Ernie McLeod: A Life from the Collection

By Clare Sully-Stendahl

“Ernie McLeod was born to adventure – to travel – to learning. How many individuals can claim to have travelled much of the world by the time they are twenty? To have viewed other cultures at first hand? To have seen the aftermath of a devastating earthquake? To have spent those years between the ages of twelve, and early-twenties learning the skills of a ship’s officer? To have served on board luxury ocean liners and freighters, and to end sea-faring days aboard a sailing ship?” (Kelsey McLeod, “The Making of a Seaman”)

A few weeks ago I catalogued a framed tintype photo from our collection of a young man in a uniform, wearing a hat that said Empress of Asia. A note associated with the photo told me that it was of Ernest McLeod at the age of 12. I was very excited to learn that our archives include a lengthy biography of “Ernie” written by his wife Kelsey McLeod, herself a remarkable woman who volunteered at the museum in the 80s. Her biography of Ernie was fascinating – and I was especially amazed to read about the fifteen years he spent at sea, from working on a luxury ocean liner at the age of twelve, to sailing on one of the most famous run-runners of the Prohibition.

Ernest McLeod was born in Morecambe, England, on June 7, 1906. When he was very young his family immigrated to Vancouver, and settled into a house at 2nd and Alma in Kitsilano. He and his siblings spent much of their free time exploring the beaches, watching ships coming and going, and trying to catch fish. Ernie attended Bayview school, and during the summers often went aboard the Prince John on its trips to the Queen Charlottes. By the time he was twelve, Ernie was finished at Bayview school – and ready for bigger adventures at sea.

Ernie started his training as a ships’ officer at just twelve years old, as a bridge messenger on the C.P.R.’s Empress of Asia. The R.M.S. Empress of Asia was an ocean liner that served as a luxury passenger liner in the interwar years, sailing as far as Yokohama, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manilla, and Honolulu. The vessel carried over a thousand passengers, with a crew of 475.

[[{"fid":"6071","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]
Empress of Asia
near Prospect Point. Photograph c. 1918-1928, by James Crookall. Accessed on the City of Vancouver’s online archives.

Ernie’s time on the Empress of Asia opened his eyes “to worlds I had never dreamed existed.” This was partly due to the realities of life on a luxury ocean liner. The Empress’s departures were watched by hundreds of Vancouverites and celebrated with bands and streamers. Ernie ate his meals in the First-Class dining room, which had a domed ceiling and served dishes such as frogs’ legs. But some of the surprises were less luxurious. One day while he was on watch a tornadic waterspout struck the vessel amidship. He also recalled arriving in Japan “a few days after they had that awful earthquake” – almost certainly referring to the 8.3 magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake which killed over 140,000 people. And on one occasion in Shanghai, Ernie saw three men beheaded on the street for stealing food.

[[{"fid":"6072","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2"}}]]
“It cost Dad a bundle, to outfit, equip, me. I had to have my own sextant, books, and of course, many changes of uniform. The latter included formal dress, as we ate in the First Class dining room.” From the archives.

Ernie eventually left the Empress of Asia to continue his training by joining the Canadian Government Merchant Marine, on the Canadian Transporter. Ernie was one of just two cadets on board, and on top of day work they were schooled for four years in a variety of subjects from trigonometry to seamanship. The Transporter enabled Ernie to see even more of the world, from Paris to the Panama Canal. His dream during all of these years of training and studying at sea was to eventually become a captain – but it was not to be. One stormy night a wave swept him off the ladder from the bridge and his nose was broken so badly that a piece of bone penetrated his right eye. Captains were required to have twenty-twenty vision – so Ernie was suddenly faced with a future that looked very different from the one he had envisioned.

It took Ernie a little while to figure out what his new trajectory would be. He returned to live with his family in B.C. while he recovered from his injury, a time that he remembers as “the most difficult period of my life. My nose took a long time to heal. But, once I was well again, and even before that, I had to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It was a discouraging and confusing time, and in those days there were no groups to counsel people going through a crisis.” He ended up sailing for a while on the Lady Evelyn, before trying his hand at tugboating – which he quickly realized was not the field for him, and he soon left “by mutual consent of the captain and myself.” Deep-sea sailing was what he loved – and he found himself back to it, deciding to give rum-running a try. He recalled that “Part of the lure… was the thought that what I had lost in status as a seaman, I could make up in bigger wages, and adventure. It’s great to be young, even when things go wrong, as eventually you see another course ahead, another mountain to climb.”

[[{"fid":"6073","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"3"}}]]
Coal Harbour, 1921. Many rum-runners sailed out of Vancouver during U.S. Prohibition.
From the archives.

Prohibition in the U.S. lasted between 1920 and 1933, prompting the development of a large rum-running fleet on the West Coast that was largely owned by Vancouver’s Reifel Family. Ernie sailed on many ships of the rum-running fleet, including his favourite: the “Mother Ship” the Malahat. Although adventure was a draw for sailors looking to be employed as rum-runners, the decision to join was often more pragmatic: the pay was about double that offered to other seamen, an especially attractive offer during the Great Depression when jobs of any sort were hard to come by. Rum-running had its other perks: Ernie’s biography recalls swimming within circles of dolphins in the South Pacific, watching flying fish, waiting on Tahiti for shipments, and looking forward to returning to Vancouver for “the parties Reifel put on for his crews. He had a mansion on South-West Marine Drive, and those parties were really occasions I’ll never forget. We were treated like kings. Once at sea again, a guy spent time remembering those shindigs.”

