Capital Iron & Metals Ltd. – From Ship Breakers to Department Store

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

HMCS Coaticook Blows Up

Ron Greene Captured HMCS Coaticook Blowing Up (Photo from Ron Greene collection.)

Capital Iron has been an anchor establishment on Store Street on the Inner Harbour of Victoria BC for years. It’s surplus department started many marine buffs into collecting marine antiques or provided just the right missing part to keep a vessel running. What were the origins of this fascinating aspect of Victoria’s marine heritage? It all started with Morris Greene who was born in New York City in 1900.

Morris Greene

Morris Greene (Photo from Ron Greene collection.)

Greene started out supporting his family selling newspapers in Sidney to the army stationed there during the First World War. After the army moved on to eastern Canada he did some runs on the Princess Alice and the Princess Adelaide on the run to Alaska. After a year he joined a vessel carrying a load of railway equipment from Seattle to Vladivostok via Honolulu. The trip was extremely rough and instead of the expected eight–day passage they were hit by numerous storms so that 29 days later they finally arrived in Honolulu. Fearing that the vessel would not reach its intended destination Greene and a number of the crew went ashore. Finding himself out of work he became employed on a sugarcane plantation staying for several years. This was followed by a year working as a merchant sailor on the freighter through the orient.

Isy Stein

Isy Stein (Photo from Ron Greene collection.)

Morris Greene came to Vancouver BC to join his brother–in–law who was working in the scrap business as Atlas Iron & Metals. He travelled around the city with a wagon or a truck picking up scrap and selling the segregated products to dealers. In those days this was known as ‘peddling’. Later Izzy Stein and Harry B. Wagner went into partnership with him and in 1934 they established Capital Iron & Metals Ltd. in Victoria BC.

Harry Wagner

Harry B. Wagner (Photo from Ron Greene collection.)

Soon after his arrival in Victoria he met Harold Elworthy of the Island Tug and Barge Co. and the two became lifelong friends. In 1934 Elworthy had purchased the Princess Royal to remove some useful fittings for reuse on some of his tugboats. Greene arranged to tow the hulk to Beecher Bay where it was burned and the remaining metal recovered at low tide. That launched him into the ship scrapping business.

Greene and Elworthy collaborated on a number of projects over the years. He proudly claimed that his participation in the creation of the Princess Mary Restaurant was a landmark. Elworthy wanted a coffee shop for his employees. He agreed to buy the after part of the Princess Mary to use for that purpose. Greene severed it from the hull and raised it onto a barge. It was towed to its site on the far side of the Inner Harbour where it remained until very recently. By the time the work was finished on the construction the project proved costly for Elworthy. The coffee shop attracted public attention and soon Elworthy found himself in the restaurant business. The two ladies he originally hired could not cope with the demands of a restaurant so Dusty Miller was hired to run the place and it was carried on by his widow later on. The place was a great success!.

Greene said that the success resulted in him not being able to obtain a lot of passenger vessels to break up. The price of retired passenger ships jumped well beyond scrap value as many entrepreneurs tried, with varying success, to duplicate the ambience and attraction of the Princess Mary in other cities.

In the 1930s they used to break up vessels at the foot of the store which was, in the 1870s, Spratt’s Wharf. This was where the SS Beaver was re-fitted in 1877. The Princess Patricia and the Charmer were worked on there as were all of the smaller vessels. They rented the property in the first years and purchased it at the start of the Second World War.

In 1947 the Consolidated Whaling Corporation Ltd. auctioned off its whaling fleet. Max Lohbrunner purchased the Green for $300 and moved her next to the Johnson Street Bridge in anticipation of the resumption of whaling (which never happened). Greene’s competitors H. Kramer of the Northern Junk Company bought the Brown and the White. Greene purchased the Black, Blue and Gray.

In 1948 he purchased fourteen naval frigates and one minesweeper from the War Assets and Disposal Corporation. He considered this a big gamble and his two partners were not keen on this deal. But he convinced them that this would be a money–making proposition. They opened a second yard for larger vessels at Ogden Point next to the old grain elevator. This was specifically for the warship breaking and did business as Wagner, Stein and Greene.

Efficiency rose to the point where they could completely scrap a vessel in six weeks. Four or five of the stripped hulks were towed up to Kelsey Bay as a breakwater. The hulk of HMCS Matane (K–444) was sent to Oyster Bay where she remained for many years. Others were sent to Powell River to replace ships in the old floating breakwater. The Ogden Point operations were closed down in 1964. By then it was too costly to operate two separate yards. They bought a piece of property from the City of Victoria formerly occupied by Manning Timber and built a wharf there.

Wagner, Stein and Greene did all the ship scrapping and Capital Iron & Metals did all the non–ferrous metal business. The two operations were quite different – the brass and copper would be brought in from Ogden Point and segregated in the yard prior to shipment to refineries. In 1960 Stein died and Harry Wagner retired. Morris Greene bought the interests of his two old partners. The company was renamed as Morris Greene Industries and continued in the scrap business until 1972.

