SS Nelson leaving Pilot Bay


Prior to European contact, Kootenay Lake served more or less as a geographic boundary between two indigenous tribes: the Sinixt (Arrow Lakes Indians) and the Ya-qan nu-kiy (Lower Kootenay Indian Band, part of the Ktunaxa First Nation). The Ya-qan nu-kiy lived at the south end of Kootenay Lake. West of the lake and its West Arm were the year-round villages of the Sinixt. The falls at present-day Bonnington were a barrier to the ocean salmon traveling up the Columbia, Kootenay and Slocan rivers. This absence of an important food resource served to discourage year-round settlement of the West Arm and the north end of Kootenay Lake. The relatively large number of pictograph sites along the shores of Kootenay Lake, especially at the north end, suggests that traditionally, Kootenay Lake had a strong spiritual value for both tribes.

The early explorers of the Kootenay region found the waterways to be both a barrier and a passageway into the area. In his search for a major water passage to the Pacific Ocean, North West Company employee David Thompson explored the area by canoe in the spring of 1808. Traveling west from the Rocky Mountain Trench, he paddled partway up Kootenay Lake. He was deterred from going further both by time and by reports from Kootenay Indians he had wintered with that there were many waterfalls and portages along the way. The Hudson's Bay Company explored the area again in the 1820s and 1840s, noting the rich mineral deposits along the shores of Kootenay Lake. The area's geographic isolation discouraged them from pursuing any development.

In 1865, Edgar Dewdney looked at Kootenay Lake on behalf of the Colonial Government as a possible crossing for the trail he was constructing from Rock Creek east to the goldfields at Wildhorse Creek. He deemed the lake crossing too long and rerouted the trail to the south. Miners coming into the area would need a ferry to cross the lake, a service which might be too slow in their quick search for gold, or subject to large fees depending on the ferryman.

Access to Kootenay Lake by European settlers increased as miners filtered from the declining mining activities in the East Kootenay and Big Bend area and began searching for the next big goldrush. Trails over the Purcell Mountains that had been established by the Sinixt and Ya-qan nu-kiy began to be used by miners and explorers scouring the ground for traces of gold. The Silver King Mine, established in 1888 above what was to be the city of Nelson, was reached by an overland route from Washington State and the busy cities of Colville and Spokane. WA Baillie Grohman brought the first steam-powered boat to Kootenay Lake, part of his effort to drain the rich delta at the base of the lake to establish new farmland. After the introduction of the SS Midge by Grohman, other boats followed. Kootenay Lake became a link to many new communities along its length.

The establishment of railways into the region signaled another leap in development as the Canadian Pacific Railway and the future Great Northern Railways settled into the area. The CPR built a rail line from Robson east to Nelson that was dubbed “the railway from nowhere to nowhere.” It was linked on each end by an extensive network of sternwheelers that transported both passengers and freight across the region to major transcontinental railways.

As transportation options grew, the era of the automobile spurred highway construction and the need for the large fleet of sternwheelers on Kootenay Lake diminished. The completion of the rail link from Kootenay Landing to Procter in December, 1930 signaled the end of sternwheeler service on the south arm of the lake, though a sternwheeler provided a new link for the automobile. In 1931, the SS Nasookin was repurposed as a ferry crossing of Kootenay Lake that ran until 1947 when it was replaced by the MV Anscomb. The ferry completed the Southern Trans Provincial highway link across BC as it worked from Fraser's Landing on the West Arm, east to Gray Creek on the East Shore.

After the opening of the Salmo-Creston pass portion of the Crowsnest Highway in 1965, the water link across Kootenay Lake was no longer the primary route. Today, it remains essential when avalanches close the high mountain pass in the winter. Though ferries continue to travel across Kootenay Lake daily, the romance of the sternwheeler era has faded into history.

The steamboat Midge on the Kootenay River
The Midge on Kootenay River - note the size of the boiler in relation to the size of the vessel. The lack of room inside the boat neccesitated the use of a scow towed beside to haul cargo. Image courtesy Private Collection
Sternwheeler Nasookin on the West Arm
The SS Nasookin as an automobile ferry approaching Gray Creek. The bus is parked across the bow as it would not fit on the freight deck with the other vehicles. Image courtesy of Touchstones Nelson Archives