This Week in History


Happy Birthday, Henry!

For the week of Monday September 28, 1998

On September 30, 1899, Henry Larsen was born at Fredrickstad, Norway. Larsen won a place in Canadian history by serving as the captain of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, the St. Roch. In 1942 the St. Roch became the first vessel to traverse the Northwest Passage from west to east, and only the second to do it at all. (In 1903-06 the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had made, from east to west, a voyage European navigators had been attempting for over 300 years!) The St. Roch's exploits strengthened Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

Henry Larsen aboard the St. Roch, 1944

Henry Larsen aboard the St. Roch, 1944
© Library and Archives Canada / C-070771

The St. Roch was a wooden schooner built especially for northern patrols. It was launched in Vancouver in 1928 to serve the RCMP in Arctic operations. Sergeant Henry Larsen, who had joined the RCMP after becoming a naturalized Canadian, was chosen as captain of the vessel. Throughout its career, the St. Roch provided important service to northern communities. In return the Native communities gave the St. Roch lots of help, including food supplies and advice about weather and Arctic survival.

In 1940, Canada was at war and the St. Roch was given the task of demonstrating Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. In June, the St. Roch left Vancouver (British Columbia) for Halifax (Nova Scotia) on a route hugging the north coast of Canada. This route proved to be very treacherous – the ship was trapped in ice for two winters, and did not arrive in Halifax until October 1942. The St. Roch returned to Vancouver in 1944 by a more northerly route through the Arctic Archipelago (this time in only 86 days), making it the first vessel to travel the passage in both directions.

St. Roch stuck in the ice

St. Roch stuck in the ice
© Library and National Canada / PA-121419

To add to an already famous career, the St. Roch made another trip from Vancouver to Halifax in 1950. This time she sailed southward, through the Panama canal, becoming the first vessel to circumnavigate North America!

For his achievements, Henry Larsen was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and granted numerous awards, including the Massey Medal and the Polar Medal and Bar. In 1954, the St. Roch was retired from service and purchased by the City of Vancouver. Declared a National Historic Site in 1962, it is restored to its 1944 appearance and is now permanently displayed at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver.

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