Painting Depicting the Meeting in the Northwest Passage of the RMS Nascopie and the HBC Aklavik by the Artist Thomas Harold Beament

by John M. MacFarlane 2013

Aklavik Nascopie

The Thomas Harold Beament painting of the historic meeting of the HBC schooner Aklavik with the RMS Nascopie at Fort Ross, Northwest Territories. (Image from the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.))

There is a wonderful painting in the art collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia which depicts the historic meeting of the HBC schooner Aklavik with the RMS Nascopie at Fort Ross, Northwest Territories. In 1937 the Nascopie sailed from the Eastern Arctic to Prince Regent Inlet and into the Bellot Strait to allow the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish Fort Ross. While there she was met by the HBC schooner Aklavik which had sailed into Bellot Strait from the Western Arctic.

The Hudson's Bay Company commissioned Canadian artist Thomas Harold Beament (1898-1985) to paint a picture depicting the meeting of the two vessels. Beament was a prominent Canadian painter who worked extensively in the Arctic. Frequently he, along Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson (of Group of Seven fame), travelled to the Arctic to capture the remote lives of the Inuit peoples on canvas. Beament served in the RCN as a War Artist during the Second World War. His paintings now command superior prices in the Canadian art market.

The painting was apparently one of a collection of paintings commissioned by the HBC depicting important events in the history of the company which were intended to illustrate a company calendar. By the time the paintings were completed the Second World War was looming and the company cancelled the calendar project. Former HBC Chief Factor Jack Wood told me that interest in the use of the Northwest Passage ‘evaporated’ for commercial purposes fell out of favour and internal company politics trumped the publicizing of the event. Apparently the Beament painting itself became an embarrassment to the HBC management of the day (the reason is unclear) and it was relegated to storage behind an office door where it remained for some years. When Jack Wood retired from the HBC the painting was given to him as a gift, (Apparently because no one else in the company wanted it).

In 1992, I met Jack Wood in Victoria BC at his home where he presented the painting to the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. By this time it had a hole accidentally punched in it but was still a magnificent image of an important event in Canadian history. Unfortunately the painting has never been put on display so it continues to remain unknown to the public in spite of its significance to the history of Canada's North.

The RMS Nascopie was designed and built at Wallsend on Tyne by Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson of Newcastle, England and launched on December 7, 1911. She displaced 2521 gross tons with overall dimensions of 285.5 feet x 43.8 feet x 20.2 feet. She was powered by 339nhp triple expansion steam engine. When built the Hudson’s Bay Company owned the majority interest in her and the Job Brothers, a Newfoundland fishing and packing company, owned a minority. In July of 1912 the Nascopie began the first of thirty–four voyages through the Hudson Strait as a supply ship for the Hudson’s Bay Company posts in the Arctic. She was granted the designation RMS (Royal Mail Ship) in 1935 when contracted to carry a postmaster and was officially considered a travelling post office.

Her principal Master was Captain R. Smellie OBE, who was famous for his skill in Arctic navigation. The Nascopie was originally registered in London but was later moved to Montreal. She was an essential carrier for the RCMP and for several Federal government agencies. In 1933-1947 she executed the Eastern Arctic Patrol. On a voyage in 1947 she struck a reef near Cape Dorset (Baffin Island) and sank.

The Aklavik was built in Vancouver in 1923 and transported overland to Fort McMurray Alberta. She was floated down to Fort Fitzgerald where she was hauled out for portage to Fort Smith NWT where the engine was to be installed. It was a gruelling process that optimistically proposed a mule team to move her. Mickey Ryan, who later became the Traffic Manager of HBC’s Mackenzie River Transport section in the 1930s and also a major speculator/investor in northern gold exploration, attempted it – cracking whips – but the mules could not move her. A winch with multiple blocks nested inside each other was used but progress was very slow. In fact, too slow. The HBC’s rivals, the Alberta and Arctic Transport Company a subsidiary of Lamson and Hubbard, was hired to complete the portage. The firm used two big tractors to pull Aklavik through at cost of $1000 per day. Reportedly the HBC was "mad as hell that the mules couldn’t do it". By 1924 the HBC had taken over their competitor and all it’s assets – presumably including the two big tractors!


The Aklavik being towed by the Lamson Hubbard tractors at the portage on her way to the Arctic Ocean. (The figure on the deck of the Aklavik may be Scotty Gall.) (Image courtesy of the Brabant collection.)

Going down the bank was easier – jacked down skids. Shear legs allowed them to lower the engine in for installation at Fort Smith. It was an old Wolverine from a tug back east equipped with igniters instead of spark plugs. It was started with gasoline and after it got going it was switched to cheaper distillate as fuel.

Scotty Gall served as Second Engineer in the HBC vessel Aklavik on the voyage from Fort Smith to the Arctic Ocean in 1923. He was a long-time employee for the HBC and worked in many capacities over his 20+ year career. He crewed and skippered a number of HBC freight vessels, drove dogsleds, managed mails and finished his time in the Arctic as the post Factor at Cambridge Bay from 1939 until 1948.

In 1923 when Scotty Gall was first on the vessel it was empty – there was literally nothing inside except the engine – no finishings of any kind. Gall built some furnishings later on and many others contributed over the years. Bunks were built into the fo’c’sle but most of the space was kept for freight. As they went down the river towards the Arctic Ocean they met Pete Norberg who joined the vessel having traversed the mountains at Fort Simpson to catch up to them to take over as her skipper. Aklavik had to transit the Sans Sault Rapids and hit many of the sandbars with her six foot draught. One mast was broken but with the Jolly Boat and two canoes lowered over the side and the Aklavik filled with weight to make her heel over to draw less water she eventually made it through the rapids. Gall recalled that "to a kid just out from Scotland this was high adventure. It seemed as though it couldn’t get any better." Henry Jorn replaced Norberg as skipper and eventually Scotty Gall took over.

