One Family, Three Mission Boats: Dobson Family Connections with United Church Mission Boats

by Ross Dobson 2015

Three Dobsons

Three Generations of the Dobson Family (left to right): Hugh H. Dobson; The Reverend Hugh W. Dobson; and Hugh M. Dobson. (Photo from the Dobson Family collection)

Growing up in Vancouver, I enjoyed hearing about my older brother Hugh’s adventures during the summer of 1957, while he was a deckhand on the United Church Mission boat Melvin Swartout, based in Bamfield on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. More recently during my continuing family history research, I discovered that the association of my family with the mission boats actually began in the 1920s with my grandfather the Reverend Hugh W. Dobson (1879–1956), when he and his family were living in Regina Saskatchewan. At that time, he was teaching "Biology and Human Relations" at Regina College, and the protestant church movement was in the process of amalgamating a number of churches such as the Methodist, Presbyterian and some smaller churches in 1925 to become the United Church of Canada.

Dobson family experiences from the 1920s into the 1950s involved three specific United Church mission boats: the Thomas Crosby III, the Melvin Swartout I, and the well known Meander which was for its mission boat period named as the Melvin Swartout (II). Serving as summer crew members in different eras were my father Hugh M. Dobson, my uncle Dr. Albert Dobson, and my brother Hugh H. Dobson.

In 1926 the Dobson family moved from Regina to Vancouver, when the Reverend Hugh Wesley Dobson became the Minister at West Point Grey United Church for the next 25 years. His talented family of 3 boys and 2 girls excelled at school and grew up to become teachers, nurses, missionaries, ministers, medical doctors, and draughtsmen. Before they moved to Vancouver however, the Reverend Hugh W.Dobson had arranged within the United Church program for his oldest son (Hugh M. Dobson) to take a summer job as a crewman on one of the B.C. Marine Mission boats during the summer of 1925.

Hugh M. Dobson (1909–1995)

In 1925 and 1926, my father Hugh Montross Dobson (1909–1995) at the age of 16 to 17 years old spent his summers on the United Church mission boat Thomas Crosby III on the northwest British Columbia coast.

Thomas Crosby III

Thomas Crosby III (Photo courtesy of United Church Archives, Toronto. (93.049P/543), [Thomas Crosby III], [19––].)

(Hugh M. Dobson in his own words):

"The summers of 1925 and 1926 I spent on the Thomas Crosby III out of Prince Rupert. The crew were myself, Captain Oliver, Bob and Mrs. Scott, and Archie Scott (Bob’s brother). We travelled into the canneries of the Skeena Slough as far as Essington and Balmoral, north to Port Simpson BC (now also called Lax Kw’alaams) and Hidden Inlet in SE Alaska. The second year (1926) we went over to the Queen Charlotte Islands (since 2009, officially called Haida Gwaii) and visited the Oliver home at Sandspit (now airport) where the Thomas Crosby I and Thomas Crosby II were built by Captain Oliver. Mrs. Oliver was a Haida Indian (Author’s note: her name was Agnes, from Port Simpson). Attended a Haida wedding at Skidegate Village. Beached the boat (Thomas Crosby III) on a sandy beach opposite Alford (Ed. note – Alliford Bay) and helped paint the bottom with copper paint. Visited Queen Charlotte City where the Scotts moved into a house as a centre for the mission."

It is believed that Hugh suffered from seasickness quite often, as he has mentioned that fact when he was on another summer job involving sea travel, as an Able Seaman on the Canadian National ship Prince John he was seasick 5 or more times and only lasted for two trips and two weeks at sea; Vancouver to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and Vancouver to Prince Rupert. He was 18 at the time, and refers to himself as an ‘Unable Seaman’.

In the book "My Captain Oliver" by Robert Scott (1947) there is a reference to Hugh;

"That night, our first in the islands, we got a good idea of Sandspit when used for an anchorage in westerly or northerly winds. Poor Hughie was so seasick. that he had to go ashore first thing in the morning. We made up a lunch for him and he stayed ashore all day. In the evening we had quite a job to get off the beach to the Crosby without the row–boat being capsized."

Another reference to Hugh in this book was about a work experience on Dundas Island, north of Prince Rupert, where the crew of the Thomas Crosby III were the ‘workers’ building a fisherman’s bathhouse under the direction of Captain Oliver.

