Meet the historian devoted to the Samson V

Historian Mark MacKenzie, caretaker of the Samson V museum.
Historian Mark MacKenzie, caretaker of the Samson V museum.

Many afternoons or weekends over the past 12 years living on the Quay, I have seen amazement on the faces of children and elderly people pointing out on the river as they share tales of the past with a very knowledgeable person at one very special point on the waterfront. The place is the Samson V and the person is Mark MacKenzie, the smart man who devotes himself to the care of this wonderful ship.

I recently spent several afternoons on board the Samson V with Mark  to learn more about the fire that threatened the ship back in 1955. As Mark and I walked around on board, he proudly shared the evolving history and duties of the Samsons that have paddled on the Fraser for 130 years. Some of the equipment on board has lasted for many decades. Equipment visible in pictures of earlier Sampsons is out on the deck of the Samson V today. As he worked to clean the deck, Mark often pointed to cast or forged iron pieces that were built for earlier Samsons. He explained to me how the Samson pulled logs that drifted down the Fraser during spring thaws  from the sand on the banks to protect fishboats or tugs. The Samson V was used to dredge the Fraser for large ships crossing the Pacific to and from the wood mills and for importing and exporting goods from the Pacific Coast Terminals (where the Quay is now). Earlier Samsons helped launch many ships over the years from Star Shipyards in Queensborough as well as large First World War ships from Poplar Island in 1917.

Inside we climbed down around the boiler. Mark showed me the first growth cedar frame within the hull with the creosote-treated oversized beams that were fitted first before being treated to ensure a perfect and strong fit. He shared stories from former crew members and families about how different parts were improved, damaged and repaired over the years. He showed me the Samson V’s event logs and spoke of them with a working knowledge like no one else alive today.

Mark and I sat down on the top deck to chat about the fire in 1955 that caused great damage to the ship. The fire department purposely submerged the Samson in the Fraser to stop the fire. Mark explained to me all of the work that went into repairing the superstructure of the Samson, replacing the boiler and some of the hull and frame as well. He explained the long and drawn-out process to get the Samson working again. Later, I went to the New Westminster Museum & Archives and saw the huge expenses of well over $50,000 to repair the Samson so that she could proudly continue her work on the Fraser for another 20 years until 1980. As we walked and climbed around the ship, Mark pointed out many examples of the work done to restore the Samson. There are portions of the ship that have survived for almost 75 years and others that were made for earlier vessels years before that.

I always enjoy asking questions of Mark that I know will get him smiling. He loves to speak of the captains and crew who worked on Samsons and the great evolution of the ships over 100 working years. Mark shares pictures, documents and stories with me with an expertise like no one alive today. There is a great pride in his voice as Mark speaks of how he is able to help work and preserve the last floating example of a steam powered snag boat paddlewheeler in Canada and how she serves as one of the only surviving examples of the fleet of Public Works vessels that served so important a role on the Fraser River and on the West Coast of Canada.

I’ve never met anyone with the pride, knowledge and hope for the future that Mark shows for the Samsons. There’s only one thing that Mark Mackenzie does not speak of, but to me is just as important. That one thing is the honor that Mark should feel for being the most knowledgeable expert on the working ships of the Fraser and the work they’ve done for so long. I am proud to be able to know him and learn from him in my regular visits to the Samson V. I so very much hope that people around the city and on the river recognize this unique expert knowledge and continue to allow Mark to share it like he has done for so long and so does so well every day with so many people.

Thinking on the Mighty Samson

New Westminster, the oldest city in western Canada, has much to offer the history buff. Yet our overstuffed museums struggle along piecemeal, cramming 150 years into nooks and crannies around the city. It does not do justice to the stories this city has to share. The New Westminster Museum is an artifact in itself yet the vast majority of the collection is not available for casual inspection. The cramped but fantastic Royal Westminster Regimental Museum screams for more space – but it is never open anyway, so no one knows it is there.

samson-vAnd then there is the Samson V. She is a visible icon of our not-too-distant past, a beautiful example of machinery and engineering and a unique attraction for our city. Operated by the Royal Agricultural and Industrial Society of B.C., the Samson V museum ship operates on a shoestring budget and a lot of volunteer love, tied up to pilings next to the boardwalk at the New Westminster Quay. The city recently announced over $200,000 in funding for urgent repairs to the hull of the wooden sternwheeler so she could stay afloat, but should the grizzled old ship really remain bereft on the river, exposed to the elements?

Contrast poor Samson to the St. Roch exhibit in Vancouver. The St. Roch is the centerpiece of a larger museum project. It is the kind of meaningful attraction that has staying power and really adds value to a community. Yet the Vancouver Maritime Museum too is bursting at the seams and in need of a rebuild or a new home.

Imagine the Samson V, the Regimental Museum, the Fraser River Discovery Center and the New Westminster Museum enfolded into one installation, all housed in a single complex attracting regional, national and international visitors. This would be a Museum of Vancouver Maritime MuseumNew Westminster that would be worthy of notice, a place to celebrate the birth of our province and the people who built it.

With the Maritime Museum and the St Roch needing a new Home, a truly meaningful museum complex could be just what New Westminster needs. Haul the Samson V out of the river and give it a home with the St. Roch in a new facility, built between the river and the Columbia Street parkade!

The B.C. Museum in Victoria seems to leave out so much of the mainland story of the beginnings of this province, but a new federal, civic, and provincial joint project could really show it off. New Westminster is the first capitol of this province and its story as a city is at the heart of the history of British Columbia. This is the place to showcase our city, our province and our society. And the Samson V.