With the cessation of exploration by the company Gall returned to seafaring with the HBC in 1930. As a skipper he was earning $150 per month all-found which he considered to be a good rate of pay. The company was interested in extending their influence and in creating commercial sea links in the Northwest Passage. To that end, Aklavik sailed from the west through Bellot Strait in 1937 becoming the first HBC vessel to do so and making a partial Northwest Passage transit in the process. From the Eastern Arctic the RMS Nascopie sailed, transiting Prince Regent Sound to meet the schooner in Bellot Strait at the fledgling Fort Ross. There the Nascopie took on cargo from the Aklavik and demonstrated the commercial viability of the Passage. The Aklavik returned through Bellot Strait after the meeting and returned to the western Arctic. The Hudson’s Bay Company presented Gall with a silver cigar box as a token of esteem and reward that year. At the time he had hoped for something more tangible but in 1991 he considered it as one of his most prized possessions.

Aklavik Nascopie

The prized silver cigarette box that Scotty Gall received from the HBC in recognition of the partial transit of the Northwest Passage. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)

Aklavik Nascopie

Clearly visible on the deck of the Aklavik is Scotty Gall (Master) and Patsy Klengenberg (Mate) and his family. The Aklavik is dwarfed by the RMS Nascopie. The damage to the painting is clearly visible in the area where the bow of the Aklavik is depicted. (Image from MacFarlane collection.)

Vancouver Arctic history researcher George Duddy worked with me to identify the individuals shown in the painting. He says "It is not easy to identify the players on the painting because they are more symbolic than depictive. For example, the three hooded individuals on the bow of the Aklavik might be Donald Ayalik (smallest), his wife and one of his daughters. The person on the fore deck may be Scotty Gall or J.R. Ford, but we could say it was Scotty. Those specifically identified or symbolized would include:

The crew of the HBC schooner Aklavik:

  • -Scotty Gall (Master of the Aklavik he left her to travel in the Nascopie to Halifax;
  • -J.R. Ford left to travel in the Nascopie to an Eastern Arctic Post at Pond Inlet;
  • -Patsy (Patric) Klengenberg and his family (Patsy took over the Aklavik from Scotty and transported a reserve "outfit" to Gjoa Haven along with Chief Trader William ‘Paddy’ Gibson and Apprentice D.G Sturrock);
  • -Ann (nee Eglehik, Patsy’s wife);
  • -Amy (Patsy’s daughter);
  • -Dora Kelly (Patsy’s daughter);
  • -Donald Ayalik (boy hero) Patsy’s adopted son (later severely burned trying to rescue Patsy when the Aklavik burned and exploded at Cambridge Bay);
  • -Tommy Norkow (Eskimo Pilot. He is presumably the one mentioned in a July 28, 1937 memo to Scotty from Learmonth who was to be picked up at King William post);
  • -the sled dogs (the crew had to be prepared to be frozen in – and in fact Patsy and family returned to the area for trapping after his trip to Gjoa Haven)

The crew and passengers of the RMS Nascopie:

  • -Captain T.F. Smellie OBE (Master of the RMS Nascopie);
  • -Ernie Lyall (He stayed on at Fort Ross, and later took the second vessel (the MS Seal) through Bellot Strait in 1938 (not the St Roch), author of ‘Arctic Man’ and later a well know magistrate;
  • -Donald Goodyear (He was going on furlough but stayed on to help the injured Learmonth with the post);
  • -Dr. Mcuen, his wife and niece (they were the first paying female tourists on the Nascopie)
  • -Inuit passengers (They were brought by the Nascopie to help populate (and provide trade) to the Fort Ross area);
  • -Two RCMP officers;
  • -Major D.L. McKeand (The government bureaucrat who went regularly on Eastern Arctic Patrols in the Nascopie)
  • -Richard Finnie (A well know northern writer and photographer who did an article for the Beaver magazine);
  • -The Nascopie’s Chief Engineer Thomas;
  • -R.K. (Andy) Carnegie (Historian and Canadian Press reporter);
  • -Lindsay Hoben (Reporter and later editor from the Milwaukee Journal);
  • -Edwin W Mills (Businessman and tourist who documented the founding of Fort Ross by film, still photo and journal).

In 2004 the Hudson’s Bay Company commissioned model maker Bill Ballenger to build a detailed model of the Nascopie which is now on display in an HBC Gallery in Montreal QC, the city of her former home port.

Captain T.F. Smellie spent his working life afloat. He was the Master of the Crosby for the Furness Line when the ship was taken over by the Hudson's Bay Company as the Baycross. He then entered HBC service and remained with them until retirement. In World War One the HBC controlled a great deal of merchant shipping and he was Master also of the Bayverdun. In 1917 he was Master of the Nascopie. He was the Master of the Bayrupert when she sank off the coast of Labrador after being impaled on a pinnacle of rock near the Farmyard Islands. After that event he was again the master of the HBC ship Nascopie in the Eastern Arctic Patrol. He made a brief project of attempting to find a route into the Mackenzie River Delta for shipping after the loss of the Lady Kindersley and the Baychimo. He was retired as the Master of the Nascopie when she sank in the Arctic in 1947. He retired from HBC service at the end of World War Two.

Thanks to Patricia Owen and Simon Robinson at the Vancouver Maritime Museum and to Tatiana Robinson at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia for their generous assistance and persistence in confirming background for the preparation of this article.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2013) Painting Depicting the Meeting in the Northwest Passage of the RMS Nascopie and the HBC Aklavik by the Artist Thomas Harold Beament. 2013.

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