In 1992, I called up the now-retired ferry captain, Albert Savoie, who was still living, along with his wife, Margaret, at his house at Phipps Point on Hornby Island. I asked if I could talk to him because I’d like to write a song about him, and about the early car ferry service to the island. On a blustery March afternoon, we sat down in his living room, and had tea and cookies while he showed me some old photographs, and told stories about what it was like getting it all rolling.
Car ferry service to Hornby Island came in 1953 after the hard work of many islanders, led by Albert. He and his family had come to Hornby Island in the 1920s where they farmed and fished. Albert started building boats, and to supplement income by filling a need that fellow islanders had – to ferry them and their produce to Comox – his little fish boat, The Water Lily, fit the bill, sort of.
Though the union steamships stopped at Ford Cove on a regular basis, their service dried up after World War II, and so, along with development coming to the island, it was clear that having a more efficient link would be essential. Plans were undertaken to see if car ferry service could be implemented that would connect Hornby Island traffic to Vancouver Island via Denman Island.
Albert made a trek to Victoria to visit the Transportation Minister, “Flying” Phil Gagliardi. In the early 1950s BC was building roads, dams, and other infrastructure for a growing economy. Albert showed him his plans for a two-car ferry, and the minister said, “Great, build it and we’ll consider giving you a subsidy to run it.”
Money was raised by islanders; Albert mortgaged his own house, and managed to build the Hornby Island V, a two-car ferry that one had either to back on to, or off of. A ramp was built at Phipps Point on Hornby Island, and at Gravelly Bay on Denman Island. It was a huge leap forward, and for the rest of the decade it provided service. The government did provide a small subsidy.
In the 1950s there were a few “resorts” on the island, including Sea Breeze Lodge, The Lodge (at Tribune Bay), and Shingle Spit Resort, as well as a campsite at Heron Rocks. They were all becoming more popular, and it was obvious that a two-car ferry was not enough to handle the traffic in the summer.
Albert then built the Lorraine S 2 which could hold six cars (sometimes seven if you didn’t mind hanging off the end a little). A breakwater and ramp was built near Shingle Spit as it was directly across from Gravelly Bay, making for a shorter crossing. The old ramps are still there (as of 2020), but not very usable.
In 1962 my family started coming to Hornby Island for summer vacations. The first several years we stayed in rented cabins at Shingle Spit. Staying in these cabins gave us a view of the ferry making its crossings.
I was always in awe of Albert, and his brothers, Leo, and George, who handled the deck and loading. I must admit that I had a very romantic view of Albert’s job. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized just what a responsibility it was. Seven days a week from seven in the morning to seven at night, in weather that sometimes blew the ferry off course, and caused the crossing to take hours.
Like ten years earlier, when it was clear a larger ferry was needed to handle the increased traffic, by the time the 60s came to a close, it was obvious the “new” little six-car ferry was becoming inadequate in the summers. Albert also realized it was time to retire. The government would give him a pension (which he said paid better than what he ever made running the ferry), and build new ferry terminals, and bring on a new, much larger ferry for the island, which they’d call Albert J Savoie in his honour.
I left Albert’s house that wet spring afternoon armed with a recording of our conversation, and got to work writing a song. The following year, I dropped in on him, and played it for him. I was relieved that he liked it a lot, and felt honoured.
Not long after, Albert died, and with him went a piece of this island’s history. It was people like Albert who made things happen, through personal risk and sacrifice. I hope Albert’s spirit lives on through this song.
Albert J. Savoie
I am Albert J. Savoie, when I was twenty-three
I never thought I’d have a ship named after me
Hornby back in ’29 sure was different then
Sit down in this parlour now as I remember when
’T’would please me well if you had an ear to lend
And look upon these photographs all weathered, black and white
To me they’re living colour, to me they are my life
For though I am an old man now and it’s all just history
I pray my spirit lives on and you’ll remember me
I am Albert J Savoie, hope you’ll remember me
She was named the Water Lily, first ship I ever made
I’d ferry people and produce, Pick up sacks of feed
This kept up though the 30s, Held on through the war
Then the call came for a ferry boat so cars could come ashore
Things changed, forever more
I took a gamble, the biggest I’d ever known
I mortgaged every thing I had and built one on my own
With the hope that the government would give a subsidy
Well there I am upon the bridge of my new two-car ferry
The 60s brought more changes with tourists from afar
I built the Lorraine S, she held six cars
Demand kept on growing, by 1971
I had to give my notice that I’d no longer run
My ferry-boat days were done
So what makes a man work his fingers to the bone
And get so little recompense each day when he goes home?
I’ll tell you what it is, it’s pride in what you do
And it’s knowing that you’ve done your best when your life is through
To your own self, you’ve been true
Additional verse after second chorus:
Every morning at seven o’clock my brother and I did drive
Down to the ferry slip and the Hornby Island V
I was captain, Leo was deckhand
We got to know who came and went to the island
Every woman, child and man