A Bit of History

Image: Launch of the Oliver Clark in 1925.

On the top of a bookshelf, not too far from where I am sitting now, is a wooden model, made by my father 20 or more years ago, of a boat named the Oliver Clark.  That model was made far from the ocean, in the dry interior town of Keremeos where my father had been an orchardist.  It has come a long way to return to the sea.

In 1925, a forest fire destroyed the town of Port Neville.  The fire had started the day before at a nearby logging camp and was believed to be under control.  However, a sudden change in wind direction brought the fire into the settlement.  This particular fire stands out in history not due its ferocity, but because of the bravery of Oliver Clark.  He lost his life while bravely helping to evacuate the settlement.

Port Neville fire

Image: Forest fire, Port Neville, British Columbia, June 25, 1925.

On November 3rd, 1925, the Premier, John Oliver, unveiled
an illuminated scroll to the memory of Clark which read as follows:

TO THE MEMORY OF OLIVER GOSNOLD CLARK
Ranger, B. C. Forest Service,

who lost his life in the noble discharge of his duty on the twenty-fifth day of June, 1925, at Port Neville.

A fire, of which he had charge, was whipped beyond control by a sudden
change of wind, leaving only a few minutes for escape. Ignoring his own
danger, Clark carried the warning to his crews and saw them safely to
rafts and boats in the bay. He returned to the logging camp to make sure
that no one had been missed. His body was subsequently found by his
comrades, his Forest Service badge tightly clasped in his lifeless hand,
bearing mute testimony that under the supreme test he had magnificently conceived and nobly discharged his duty. Ranger Clark has gone, but has left us an inspiring example of courage and devotion to duty which will persist until the last Forest Fire is conquered and completely out.

It is not truly known whether Oliver Clark died clasping his badge, whether he died heroically in search of people trapped in either the logging camp or the settlement, or simple made a poor decision and was trapped by the fire, but in any case, at the end of 1925, the Forestry Service named a boat after him.

I christen this vessel the Oliver Clark and may she prove as staunch and
true in the service as the valiant man whose name she bears,” pronounced Miss Doris Pattullo, daughter of the Premier.  The vessel measured 40′ long with a 9′ 6″ beam and a Vivian 16 h.p. heavy duty engine. She was built by Rodd Brothers in Victoria.

However, unlike Oliver Clark the hero, Oliver Clark the boat developed something of a less outstanding image.  At some point later in her life, she was re-engined with six cylinder Chrysler gas engine, commonly known as a Chrysler Crown.  “She was a long, skinny double-ender and by then she had a six-cylinder Chrysler gas engine. The engine was right in the back of the boat and the wheelhouse was right in front. In between you had the living quarters and the galley, and you ran her singlehanded. To get back to the engine you had to gallop all the full length of the boat. It didn’t seem to matter how good a condition she was in; when you came in for a landing either your throttle would stick or your clutch cord would break, and you’d have to go running for that bloody engine and throw it out of gear … Aaargh, she was a right bastard,” reported Wilf Archer, ex-Ranger.  In addition to throttle and clutch issues, Chrysler Crown carburetors  have a particularly bad habit of icing up, usually when the engine is being pushed hard, especially in tidal rapids (this reported by Ken, who has had first hand experience operating Chrysler Crowns in tidal rapids).

Back in the late 50’s, before Ripple Rock was blasted out of Seymour Narrows in 1958, my father was a Forest Ranger working out of the Forest Service Marine Station at Thurston Bay on Sonora Island.  He was a prairie boy, and I don’t think working on the wet west coast was his first choice of places to be employed by the Forest Service, but he chose a rather unique way to get re-posted to the interior.  He hadn’t been feeling well for a few days, and the supervisor decided to send him down to Campbell River with the Oliver Clark so he could get a doctor’s appointment.  His timing through Seymour Narrows was not the best, and the rapids were starting to surge, so he was forced to run the Chrysler Crown hard to make headway.  Pushing hard drew more air through the carburetor … and it froze up.  This stalled the engine.  As Wilf Archer described above, the Oliver Clark was a narrow boat, and hard to get from wheelhouse to stern, all the more so when you are sick and in the middle of an ugly tidal rapid with an especially nasty rock creating dangerous eddies just waiting to suck you down …  As the story was told to me, there were some fairly tense moments, and although my father is not usually given to profanity, I’m sure some choice works were spoken.  As luck would have it, he managed to get the engine restarted just before he got drawn into the Ripple Rock eddy, and was able to make it into Campbell River, where he promptly collapsed at the hospital with acute appendicitis.  Waking up in the  hospital after surgery, he immediately requested, and was granted, a posting to the interior – Lillooet to be exact, which is where I was born.

Many years later, his memories of that adventure were still vivid enough to inspire him to make a wooden model of the Oliver Clark.

My father’s mother was a Nova Scotian, and the seas ran in her veins, if not my father’s.  She moved to Vancouver, away from the prairies, at some point in her life.  My early childhood was spent alternating between the dry desert land around Lillooet and the coastal climes of Vancouver.  When I was 18, I made the choice to live on the coast, and have been “wet between the toes” ever since.  When my father passed away a few years ago, I acquired the Oliver Clark model.  Now she sits above the bookshelf, not far from where the original Oliver Clark spent much of her time plying the waters, and very close to the site where Ranger Clark lost his life.  An interesting turn of events!

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1 thought on “A Bit of History”

  1. Been through Seymour in the middle of the wee hours in a snowstorm with a freighter coming up from astern. No fun. And that was after they blasted the rock. Had a 32′ Benson Bros. bridge deck cruiser with a Chrysler Crown and a black iron fuel tank. I got so good at drawing the carb, it was measured in seconds, not minutes. But I never had the two combined. If I had, I wouldn’t be here. I’d relocate to Moosejaw.

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