"That summer we had with us on the Crosby the son of one of the general officers of our Church. He also worked on the building. One day he was trying to set a rafter and to drive a nail into the brace to hold it there while standing on one of the plates with one leg twisted around the rafter. He did not know how to hold the head of the nail against the side of his hammer and stick it into the brace while trying to hang on with both hands and one leg. He had the nail in his mouth, but how to get set so that he could get it into the brace he did not know. Meantime, while I wondered if he would fall, Captain Oliver was calling to him from the floor, "Put a nail in it, Hughie, put a nail in it." However, he finally got it nailed."

Associated family keepsakes from these summer jobs of Hugh M. Dobson include a small argillite totem pole carving approximately 6" high; was from the Haida Skidegate village or Sandspit, summer of 1926. Argillite is a valuable soft black slate stone used locally for carving small items. Also kept as a memento was a baleen (plankton filter) section from a large baleen whale. This souvenir was obtained by Hugh when the Thomas Crosby III visited some of the whaling stations which existed at the time (in 1926), such as at Rose Harbour in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Dr. Albert Dobson (1915–2008)

Dr. Albert Dobson

Dr. Albert Dobson (Photo from the Dobson Family collection.)

A second Dobson family connection is that my uncle Dr. Albert Dobson (Hugh M. Dobson’s younger brother) served in the Melvin Swartout (I) as a senior medical student in the summers of 1939 and 1940. In 1939 he was in his third year of medical school at the University of Alberta(Edmonton).

Melvin Swartout I

Melvin Swartout I (Photo courtesy of United Church Archives, Toronto. 86.229P/5–178 Melvin Swartout I, ca.1932])

The United Church had a medical marine mission program led by Dr. George Darby at the time, and based out of Bella Bella (also known as Waglisla). As a young medical student, this was a life–forming experience for Albert, as he was faced with a wide range of situations from surgery to tooth pulling in remote locations, and often had to work and improvise with limited equipment and supplies. In his second summer at Bella Bella, after his graduation with a medical degree, he was the assistant in charge of the R.W. Large Memorial Hospital.

Hugh H.Dobson (1940–living)

In 1957 Hugh H. Dobson (my brother) was also associated with this west coast church mission boat program; he was a crew member on the United Church mission boat Melvin Swartout, leaving Port Alberni about July 1957. He was 17 years old at the time, and the mission boat primarily visited the lighthouses, logging and fishing camps and Native communities and families scattered along the west coast of Vancouver Island, such as in Barkley Sound, Bamfield, Cape Beale, Pachena Point, Carmanah Point, Ucluelet, Friendly Cove (now called Yuquot and a National Historic Site), Gold River, Kyuquot, etc.


The Meander in False Creek, Vancouver BC (formerly the mission boat Melvin Swartout) (Photo from the Nauticapedia Collection)

The skipper at the time (1957) was the Reverend William (Bill) L. Howie, and the ship was based in Bamfield BC, in Barkley Sound ... Hugh remembers that the lighthouse keepers and their families were generally happy to see them arrive with news, mail etc, however many of the Native communities and gatherings were quite passive or non–responsive, especially to the Christian Gospel ‘promotion’ attempts. In hindsight these missions over the decades had some serious negative impacts due to the Canadian governments’ and churches’ cultural assimilation policies such as the residential school systems for native children. Important native traditions such as potlatch etc. were actively discouraged by the missionaries and the Canadian government as official policy of that time.

Melvin Swartout II

Melvin Swartout II (Photo courtesy of United Church Archives, Toronto. 93.049P/566, (Melvin Swartout (II)))

Over this three decade period of United Church Mission boat history, involving our Dobson family members experiences over three generations and three different mission ships, each young person carried these rich experiences and values into their adult lives and careers.

Editor’s After Thought: The Reverend William (Bill) L. Howie mentioned near the end of the article was trained in the University Naval Training Division (UNTD) and was appointed as a Naval Cadet (UNTD) RCN(R) (With seniority dated 15/01/1950). He served in HMCS Chippawa for UNTD 1949–1951. He was appointed as a Sub–Lieutenant RCN(R) (With seniority dated 01/09/1952). (He was released 1953.) After theological training at United College of the University of Winnipeg he was called to the United Church Marine Mission at Bamfield BC. That put him at the helm of the mission ship Melvin Swartout, calling at towns and villages up and down the west coast of Vancouver Island and the coast of British Columbia. After his naval service he went back to work with the United Church as a Presbytery Officer serving its Vancouver Island region. On 24/01/1959 he joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a Chaplain and eventually retired as a Chaplain Lieutenant-Commander. He died at Victoria BC on 31/10/2011.

To quote from this article please cite:

Dobson, Ross B. (2015) One Family, Three Mission Boats: Dobson family connections with United Church Mission Boats 2015.

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