A photo of the Delta King taken by Ron Whyte.

A photo of the Delta King taken by Ron Whyte.

Kitimat’s Delta King, a ship with history

It's Our Heritage columnist Walter Thorne looks to to the past of Kitimat's iconic paddle wheeler.

Kitimat’s iconic Delta King is a ship with a story to tell.  Even though it rested on our shores for a scant seven years, it was present for some of the most important days of our history.

The Delta King, a 285 foot (87 meter) vessel, was parked on shore at Hospital Beach for the better part of the 1950s, right through the start-up of the Alcan/Kemano project.

The Delta King arrived here on May 8, 1952 after a three week journey, under tow from San Francisco.  The 30 year old veteran riverboat had been stripped of its paddlewheel and steam engine.  After purchase by Kitimat Contractors, it was modified for maximum accommodation.  Although it was built for 400, it never housed more than 250 souls.  The ship’s boiler and generator supplied heat and power to the ship.  At the time of the ship’s arrival in 1952, the Kitimat project was well into year two of construction

The ship was floated in at high tide, into a man-made trench, and as the tide receded, it was cut off from the sea with rock and gravel.  It remained land-locked for its entire service in Kitimat.

Its location was prime, at the centre of action where a whole new community grew up.  Close to the airplane ramp, lumbering amphibious Grumman-Goose transports like, Pacific Western Airway’s Kitimat Prince would deliver more workers and  also, close by at the dock, passengers would disembark from ships like the Princess Norah.  The hospital, Smeltersite School, the Post Office, the bank, the Hudson Bay Store and more, were all within walking distance.

More than 10,000 people worked on the Alcan Project.  At any one time, the valley’s three other camps, had to house 5,000 workers.  The Delta King only got a small percentage of the lodgers.

Life aboard the Delta King with its grand staircase, wood carving, and classy appearance must have been a step up from other dormitory situations.  In one of its 1956 editions, National Geographic Magazine featured Kitimat and included a picture of a bachelor’s cabin life on the Delta King.  Unfortunately, summers at Hospital Beach could be deadly with their wicked doses of horseflies.   The channel views from the many balconies were certainly a bonus though. By 1959, Kitimat was largely complete, and there was no longer a role for the Delta King, so it was no surprise when Alcan sold the old ship and it was towed back down the channel.  Many people were nostalgic with its departure on that dreary April morning.  It certainly was a boat that left its mark on our corner of the northwest.

Interestingly, at 90, the Delta King lives on.  It is currently parked on the riverfront in Sacramento, California.  After recent renovations, it houses a theatre, two restaurants, and a hotel.

The old ship has lived a colourful life.  It and its sister ship the Delta Queen were built at the Clyde shipyards in Glasgow in 1922 then shipped to San Francisco, where their pieces were welded into place. In the course of nine decades, the Delta King saw service on the Sacramento River in California and the Hudson River in New York.  During WWII, it was requisitioned by the navy for troop transport around the Bay area.  The boat endured a sinking on April 3, 1981.  Fortunately, most of the bow end carving and original woodwork, survived without damage.  The Delta King was also featured in the movies; in the 1960 filming of Huck Finn.  In 1978 our ship the Delta King was added to the U.S.A.’s list of Historic Places.

The Delta King remains special in the memories of many Kitimat pioneers.  Its name lives on in Kitimat’s assisted living facility, the Delta King Place. Some residents of that facility have fond memories of our iconic paddle-wheeler.

– Walter Thorne is the Kitimat Northern Sentinel’s It’s Our Heritage columnist

(This article originally appeared in the October 10, 2012 Northern Sentinel.)

See today’s story on Kitimat’s newest sea-based accommodation for workers.