The Port Renfrew Hotel Incident

Port Renfrew Hotel

A popular watering hole for decades in the remote town of Port Renfrew on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo from MacFarlane collection.

The life of a tug boater is not completely focused on the work at sea. There is sometimes a lighter side. Captain George Alexander MacFarlane was a great prankster. He once put a Black Bear cub in the bunk with his brother Arthur to liven up life in their tugboat. He was the Master of the tug boat J.W.P. that worked on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island in the 1930s. He was an Irishman and member of a trio of brothers each of whom was a well-known character on the waterfront.

Port Renfrew is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, approximately 2 hours’ drive west of Victoria, British Columbia. It is now the western terminus of the famous Juan de Fuca Trail and the West Coast Lifesaving Trail. Originally named Port San Juan, the settlers changed the name to honor Lord Renfrew who planned to settle crofters there. The name was changed due to mail being sent to the San Juan Islands instead of Port San Juan. The drive starts in Sooke BC near Victoria and makes a nice day outing.

At the time of the Port Renfrew Hotel incident it was an important place for loggers and mariners to socialize and drink. Men who almost never got into ‘civilization’ could receive mail and pay cheques there. The Hotel was able to cash the cheques which was an additional attraction. The Hotel was originally a bunkhouse for loggers and in 1927 the main portion of the Hotel was barged–in from Neah Bay Washington to Port Renfrew. The cafe burned down in 2003.


The J.W.P. sported a shamrock on the funnel to signify the Irish origins of the three MacFarlane brothers (Fred, Arthur and George). Photo from MacFarlane collection.

Captain James E. "Teddy" Wilson, in his book Full Line, Full Away: A Towboat Master's Story published by Cordillera Publishing Co. tells of a prank which got out of hand while he served as a deckhand in the J.W.P. under Captain George Alexander MacFarlane. (Over the years the story has become part of the folklore of the west coast of Vancouver Island.)

"One story leads to another and reminds me of the time we were laying at Port Renfrew when I was still a deckhand in the J.W.P., waiting for logs. It was a Sunday and the B.C. Provincial Police were enforcing new liquor laws which closed the pubs on Sundays. This was quite a blow to tow boat men who usually enjoyed a few beers while they were killing time. The first time we were in there after the new laws came into being, the Chief Engineer and others made their way up to the pub located at the head of the dock and became pretty annoyed when they were told that the pub was not going to open any more on Sundays. They had had some booze on the boat so were already somewhat tanked up."

"The next I knew was when I was ordered by the Mate to take a line and pennant up to the hotel which I had to place right around the building and secure to our main tow line. The attitude was that if the hotel was not going to open up on Sundays, we might as well get rid of it, by towing it away as it was no use anyway. Just then the police came down and put a stop to the whole farcical proceeding, but I am sure that if it had happened, the weight of our boat plus solid horsepower would have done quite a lot of damage."

"The police were quite rough on the crew and made it very obvious that if there was any further nonsense they could all end up in jail. They passed me over as they could see how young I was, and that I had not been drinking. Quite apart from that, I was following orders. Captain MacFarlane who was off watch and sleeping, was not aware of what had gone on until wakened by the police. Needless to say, the crew consisting of the Mate, the Chief and Assistant Engineer and Cook were really told off. I was pretty scared, but he only had a fatherly talk with me which I took to heart."

Captain James E. "Teddy" Wilson from his book Full Line, Full Away: A Towboat Master's Story published by Cordillera Publishing Co. Vancouver BC ISBN 1-895590-00-0

Port Renfrew Wharf

The public wharf at Port Renfrew B.C. from which the crew of the J.W.P. approached the Hotel with the J.W.P.’s towing line so many years ago. Photo from MacFarlane collection.

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