifts going all winter,” reported the Daily News in December, 1959. The first boat to be launched from the Fairview yard was the Lori Anne, a troller for Atle Arntsen. The keel was laid in November and the hull was launched on December 30, 1959 and completed in January.
“We took so much work that we had to get it built,” said Iver. “They were both going and the mill was going too, because they had so much lumber, house lumber and stuff to cut.”
By this time, the boys were insisting that Ed slow down. The physical work was taking its toll. He stopped building, and only looked after the business end, but it wasn’t enough. On March 16, 1961, just when the family had got the Fairview yard going full swing, Ed died at the age of 65.
In early 1967 part of the shed at the Prince Rupert yard caught fire. Iver recalls this as the worst thing to happen in the history of the Wahl shipyards. “We felt so proud we worked so hard, just got it all paid off, it was ours, we didn’t owe anybody a nickel and then we lost it in the fire. The insurance was nothing. We were lucky, we weren’t in financial difficulties. We had enough to get well established again.”
They did. They rebuilt and continued to produce vessels that were the envy of the coast. But things were changing. The dynasty of wooden boat building on the North Coast was giving way to new technologies and diminishing demand. People were turning more and more to fiberglass and aluminum to build new fishing vessels. In the early 1970s they sold the Dodge Cove shop to Alec Spiller, who continued to employ Iver. In 1976 the Wahl brothers sold the Fairview yards to the Okabe family. Ernest and Henry’s son Eddie both set up boatshops near Vancouver, expanding from the wooden boat legacy to build fiberglass vessels.
Under the ownership of Alec Spiller, Wahl Shipyards continued to build wooden vessels in the Wahl tradition with the distinctive Wahl appearance. The last vessels being constructed were the Miss TJ, Nordic Rand, Ocean Tigress and the Ingibjorg K.
The last Wahl boat from the old Dodge Cove Shipyards was the 40′ x 12 1/2′ troller Legacy built by Larry Wahl with the help of his father Iver. It was fitting that it was not a boat for sale to someone else, but a boat that Larry would fish himself. By 1989, he was in the market for a new troller. He knew he wanted a wooden boat. Would it be beyond the realm of possibility to have a new Wahl boat? With the help of Iver and other members of the family, it was possible. Gary helped on the project, as did Martin, son of Bobby Wahl. The Legacy was launched on April 26, 1990 at 2:30 a.m.
Over the years, the Wahls built between 1,000 and 1,100 boats. They have been sent as far away as Norway, Kodiak Alaska and Seattle. There are few harbours along BC’s coast that don’t have at least one Wahl boat tied up.
[Unattributed]: Citing Sources: [http://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/exhibits/living-landscapes/northwest/boatbuilding/wahl.html#wahls][April 5, 2016]