The Wheelhouse moves into a renovated heritage railway station by the sea.
What initially started as a hobby among three men became the westernmost craft brewery in Canada and a community gathering place, all within a space affectionately called “the bunker” by the head brewer.
Over 10 years ago, James Witzke, Kent Orton, and Craig Outhet (the brewer) transformed a former neglected construction shop in the Cow Bay district into a tasting room with an ocean view. That is, when you finally emerge from the dark, windowless space, you’re immediately swallowed by a blinding sun melting into the North Pacific Ocean — or, more likely, an onslaught of rain. Their little “bunker” was an immediate hit. The Wheelhouse Brewing Company opened the night before Christmas Eve 2013, serving bottles and growlers of Gillnetter Golden Ale, only to run dry two hours later. The city was thirsty, and it wasn’t just for the beer.
Since then, the Wheelhouse has become so much more than just a brewery. Ask anyone who moved to Prince Rupert on their own without knowing a soul how they met new friends, or a life partner, or learned about which trails to hike, or what local events they must check out. Each year, the business grew within its tight space. It added rotating taps of new beers, a wider bar, floor-to-ceiling art, more nautical knickknacks, a spot for bands to play, and eventually, a deck to enjoy those coastal sunsets that resemble scenes from a Roy Henry Vickers gallery. With each visit, community members and visitors formed enough memories to inspire a multi-season sitcom.
One memory that stands out is the bell that hung next to the bar. The patron who rang it was beholden to purchase a drink for everyone on site. Those nights were a rare treat.
With all the brewery’s success, an opportunity came up that had the owners questioning the future of their business. The City of Prince Rupert was looking for a tenant to move into the dilapidated CN railway station on the waterfront. The City had $5 million in grant funding and a dividend from its Legacy fund to renovate what had once been the final terminal stop for the Canadian National Railway on the Pacific North Coast, which had been shuttered since the early ‘90s. It was another diamond in the rough beckoning to have its walls filled with the yeasty scent of beer and the chatter of customers.
“We had had to decide which fork in the road we wanted to take,” Craig said. “There were six spreadsheets going and a lot of heavy conversations between the founders.”
They toured what was left of the building. When asked what his first impressions were, Craig described it as “pigeony.” They held their phones up as flashlights as pigeons whipped by their heads. But, the bones were good.
“You could see the brickwork under the arches. It’s one of the only brick buildings in Prince Rupert, and it was easy to see there was lots of opportunity,” he said.
So they took it, and with that decision, they’re stepping into a century’s worth of history. There are 150 designated heritage railway stations in Canada — and this is one of them. Located on unceded Coast Ts’msyen land, the 7,200-square foot CN Station was initially completed with a timber-trestle pedestrian overpass above the railway when it opened to the public in July 1922. It served for the next 70 years.
Flash forward to 2021: the City hired a heritage consultant to develop a conservation plan. Having previously worked on the historic North Pacific Cannery in Port Edward, Donald Luxton highlighted one of the most interesting stories about the building construction: it was designed by Winnipeg architects, and made with Tyndall stone quarried in Manitoba and brick from Claybank, Saskatchewan.
“Of course, the materials were sent by rail, so the building was essentially sent from the Prairies,” Donald said. “There is nothing else quite like it in B.C.”
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The Wheelhouse owners worked with the architectural designers from the ground up to purpose-build their new operation. However, construction was hampered during the COVID-19 pandemic when supply chains were challenged, and then the war in Ukraine added complications. For example, the HVAC units they had ordered from Kyiv were pushed back 10 months.
Preparation for the move has been another adventure. Craig said he brewed through the winter like it was the summer, running his tanks at max capacity for the first three months of 2023.
“We brewed our last batch of beer in mid-April. I was only hoping to be down three weeks, but I’m ever the optimist,” he said.
It’s now June, and they’re in the thick of the summer season with unseasonably hotter-than-normal temperatures and cruise ships calling to the harbour.
But it has been worth the wait. There’s a new sunroom on the second story, with 270 degrees of glass facing southwest toward the ocean. They’ve installed a fireplace for the Rupert rainy days where there is seating for 40-50 people and a service bar. Also, on the upper level, they have a large event room for tours and special occasions. The main floor hosts a larger bar and room for a full production area. This is a big deal for Craig, who in the past has had to turn his public area into the production space for canning on the two days they were closed.
“Now we have the room to do all the production in one area. We can shave four weeks off one tank. It’s about 20 more batches in one year. Not having to set up and tear down the canning machine will help,” he said with enthusiasm.
There’s another big change. They are going to be serving food, and not just pickled eggs or salmon jerky. They ordered a pizza oven from Italy and will soon be serving up pies with pints, along with breathtaking views of the water. For residents who have limited waterfront access, this is a boon for the community. The CN railway station renovation is only the beginning. The City has grand designs for a renewed waterfront experience for locals and tourists. There are plans to turn it into a marine transportation hub for outlying villages, a more picturesque ferry station to the airport, and a new marina.
“We are the cornerstone of all that. That feels pretty great that the City of Prince Rupert, and the public, values that a local business should go in there and not just some chain. Ten years in, and people recognize that we value community success,” Craig said.
Outhet admits he’s a bit nervous about becoming a restaurant. To support the transition, they’ve brought in Nadia Halward of the beloved Mucho Gusto Catering as a consultant.
“We’re bringing in the right people to help us with that, so I’m super confident that this is going over like gangbusters,” he said.
The move is all very exciting, but many locals worry that they’re also losing the iconic cozy, grungy, and salty ambiance the “bunker” created for them over a decade’s worth of hangouts in Cow Bay. There’s something romantic about the original space that has had a lot of folks approaching Craig with near tears in their eyes, wanting the Wheelhouse to stay in some capacity.
“What we usually tell people is that the beer’s not changing, current staff are coming, it’s the same company, same values, same work culture. We’re just going to have a place with windows. We’re confident we can carry over the correct vibe and even improve on it,” he said.
In mid-June, they will open their massive wooden nine-foot doors to the public. When you visit, look for the bell, and ring it if you dare. There are many more memories ready to be had in this century-old rail station turned brew-pub pizzeria by the water.