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Memories sailed away with Princess Marguerite

The Princess Marguerite sails from Victoria toward Seattle in 1974. (Photo by Robert D. Turner)

When the coastal liner Princess Marguerite made her last round-trip between Seattle and Victoria, BC nearly 30 years ago this month, it was the end of a century of Canadian steamship memories in the Pacific Northwest.

Local maritime history enthusiasts and lots of regular folks were sad that the old ship — a sight and sound (via her distinctive steam whistle) around here since 1949 — was gone after being a fixture at Pier 69 and in Puget Sound for years.

The “miniature ocean liner” was no longer available for family day trips to Canada, or for big group excursions that saw hundreds of raucous Seattle Times newspaper carriers scurry over her decks, or dozens of demure Girl Scouts gather in her luxurious passenger lounge.

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In her final decades, the 355-foot Princess Marguerite was a big hit for locals and for tourists, and an affordable summertime fixture for families, as popular as a visit to the Space Needle or to the old Fun Forest amusement park at Seattle Center.

In the 1970s, catchy (and still memorable) radio and TV ads invited people to:

Take a Princess to sea . . .
Have a crumpet and tea . . .
She’s fun aboard, all the way . . .
Sail away for the day-hey-hey-hey!
Let’s go to, Vic-to-ri-a, with Princess Marguerite!

It may be hard to believe now, but a “Dating Game” prize package back in the 1970s included a cruise from Seattle aboard the ship, and a night in Victoria’s Empress Hotel.

The name “Princess Marguerite” went back even earlier than 1949, to a Canadian Pacific Railway ship that began passenger service on Puget Sound in 1925. That ship was named for the Honorable Marguerite Shaughnessy, daughter of Lord Shaughnessy, the former president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). CPR began operating passenger vessels between the US and British Columbia waters in the early 20th century, and, around the same time, began a tradition of naming their smaller vessels “Princess.”

The original Princess Marguerite was more of a bona fide cruise ship, with staterooms to accommodate travelers on the “night boat” from Seattle to Vancouver. In 1939, she carried King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from the mainland to Vancouver Island during the royal visit to Canada. Then, just a few short years later, she was torpedoed and sunk by a Nazi sub in the Mediterranean in 1942 while doing service as a troop carrier during World War II.

Robert Turner is an author and historian who lives on Vancouver Island, and a lifelong fan of Northwest steamship history. He says Princess Marguerite was a symbol of the maritime passenger trade that helped make this part of the world home to countless settlers beginning back in the 19th century.

Before the years of pure tourism for ships, Turner says, vessels like both Princess Marguerites were a practical means of travel.

“It goes back a long way to the early settlement days around Puget Sound, and Georgia Strait and Juan de Fuca,” Turner said. “The communities were pretty tied together, and it was the steamships that did it.”

Nowadays, Clipper Vacations moves passengers back and forth between Seattle and Vancouver Island fast and efficiently. Turner says that from the 1950s on, the Princess Marguerite offered an alternative to more modern means of maritime motion.

“It was really a different style of travel,” Turner said. “The Marguerite was different from taking the Washington State Ferries or the BC Ferries.”

Like those ferries, Turner says, the Princess Marguerite could go fast if she needed to. But that wasn’t the point.

“The attraction was the old style of wooden paneling in the boat, all the different hardwoods that had been used when she was built. And a lovely dining room, and lounges with overstuffed chairs and those kinds of features that were out of an earlier generation,” Turner said. “It was much like traveling in our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time.”

Economic realities and mounting maintenance expenses began to catch up with the aging Princess Marguerite in the 1970s. Canadian Pacific Railway sold her to the BC government in 1974, and then she was sold again a decade or so later, this time to European cruise ship operator Stena Line. They permanently docked Princess Marguerite after the 1989 season and ran a series of other vessels on the Seattle-Victoria route. But none could ever match the romance and history of the Marguerite, says Robert Turner.

“I think it’s very sad because that was really the last of the intercity steamships on the Pacific coast,” Turner said.

In the early 1990s, there was hope that Princess Marguerite would find new life as a floating hotel or casino in Singapore. The ship was sold to new owners, but she ultimately ended up being cut up and melted down in 1996 or 1997, with her ornate wood interior and other unique furnishings lost forever.

Robert Turner says the Princess Marguerite’s dismantling took place somewhere in India, but that’s all he wants to know about the final fate of the once-stately ship.

“I don’t know the specifics of the Marguerite being scrapped, but I’ve tried not to imagine it too closely either,” he said, managing a brave laugh.

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