In 1961 one of the old breakwater hulks, that of HMCS Coaticook was rusting through at Powell River. Capital Iron purchased it back and got a hull with very little metal left in it. In the tow to Victoria the hull was damaged in a storm and she started taking water. It was obvious that it was just a matter of time before she would sink in the harbour. Greene convinced the underwriters to let him tow her out into deep water and sink it.

At a deep spot just off Race Rocks Jack Dailey, who was in charge of the operation, put four cases of Forcite into the hull. This was much more than required but he was taking no chances – she would definitely sink on the first attempt. The owners (including Morris’s son Ron Greene) were on the tug about 150 feet from the stern of the Coaticook when the explosion occurred. They were showered with debris and mud from ballast that had been placed in the hull. A huge piece of the vessel flew over the top of the tug. Ron Greene was photographing the detonation and his dramatic pictures were purchased by the Canadian Press and viewed by newspaper readers across Canada.

HMCS Gatineau (ex–HMS Express H–61) was broken up in the early 1950s. She had been one of the escorts for HMS Prince of Wales when she and HMS Repulse were sunk by the Japanese in 1941.

The sailing ship Lord Templeton was stripped down and later converted to a barge. They also worked on the ex–Abby Palmer and ex-Star of England (which capsized in San Francisco Bay in light ballast). The late Karl Kortum of the San Francisco Maritime Museum arranged through the Zellerbach family to acquire artifacts earlier removed by Capital Iron including the skylight, an anchor and a windlass for the Museum.

The San Francisco harbour ferry City of Sacramento was stripped down and the upper decks removed. She was later rebuilt as the Blackball Line passenger ferry Kahloke running from Nanaimo to Vancouver. In 1961 five little tugs were purchased from the Vancouver Tug Boat Company: La Belle, La Force, La Reine, La Rose and the Sea Ferring. Their engines were removed and the hulls sold as live–aboards and for conversion to fish boats. The salvage rights to the wrecked freighters Glafkos and Nereus were purchased from the underwriters. A crew was put aboard to remove as much gear as possible before the ships broke up.

HMCS Stettler and HMCS Jonquiere were purchased in 1967 when the price of scrap plunged. One ship was cut up and the other sat alongside until 1971 when it was again economical to finish the job. These proved to be the last vessels dismantled by the firm.

In dismantling the ships they used an interesting technique. The ships were brought alongside the wharf and the bow was filled with water causing the stern to rise up in the air. The hull was gradually shortened by cutting sections off and pulling them ashore with a crane. Holes were burned into the section prior to cutting so that wire could be attached. The crane would take up the tension and lift. The final piece would be put up onto the ways and cut up into three or four big sections. These were brought back to the yard for final demolition, often at Point Ellice Shipyard or at Yarrows Ltd.

In the early days there was a lot of interest in the re-cycling of used parts in ships. Money was scarce and these parts were viewed as bargains. During the Second World War new parts were almost unobtainable and re–cycling was necessary. After the Second World War collectors started getting interested and money was more available. Passenger ships in which people had sailed were the sentimental favourites. Keys, furniture, wood and other fittings were all of interest to collectors.

The end of the War put a huge amount of war assets that needed disposal. Useful, interesting and sometimes eclectic – there was a lot of material available to the public through dealers such as Capital Iron. While customers were on site they often found that tools they needed had been left behind and to save time they purchased tools from the staff. This initiated a sideline that eventually led to a retail operation in new equipment.

Ron Greene

Ron Greene (Photo from Ron Greene collection.)

"Morris Greene was not one for looking back into the past, he was always looking forward," said son Ron Greene. "It was difficult to get him to talk about the early days." Ron was qualified as a chemical engineer and became very interested in British Columbia history and ships. Over the years both Greenes served on the Board of Trustees of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Ron Greene was Chairman of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia Foundation for several years and has completed a stint as President of the British Columbia Historical Federation. Now he is best known as an international authority on trade tokens and banknotes. He is the author of a book and many journal and magazine articles.

Ron Greene felt that the company was stagnating in 1969 and 1970 and he was trying to re-focus in new directions. Morris Greene was reluctant to change from what had been a lifelong business model. The middle of 1972 was the end of the breaking business and marked the passing of Morris Greene. Ron was tempted to bid on the submarine HMCS Rainbow but passed it up. "Submarines are difficult to scrap. They are different from ships, being designed primarily to sink." Ron Greene sold the company to his three senior managers fourteen years ago. The company continues to serve the greater Victoria region.

To see a list of the vessels dismantled by Capital Iron over the years check out the List of Vessels Dismantled By Capital Iron.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011 updated 2013) Capital Iron & Metals Ltd. – From Ship Breakers to Department Store. 2011.

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