Captain Thomas D. Shorts inaugurated passenger and freight service on Okanagan Lake in 1882 or 1883 with a rowboat he commissioned John Hamill and John Pringle of Spalluncheen to build for him. The ‘Ruth Shorts,’ named for his mother, was 22 feet long and had a capacity of 2.5 tons. Occasionally helped by a sail, the Captain rowed from one end of the lake to the other, a trip of about 75 miles. If the weather was good, a round trip from Okanagan Landing to Penticton and back took about nine days, with Captain and passengers sleeping on the beach at night and shooting deer for food. When the weather was bad it was an entirely different story. Shorts and a passenger were once marooned for a week while they waited out a storm. On average, Shorts carried one passenger a month but the business in freight was steady.
With financial backing from a Thomas Greenhow, Shorts placed the first steamboat on the lake and so began an era. The ‘Mary Victoria Greenhow,’ named for the daughter of Thomas Greenhow, was launched on April 21, 1886. Built by Hamill and Pringle at Spalluncheen, she was 35 feet long with a 6 foot beam. The vessel was registered to carry five passengers and five tons of freight. The engine, which was built by a firm in Rochester, New York, and which is now on display in the Vernon Museum, utilized a coal-oil fired boiler. Unfortunately, the engine was designed for use in pleasure launches, not heavy freighters, and on his first trip, Shorts ran out of fuel before he was halfway to Penticton. He eventually reached his destination with the help of kerosene he was able to borrow from cabins along his route.
Several more vessels were built and operated on the lake over the following years. In 1888 the first sternwheeler entered service. A vessel called the 'Red Star' drew too much water to get over the sandbars in the Spalluncheen River. She sank in 1888, was raised, beached, and her machinery was removed and placed in a scow-shaped sternwheeler built by R. P. Rithet in the same year. This boat, the second ‘Red Star,’ was captained by Duncan Gordon Cunning and carried freight and passengers between Sicamous and Enderby during construction of the Shuswap and Okanagan Railway.
It is not a commonly known fact that sternwheelers were used more extensively in British Columbia than in any other part of North America even though they are popularly associated with the Mississippi River area of the United States. It was no accident that such a high concentration of these vessels was found here. They could do things that no other type of boat could do, and they could do it profitably. Early vessels were built with a wooden hull which was not only extremely buoyant but fairly easy to repair. For example, on the Upper Fraser, the ‘B.X.’ struck a rock and tore a 60 foot long, 3 foot wide hole in her hull. Her captain managed to get her to shore before she sank, and she was back in service a few weeks later. The paddlewheel had a very practical function in that it needed just a few inches of water to produce very powerful thrust. The construction and maintenance costs of such vessels was low in comparison with vessels of conventional design. Sternwheelers could be run ashore, bow first. For many years, the only way most points along the lake could be visited was by boat. Thus, it was necessary that ships be capable of landing anywhere. In the Okanagan, anyone could call the boat in by signalling with a white cloth, or by building two fires on the shore.
Sternwheelers were equipped with a unique mechanism called ‘dual control’ which allowed the captain to swing the stern of the boat back and forth, wiggling the bow off the bank. With the wheel running in reverse, a solid current of water was thrown against three or four rudders which were attached to the hull transom. By moving the rudders, the stern could be swung either way. These same rudders steered the boat while moving ahead. These vessels were also equipped with a block and tackle device called a ‘grasshopper’ which was mounted on the bow. It was used to hoist the boat over sandbars and shoals. The boats could break ice either by pushing a barge, or by running the wheel over it in reverse. The wheel could also be used to dredge out a landing berth. With the vessel held fast and the wheel running full ahead, a deep hole was soon made.
Sternwheelers did not require wharves as the reinforced bow could simply be nosed up onto the bank while the wheel remained in deep water. The wheel was shielded by the hull and these boats were easy to manoeuvre with their dual control. In terms of construction all sternwheelers were built along the same basic lines. They were generally quite long and wide, averaging about 125 feet by 30 feet. The hull was flat bottomed, did not have an external keel, and was very shallow, much like a dish. Because of their length and absence of an external keel, the hulls tended to sag at bow and stern. To combat this tendency, a very simple yet effective rigging system was employed. Attached to the center keelson and rising well above the top deck was an upright like a mast which was called the kingpost. The kingpost, or posts, was attached to bow and stern by hogchains. On either side of the kingpost were additional uprights known as hogposts. These were also rigged to bow and stern by hogchains whose tension could be adjusted by means of turnbuckles. Kingposts can often be distinguished by the presence of a brass or gold coloured ball on top while hogposts carried no decoration. The end result was something like a tightly strung bow.
