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Our Past: Victoria Machinery Depot showed off Island's manufacturing prowess

Today marks the start of a new weekly feature that looks back at the last 150 years.

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We celebrate our 150th anniversary in 2008 with a series of features that reflect the history of the Times Colonist. Our Past will appear every week in Monitor.

It was a masterpiece of Vancouver Island know-how, a triumph that ended an era. It was called SEDCO 135-F. It was an offshore oil rig, the largest semi-submersible in the world, and it came to life at the old Victoria Machinery Depot yards at Ogden Point in 1966 and 1967.

The $10-million project dominated Victoria's skyline for months.

And when the work was finished -- when the rig was towed out to the west coast of the Island, ready to search for oil -- the company's order book was empty, so it closed its shipyard.

For the next couple of decades, Victoria Machinery Depot concentrated on manufacturing specialty equipment such as high-pressure vessels for the energy industry.

Eventually, however, time ran out, and Victoria's oldest factory closed its doors for good in 1994.

It was a sad end to an industry that had been part of the city for more than a century -- an industry that built some of the vessels we still use today.

When Victoria Machinery Depot was in full operation, there was no need to look offshore for a shipbuilder, no need for ferries to come from somewhere else.

Financial woes brought the company down, but they were nothing new to Victoria Machinery Depot. A check of back issues of the Daily Colonist reveals that its early years were shaky, too.

VMD traced its roots back to 1863, when Joseph Spratt founded Albion Iron Works at the north end of downtown, although history is rarely as simple as that. There were many twists and turns in the story of Victoria Machinery Depot.

Spratt set up Albion in a building on two lots that he bought at Chatham and Discovery streets in October 1862. The following year, Spratt took a partner, Johann Kriemler, and the company became known as Spratt and Kriemler.

Spratt had been educated in Belgium, and before coming to Victoria he ran a foundry in San Francisco that, it was said, manufactured the first locomotive built on the West Coast. Kriemler was a German who came to Victoria in 1862.

Within three years, Spratt and Kriemler ran into money trouble. As the creditors closed in, legendary steamship captain William Irving bought the company and hired Spratt to run it. The name Albion, which had never really disappeared, was restored.

Shut out of the company, Kriemler retreated to his farm in the Strawberry Vale district of Saanich. In 1880 he left for Guatemala where he made a small fortune as a coffee dealer before heading home to Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany, where he died in 1889.

Spratt soon became Irving's partner, then regained full control of the business when the Spratt and Irving partnership was dissolved in 1872. Spratt expanded it as rapidly as possible, and soon his factory was producing everything from railway cars to marine engines and other industrial machinery.

By 1875 60 men were working at Albion, and the payroll was $1,000 a week. The company built a slipway near the east side of the Point Ellice Bridge so it could work on boats. In 1878 it started producing stoves; Spratt vowed Victorians would no longer need to import them.

A story on Albion in an 1881 edition of the Colonist reported that the main Albion complex covered an entire block on Store Street at Discovery. The complex was made up of several buildings, including a three-storey brick one at the corner of Discovery and Store.

Spratt told the reporter he had arrived in Victoria from San Francisco without a rag on his back, and now he had nothing but rags on it.

In late 1882 Spratt sold his company to a group of local businessmen. Albion became a public company with a board of directors that included some of the leading lights of the city's business community, including Robert Dunsmuir, Robert Paterson Rithet, Joseph Trutch and John Irving, the seafaring son of William Irving, who had saved the company when it was on the brink of failure in 1866.

After leaving Albion, Spratt devoted his energy to his latest idea, a floating fish cannery. This creation -- known locally as Spratt's Ark -- did not go well, but he still had a small fleet of steamers to keep himself busy.

In 1887 he returned to the iron works business, going into partnership with Andrew Gray, who had been a manager at Albion. The new firm was officially Spratt and Gray, but operated under the name Victoria Machinery Depot. It bought waterfront land on Work Street -- today, part of Bay Street -- on the north side of Rock Bay.

Joseph Spratt threw himself into the work, helping to erect the buildings and get the business started. He suffered a severe cold while working outside during inclement weather, and that triggered other health problems. He tried vacationing in places such as Harrison Hot Springs and Banff, and finally decided, in the fall of 1887, to visit California to try to get better.

It didn't work. Spratt died in San Jose, Calif., in Jan. 12, 1888. He was just 54. His body was returned to Victoria and buried in Ross Bay Cemetery.

Spratt's son, Charles John Vancouver Spratt, was only 14 when Joseph died, too young to become a full partner in the business.

While Spratt and Gray had controlled the company, there were several other shareholders, including Andrew John Bechtel.

In 1889, Alexander K. Munro bought into the company. Munro was a member of a pioneer family, and was a brother-in-law to both Capt. John Irving and R.P. Rithet, two of the principals of Albion. Munro, a former bank teller, stayed with Victoria Machinery Depot for about 10 years, before heading off to pursue other business interests.

Munro's involvement gave Charles Spratt the time he needed to grow up. He started working with Gray, who was 20 years his senior. Gray had the experience, while Charles Spratt had the genes.