A lot of time on the rum-runners was spent waiting for cargoes. Ernie – who “had started drawing and oil painting – mostly ships, when I was in Grade 2” – recalled that “Most of us had crafts to keep busy at. I had my oil painting. I never tired of trying to duplicate the colours I saw around me. The ocean changes colours constantly, with tides, currents, winds, waves. One colour I had problems with, though, was what I called ‘golden blue’. It was a particularly bright blue, and I never did manage to mix the oils to duplicate it to my complete satisfaction. I also did what they call macramé. There wasn’t a knot I didn’t know, and friends and family particularly appreciated the hangers for trailing plants I made. And I made ship models, which sure takes a lot of patience.”

We have a handful of Ernie’s paintings in the collections, including paintings of the two rum-running ships that stood out for Ernie. One was his first, Federalship, which he signed on to in early 1927. Just a few days later, what was perhaps the most exciting episode of his rum-running days began.

[[{"fid":"6074","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"4"}}]]
Oil painting by Ernie McLeod of the Federalship and the Coast Guard. The painting was apparently done on a piece of tablecloth on the Federalship, and shows the dramatic scene at 6am on March 1st, 1927. From the collection.

Federalship left Vancouver and was soon being trailed by the U.S. Cutter Algonquin. Attempts to shake off Algonquin were unsuccessful, and although Federalship was staying far outside the Rum Line (the 12 mile limit of U.S. jurisdiction), federal officials were given orders from Washington to seize or sink the ship. U.S. Coast Guard vessel Cahokia joined Algonquin, and, at 11pm, three-hundred miles west of the Golden Gate, ordered Federalship to stop. Federalship did not stop; and by dawn on March 1st, Algonquin and Cahokia opened fire.

Federalship was eventually stopped, with the boilers blown out. Ernie recalled: “So – when the prize crew boarded us there was no steam and no water in the boilers to operate the ship. There was eighteen inches of water in the engine room. We were ordered by our captors to carry on. Captain Stone and Chief Officer Donahue were being taken aboard Cahokia as prisoners. And Captain Stone, partly over the side on the pilot’s ladder yelled back at us: ‘You’re prisoners of war! Prisoners don’t work!’ So we lounged around the deck and watched the prize crew trying to put tow lines on.” It took two-and-a-half days for Cahokia to tow them to San Francisco – and Ernie described that “during it we all lived the life of Riley. We all cooked. And, seeing the Coast Guard had blown open number-two hatch, everybody, including the Coast Guard, had drinks. At times the ship was wandering all over, with no one at the wheel.”

They were kept in the County jail in San Francisco, but suffered little hardship: their lawyer brought them 10 dollars each Monday and Thursday, on top of their wages, and for 5 dollars they would be given day passes to San Francisco. “We were tried by Federal Judge Bourquine. When he heard where we were seized, he threw the case out, and told the lawyer we should charge the United States Coast Guard and the Attorney General’s Department with piracy on the high seas.”

[[{"fid":"6075","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"5"}}]]
Oil Painting of the Malahat, by Ernie McLeod. From the collection. 

In March 1929, Ernie was transferred to the Malahat, the ship known as “the Mother Ship of Rum Row.” His biography states that “The Malahat was Ernie McLeod’s favourite ship. Whether this was because of the sheer beauty of the five-masted schooner, because of the peace that must have been felt sailing for months on end out of sight of land, or whether it was because of the years he spent aboard her, is impossible to know. He did countless drawings, oil paintings, crayon sketches of Malahat over the years. He did not sell his paintings; he gave them away to those who would value them.”

Ernie sailed on the Malahat for over four years. On one occasion, the ship spent fifteen months at sea without sighting land, travelling 50,000 miles. The pay and food on the Mahalat were good and Ernie loved his time aboard, but by 1933 Prohibition was ending and the Malahat sailed for home.

[[{"fid":"6076","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"6"}}]]
[[{"fid":"6077","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"7":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"7"}}]]
Oil painting of the Malahat, by Ernie McLeod. Painted on the top of a plywood case. The reverse is stamped with the text “La Cip. Mercantile. 1/60. La Libertad San Salvador via Vancouver.” From the collection.

Ernie was only 27, and had already experienced over 15 years of jobs and adventures on the sea – a truly exciting start to his life. The rest of his life was also rich with experiences from operating a first aid boat in Powell River, to training cadets, to working in mills. Following his death in September of 1973, Ernie’s ashes were scattered in Manson’s Deep, one of the deepest points of Howe Sound; a fitting resting place for a “blue-water man.”


McLeod, Kelsey. “The Making of a Seaman” (Biography of her husband, Ernest McLeod). In the Vancouver Maritime Museum Archives.

McLeod, Kelsey. “Rum Runners’ Rollick,” in the Westcoast Mariner, October 1999. In the Vancouver Maritime Museum Archives.

Funderburg, J. Anne. Rumrunner: Liquor Smugglers on America’s Coasts, 1920-1933. Accessed through Google Books.

Zoom Lebron Soldiers IX 9