British Columbia sternwheelers usually had three decks. The first, or main deck contained the boiler, engine room, fire box, cargo space, crew's quarters, and usually the kitchen. Between the main deck and the hull there were usually several water tight compartments aptly named ‘snag rooms. Cargo was never stored below deck. The second, or cabin deck was also known as the hurricane, saloon, or promenade. It contained the passenger cabins, the dining room, and usually a saloon or observation lounge at either bow or stern, or both. The third deck was called the upper or Texas deck. It usually housed the officer's quarters along with the wheelhouse which was located in the forward part, or on top.
Jumping ahead 7 years, the ‘Aberdeen’ was launched on May 3, 1893 at Okanagan Landing before a very large crowd of onlookers. The ‘Aberdeen’ began scheduled service in June of 1893, She left Okanagan Landing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday upon arrival of the train at 10:30 A.M. The boat reached Kelowna at about 1:00 P.M., and Penticton at 4:30 P.M. A return trip was made Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, leaving Penticton at 12:00 P.M., reaching Kelowna at about 3:00 P.M., and Okanagan Landing in time to connect with the train to Sicamous. The ship could be called in to any point along the shore, whether for a single package, or for a full cargo.
CPR followed the 'Aberdeen' with the 'York' in 1901, the 'Okanagan' in 1907, the 'Kaleden' in 1910, and finally the 'Sicamous' in 1914. The 'Sicamous' was 200 ft long, 40 ft beam and could carry 300 passengers at 17 knots. When they stepped aboard the ‘Sicamous,’ passengers entered a different world. Her interiors were furnished with gleaming British Columbia cedar and Douglas fir, Australian mahogany, and teak from Burma. Her brass fittings and table lamps were imported from Scotland. Stained glass skylights bathed travellers in a rainbow of colour. The ship's 65 foot long dining room could seat 48 people at a time and became famous outside the valley for spotless linen, and excellent food and service. This vessel indeed deserved the title of ‘Queen of Okanagan Lake.’ Her arrival was marked with celebration. She was welcomed at every community by throngs of people on her maiden voyage. Unfortunately, the ‘Sicamous' probably could not have gone into service at a worse time. War clouds were gathering in Europe, however, and soon her decks were crowded with men on their way overseas. Trade for the vessels declined and most were laid up, only the 'Sicamous' continued, providing six times a week service.
It was not long, however, before the ‘Sicamous’ began to be outmoded by alternate forms of transport such as cars, trucks, and buses which, by the 1920's, were beginning to cut into her passenger and freight trade. The death knell was sounded on February 15, 1926 when Canadian National Railways completed a spur line from Kamloops to Kelowna. Half of the run of the ‘Sicamous' was cut off. In the meantime, the Kettle Valley Railway had been handling a great deal of the westbound traffic from the southern part of the valley since 1916. Sternwheeler service was terminated by C.P.R. in April 1931. However, because of protests from area boards of trade, the ‘Sicamous' was kept on for a few more years. It was a futile gesture by that time, and on January 5, 1935 she was tied up at Okanagan Landing. In an attempt to reduce operating costs her top deck was removed but she was used only during the fruit shipping seasons of 1935 and 1936. Her last trip was made in 1936 when she was chartered by the Penticton Gyro club.
The ‘Sicamous' was moored at Okanagan Landing until 1951 when the city of Penticton purchased her for one dollar. On August 31, 1951 she was towed to her permanent mooring place on the west end of Penticton Beach. Today she is one of only two sternwheelers which have survived in British Columbia. The ‘Aberdeen' was dismantled in 1917. The ‘Kaleden' was scrapped in 1918, her housework becoming a garage and her hull a breakwater. The ‘Okanagan’ was dismantled between 1938 and 1941. Her housework was broken up into cabins which were to be found on the shores of Okanagan Lake for many years, and her boiler was used in a Kelowna cannery.
Most of this information has been taken from “Lakeboats of the Okanagan”, by R. Bruce Goett, property of the Lake County Museum and Archives. The full document can be downloaded from their website: https://www.lakecountrymuseum.com/
More information about the preserved Sicamous can be found at: http://sssicamous.ca/
Pictures from BC archives collection, Pentiction Museum and Archives, Wikipedia, www.oldphotos.ca,
Confederation Marine Modellers
Nautical Lore - Sternwheelers of the Okanagan
Colour pictures of preserved Sicamous by Peter F.