Before long, Gray left the partnership. He set up his own company, Marine Iron Works. Charles Spratt found himself in control of Victoria Machinery Depot.

Henderson's Directory for 1900-1901 provides a quick summary of the companies related to this story.

n Victoria Machinery Depot, run by Charles Spratt, on the water side of Work Street -- or Bay, as we know it today -- between Pleasant and Turner.

n Albion Iron Works, on Chatham Street at Store Street, run by Bagster Roads Seabrook.

n The stove department of Albion Iron Works on Pembroke Street, between Government and Douglas, with Thomas Edward Wood in charge.

n Marine Iron Works, run by Andrew Gray, on Pembroke between Government and Store.

n Skeena River Mining in the Williams building on Broad Street, with Alexander K. Munro as its secretary-treasurer.

Many Albion employees moved over to Victoria Machinery Depot, which was producing pre-fabricated steamers for use in the Yukon gold rush. The vessels were assembled in the North, using components and plans provided by VMD.

The company also built steamers for service between Victoria and the mainland.

By the start of the First World War, VMD was ready to accept orders for munitions and other war materiel.

Through a related company, Harbour Marine Works, Spratt built two 5,400-ton steel ships, the Canadian Winner and the Canadian Traveller, in 1920 and 1921.

Spratt's health started to decline about that time, and his wife, Marguerite Ethel Spratt, took charge. She was certainly a rarity at the time; not many heavy industries had a woman as president. She was listed in old directories as "M.E. Spratt." She was a hands-on boss for a quarter of a century, and guided the company through the rough Depression years, when staff was reduced to a bare minimum. Employees worked two weeks, then took two unpaid weeks off to help VMD survive.

Things picked up with the start of the Second World War. The first wartime contract, for five corvettes needed for the Atlantic, was awarded in 1940.

The Bay Street site was expanded to accommodate the work, but another contract -- for nine freighters of 10,000 tons apiece -- meant even more space was needed. As a result, the company bought the Rithet piers at the Outer Wharf, as well as 27 adjacent acres, in 1941.

In the early summer of 1946, Marguerite Spratt's own health started to fail. She died that July.

In her will, Spratt left some of her shares of Victoria Machinery Depot to business associates. In 1947, her estate sold the remaining shares, enough to carry control of the company, to Harold Husband for $185,000.

Husband had been born in Troy, N.Y., but grew up in Montreal. He came to Victoria as a young man and in 1928 started working for J.S.H. (Sam) Matson organizing and buying bus lines on Vancouver Island.

The company, Vancouver Island Coach Lines, was sold to Canadian Pacific in 1929, and Husband stayed on as general manager. He bought the bus business from CP in 1955, and named himself president.

Husband was a busy man. He also served as managing director of the Daily Colonist from 1944 to 1947. He was a director of Canadian Press during those years as well.

He also was a director of CJVI Radio, owned by the Colonist at the time, and was involved in freight and ferry businesses on the side.

During the war, Husband was one of the famed dollar-a-year men, working for the federal government as director of motor transport for the Royal Canadian Navy on the Pacific coast.

After he bought Victoria Machinery Depot he spent 34 years in charge, and drove the company to new heights. He expanded in in several directions because he believed diversification was the key to survival. He boasted that his company could produce everything from water mains to warships.

With Husband in charge, VMD built 11 of the first 14 B.C. Ferries vessels, including the very first, the MV Sidney in 1960. It was renamed Queen of Sidney three years later. At one point, the shipyard had two ferries under construction at the same time at Ogden Point. The workforce reached 1,000 people.

Victoria Machinery Depot was key to the early success of B.C. Ferries, which had created a new service from scratch. After the MV Sidney had been in service for a year, the ferry corporation decided to add to its restaurant space.

The ferry was returned to Ogden Point, where a VMD crane lifted a prefabricated unit into place on the ferry's deck.

In 1963, VMD celebrated its centennial -- based on the year when Joseph Spratt had established Albion.

It continued to work on ferries, and also did extensive refit and conversion work on Canadian naval vessels.

In the spring of 1967, VMD completed SEDCO 135-F -- at the time, the world's largest offshore oil drilling platform.

By that time, the rush of ferry construction had come to an end. With no new shipbuilding contracts, the company pulled back, closing its shipyard at Ogden Point in 1967.

It concentrated on becoming a major supplier for Alberta's oil and gas industries from its base, a heavy engineering factory next to Point Ellice Bridge.

Husband sold the company in 1981. The new owner sold it again in 1984. By 1985 it was in receivership.

In 1986, the company had a new start when 23 employees pooled their resources and assumed control for about $1.5 million.

The new incarnation didn't last. By May 1994 it was closed, this time for good. The following spring, the factory was demolished, and Victoria's oldest industry faded into history.

Harold Husband died in 1997.

While the company is gone, some of its work is still with us. Think of five proud members of the B.C. Ferries fleet -- namely, the queens of Burnaby, Nanaimo, Saanich, Esquimalt and New Westminster -- that are still in service.

All five were created by Victoria Machinery Depot at Ogden Point.

Photo gallery: building the SEDCO oil rig, building ferries