ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog Arctic & Northern Books About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth


St. Roch

Northwest Passage

Icebreakers


Canadian Ice Ships

by Murray Lundberg


    In a country where water transport has always been very important, the need the keep shipping channels open for as much of the year as possible led to the very early testing of ships capable of breaking up ice, or of navigating in ice-choked waters. The four stamps shown below, designed by Tom Bjarnason, honour some of the most significant of those ships. At the top left is the St. Roch, top right is the Chief Justice Robinson, lower left is the Labrador, and lower right is the Northern Light.


Four ice-strengthened ships were honoured by a Canadian stamp issue in 1978.


    The steam schooner Chief Justice Robinson was built in 1842 by Louis & Joseph Shickluna She was named after Sir John Beverley Robinson, who became Attorney General of Upper Canada in 1813, was elected to the Assembly in 1820, was a member of the Family Compact, and became Chief Justice and Speaker of the Legislative Council in 1829. Of the ship's sailing duties, the Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ontario) of 7 April 1851 reported that:

The Chief Justice, commanded by Capt. Colcleugh, and the City of Toronto in charge of her owner, Capt. Dick, will form the Junction Line from Toronto to Lewiston; leaving Toronto every Morning and Evening, and returning at like intervening periods. The traveller arriving at Toronto can make choice of either boat to continue his passage to Buffalo and the Far West. Both these steamers are full-sized lake boats, and both favorably known to the travelling community.

    The Northern Light was the first government icebreaker in Canada. She was built in 1876 by E.W. Sewell, at Levis, Quebec, for Prince Edward Island winter service. She was, however, badly underpowered; Charles Clay, in a 1947 newspaper article about maintaining transportation between Prince Edward Island and the mainland in winter, stated that:

The S.S Northern Light proved of some utility, but she was quite incapable of surmounting the obstacles to navigation in mid-winter. She was laid up an average of 64 days each winter and at times was ice-bound for periods ranging from 10 to 24 days

    In Canada's Smallest Province, she is described in even less complimentary terms:

The Northern Light, a wooden ship of 700 horsepower, was put into service this day [December 7, 1876] and continued service on the run for 12 troubled years. 1st season, her steering gear gave way, and the 2nd, her propeller broke. She was known for being better at breaking the ice with her stern, rather than her bow.

    She was replaced on the run by the much more powerful Stanley in 1888, and a winter connection between PEI and the mainland was quite reliable after that.

    The St. Roch is surely the most famous of our Arctic vessels. Built in North Vancouver by Burrard Dry Dock (BDD), she was launched on May 7, 1928. She had been ordered by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as both a supply ship, and as a floating detachment. As such, many special design features were incorporated, from having both sail (she was schooner-rigged initially) and diesel power, to an ice-strengthened hull shaped to ride up over squeezing ice, and accommodation for large sled dog teams.

    The St. Roch took three seasons, from 1940 to 1942, to make its first transit of the Northwest Passage; this was only the second time it had been accomplished, and the first time from west to east. In 1944 she was able to take a more northerly route back to Vancouver in only 86 days. After being officially retired in 1948, she became the first ship to circumnavigate North America when she went through the Panama Canal en route to Halifax. A lengthy effort to preserve her began when she was returned to Vancouver in 1954, and she is now the main exhibit at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. In 2000, another RCMP vessel, renamed the St. Roch II, is attempting to also circumnavigate North America, partly as a fund-raiser for maintenance of her legendary predecessor.

    The 250-foot Coast Guard icebreaker Labrador was built for the Royal Canadian Navy in 1953 by Marine Industries. She was designed as an Arctic patrol vessel at a time when Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago was in question, tasked with supplying several military bases which were established both to establish control, and as part of the 'Cold War' monitoring network that was keeping an eye on the U.S.S.R. In 1958 she was transferred from naval to Coast Guard operations.

    In an on-line book on Coast Guard history, Thomas E. Appleton says of the Labrador:

    In 1953 the diesel electric icebreaker Labrador was built at Sorel for the Royal Canadian Navy. Although completed within a year of the d’Iberville she was technically in advance, having diesel electric machinery controlled from the navigating bridge. The Labrador is generally similar in design to the Wind class icebreakers of the United States Navy. This type was originally fitted with bow propellers to assist in backing off the ice after impact and in washing away the broken pieces when in forward motion. This arrangement is not favoured in Canadian icebreakers owing to the virtual certainty of damage to the propellers under polar conditions.
    When the Department of National Defence decided to withdraw from naval patrol of the Arctic, HMCS Labrador was paid off and transferred to the control of the Department of Transport in 1958. With her first rate capability and extended endurance she was a welcome addition to the fleet of Arctic icebreakers but the arrangement of decks and bulkheads, built to naval standards of watertight sub-division, leaves little room for cargo and her supply role is therefore limited.

    In 1987, the Labrador was decommissioned and sold.

    For stamp collectors, the se-tenant block of 4 seen above is listed as Scott# 779a - the individual stamps are #776-779.



Canadian Ice Ships - Related Links

Icebreakers and the U.S. Coast Guard
An excellent history by Donald L. Canney.

A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
An online book by Thomas E. Appleton.

Saint Roch
Information about the man who, in the 14th Century, nursed the sick during an epidemic in northern Italy.

St. Roch
A biography and photo, from the Historic Naval Ships Association.

St. Roch - Funding & Operations
A report from the City of Vancouver in January 2000 outlines the current status of the ship.

St. Roch Model
A 1/72-scale model is available from Billing Boats.

Vancouver Maritime Museum
The home of the restored St. Roch has lots of information posted about their most famous exhibit, including an interactive tour of the boat.

Water Transport in the Circumpolar North
Links to information on subjects ranging from Alaska tugs to the Northeast Passage and Viking longships.