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Before Fibreglass- British Columbia & Wahl Boatyard (Part 9)

By: Richard Crowder

Wahl Boatyard gillnet boat on drydock
A Wahl gillnet boat delivered to the North Pacific Cannery

In this Part 9 of this series, we shift to British Columbia to explore the boat building history that served the local and commercial fishing enterprises up and down the west coast. The topography of mountains bordering the ocean meant that fishing boats were built for ocean use, and most pleasure boating, as little as there was at the time, was done in the fishing boats themselves. Because of the remoteness of the settlements, most boat building served a very local market. As the fishing industry waned into the latter part of the twentieth century and pleasure boating increased, the sturdy fishing boats spawned an industry of rebuilding and refurbishing commercial boats for pleasure use. In Part 9, we examine one of the largest B.C. wooden fishing boat builders.

Wahl Boatyard

In the early 1900’s with the pushing through of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway from Edmonton to Prince Rupert, the Canadian government promoted land grants and settlements up the coast of British Columbia. Many Scandinavians took advantage of the opportunity and moved their families to Canada’s west coast.

Fishing and logging were the staples of the economic engine at the time, and boats were needed for both as well as for transportation between coastal communities. Many of these settlers chose to build their own boats.

In the early 1920’s, Ed Wahl moved his family from Norway and settled in Port Essington, a small community on the west coast situated due west of Edmonton and south of Prince Rupert, near the mouth of the Skeena River. The Skeena, almost 600 kilometres long, is the second largest river in BC and even at that time had seven fish canneries along its banks leading inland to Terrace, the logging capital of the region.

Wahl fished and logged on the Skeena River and is reported to have been one of the pioneers in the use of gasoline-powered boats, a development that revolutionized the industry. Using boatbuilding knowledge gleaned from his family roots in Norway, Ed Wahl built his first boat for his own use. He would build one boat in the winter, use it the following season and sell it in the fall. He would build another one the following winter using his newfound knowledge from the previous year to refine the design for better efficiency and seaworthiness.

In a few short years, he moved his family to the Norwegian fishing village of Dodge Cove situated on Digby Island, just a short hop west of Prince Rupert. He started off building a couple of boats per year as his reputation grew, but he became focused on satisfying the growing demands of the canneries as well as local independent fishermen. He was joined over time by his six sons and became well known and respected for his innovation and craftsmanship.

His business survived the depression years, and as World War II progressed there was an overwhelming demand for canned food to be shipped overseas. This brought a boom to the canneries and by extension the boat builders. Japanese boat builders had been the most prominent on the west coast until that time, but when internment happened in 1942 the remaining boat builders, including Ed Wahl’s business, flourished like never before.

Additional shops were built and knowledgeable employees from the now idle Japanese builders were hired, and a crude form of assembly line fabrication was initiated. In 1944 the Wahl Boatyard built 47 boats, mostly gillnetters, in only ten months!

Following the war the demand for gillnetters dropped as cannery production dropped off, but there was an increasing demand for trollers generated by the increasing number of independent fishermen whose ranks were increasing as work under the canneries dropped off. With increases in available diesel horsepower, trollers were made longer and beamier and could incorporate a smoother and more rounded design. The added space allowed for more amenities like galleys and sleeping accommodations to match the demands of independent fishermen. These design upgrades during the 1950’s live on in the refurbished pleasure trawlers seen up and down the coast to this day.

In 1959, seeing the need for the rebuilding and repairs of wooden vessels, Ed Wahl constructed a state-of-the-art facility at Prince Rupert and put his eldest son Henry in charge. Ed was mostly retired at this point but soon contracted cancer and died in 1961. His six experienced sons carried on, and their two yards flourished. But as the sixties turned into the seventies and new boat building materials like aluminum, steel, and fibreglass revolutionized the building process, the traditional wood building business dropped off.

Following the death of two of the sons in quick succession the Dodge Cove shops were shut down, and in 1976 the Prince Rupert facility was sold, thus marking the end of the remarkable Wahl family boat building heritage. For some sixty years Wahl Boatyards were recognized as the most prolific in the Pacific Northwest, building an estimated eleven hundred or more vessels! Truly remarkable for a nineteen-year-old Norwegian who originally came to Canada with a reported $25 to his name.

For over fifty years now, Commodore’s Boats of Richmond, BC, a large repair and rebuilding facility on the Fraser River south of Vancouver has, as one small part of its business, been converting Wahl trollers into pleasure yachts. Commodore’s Boats have been chosen here, out of the dozens of rebuilders and repair facilities on the coast, to wrap up this segment on Wahl boats simply because the father of its owner and founder, Bo Spiller, worked for Wahl and ended up a buyer of the Wahl facility and Bo Spiller helped out his father there.

For further information and history about Wahl Boatyard and Commodore's Boats, check out these websites:

You can enjoy more from our 'Before Fibreglass' series here:

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