100th anniversary of legendary fishing schooner Bluenose

By Valerie Casbourn

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first racing victories of the Bluenose, the legendary fishing schooner from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The Bluenose was launched in March 1921 and triumphed in the International Fishermen’s Cup Race the following October. Winning the trophy, it sailed into the hearts and minds of those in Nova Scotia and beyond. The remarkable schooner quickly became a well-known Canadian icon.

The inaugural International Fishermen’s Cup Race was held in the fall of 1920, and the Halifax Herald newspaper donated a trophy for the winner. The race was established for working fishing schooners; vessels had to have fished on the Grand Banks for at least one season to be eligible. Elimination races were held off the coasts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, to select the challenger from each country. The two finalists then competed to win two out of three races for the cup. The American challenger, the Esperanto, won the trophy races in 1920 and sailed home with the prize. In response, a group from Nova Scotia decided to build a new schooner, giving it the long-standing nickname for Nova Scotians, “Bluenosers,” as a name. A local naval architect, William Roué, designed the Bluenose to be both a competitive racer and a practical fishing vessel. The Smith and Rhuland Shipyard in Lunenburg built the schooner. With an enthusiastic crowd looking on, the Bluenose was launched on March 26, 1921.

Black-and-white photograph of the Bluenose at the finishing line of a race.

The schooner Bluenose crossing the finish line, W.R. MacAskill, 1921 (PA-030802)

The Registrar of Shipping in Lunenburg entered the registration for the Bluenose in its ledger on April 15, 1921. Ship registration records include information about ownership, and also the type, dimensions and means of propulsion of vessels. Library and Archives Canada holds archived records from Ports of Registry across Canada, and many older registers are indexed in the Ship Registrations, 1787–1966 database. The Bluenose of Lunenburg, registered in 1921, is one of seven vessels with the same name in the database.

Some older registers are available on digitized microfilm reels, on a partner website, Canadiana Héritage. The Bluenose appears on page 34 in the Lunenburg shipping register for the years 1919 to 1926 (RG42 volume 1612 [old volume 399]), and a digitized copy is available on microfilm reel C-2441. The Bluenose was official number 150404, and the owner of the vessel was the Bluenose Schooner Company Limited of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Copy of the two-page registration entry for the Bluenose in the ledger of the Registrar of Shipping in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

The registration page for the Bluenose from 1921, in the records of the Registrar of Shipping in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (Reel C-2441, image 615; RG42 volume 1612 [old volume 399], page 34)

Captain Angus Walters and the crew of the Bluenose headed to sea and successfully completed their first fishing season. In October 1921, the Bluenose entered the second International Fishermen’s Cup Race. The Annual Report of the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries for 1921–1922 includes a description of the race. After the elimination race to select the Canadian challenger, the Bluenose sailed against the American challenger Elsie in two races and won both. The trophy races were “held off Halifax on Saturday and Monday, October 22 and 24, and enlisted very great interest, visitors being present in large numbers” (Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada, 1923, volume 59, number 6, sessional paper number 29, page 38). The annual report describes the second and final race as follows:

The second race, Monday, October 24, the Elsie again being first to cross the starting line—9.00.32—the Bluenose following at 9.01.52. For nearly three hours the Gloucester schooner had the Bluenose trailing in her wake, but the Lunenburg schooner showed her quality on the homeward stretch and crossed the finish line at 2.21.41, followed ten minutes later by the Elsie.

These races have awakened intense interest and will doubtless result in evolving a type of fishing schooner well adapted for both the salt and fresh fish fisheries.

Black-and-white photograph of sailing vessels at the start of a race.

The start of the elimination race, W.R. MacAskill, 1921 (PA-030801)

The victory of the Bluenose inspired great pride and interest in Nova Scotia, and this quickly spread further afield. The next year, the International Fishermen’s Cup Race took place off Gloucester, Massachusetts. In honour of the race, a delegation from Nova Scotia attended. The Canadian government also sent a representative and the escort HMCS Patriot. Prime Minister Mackenzie King wrote to George Kyte, Member of Parliament for Cape Breton South and Richmond, on September 23, 1922, to confirm that Kyte would represent the Canadian government at the forthcoming schooner race. The Privy Council passed an Order-in-Council to that effect (PC 1922-1937).

One-page copy of Order-in-Council PC 1922-1937, dated September 21, 1922.

Copy of PC 1922-1937, the Order-in-Council appointing George Kyte, Member of Parliament for Cape Breton South and Richmond, the Canadian government’s representative at the 1922 International Fishermen’s Cup Race (Reel C-2246, image 211; MG26-J1 volume 75, page 64113)

The Bluenose won the trophy again in 1922 and continued to race in the three subsequent International Fishermen’s Cup Races held in 1923, 1931 and 1938. The schooner became increasingly famous. In 1928, the Post Office Department began to depict Canadian scenes on regular issue stamps. The Bluenose was one of the first subjects chosen for a scenic stamp, representing the fisheries, shipbuilding and seamanship of Nova Scotia. Less than a decade after the launch of the schooner, the Post Office Department issued the Bluenose 50-cent stamp on January 6, 1929. The stamp has a composite design that shows the Bluenose racing off Halifax Harbour, based on photographs by Wallace R. MacAskill.

Canada Post 50-cent stamp with an engraving showing two images of the schooner from different angles.

Bluenose, 50-cent postage stamp, date of issue January 6, 1929, copyright Canada Post Corporation (s000218k)

The Bluenose continued to be a working schooner, fishing on the banks of the North Atlantic. The crew set a record for the largest catch of fish brought into Lunenburg. Additionally, the vessel and crew represented Nova Scotia and Canada internationally. The Bluenose sailed to Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair and to England for King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935.

As time went on, circumstances changed, and the schooner was sold in 1942. Sadly, the original Bluenose was lost in 1946 after striking a reef off Haiti and sinking. However, the “Queen of the North Atlantic” is remembered fondly and commemorated in a variety of ways. For instance, Captain Angus Walters and naval architect William J. Roué are each featured on their own commemorative stamps, issued in 1988 and 1998 respectively. The schooner first appeared on the Canadian dime in 1937, and it is featured in a song by Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers. The Bluenose II, a replica of the original vessel, continues to sail from the port of Lunenburg as an ambassador for the province.

Related resources

Nova Scotia Archives virtual exhibit: Bluenose: A Canadian Icon

Canadian Museum of History: Items in the William James Roué collection


Valerie Casbourn is an archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Halifax office of Library and Archives Canada.

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