SS Moyie approaching Kaslo wharf

The Rise and Fall of Steam Transportation on Kootenay Lake

The Kootenay Lake region developed and was settled as a result of water access provided by the sternwheeler system. The mountainous geography of the area called for the use of the lake and rivers that feed into it as the rudimentary transportation corridors. The sternwheeler system laid the foundation for the development of the railway and finally the highways.

The smallest steam-powered vessel to ply the waters of Kootenay Lake, the Midge, arrived by manpower over a mountain pass in 1883. It was the pioneer boat in what would be a long and distinguished line of vessels. The first sternwheeler, the SS Nelson, was built in Nelson in 1891 and like the other vessels on the lake at that time; its boilers were fired with wood heat. Vessels at this time were usually laden with cords of wood on their bow, allowing for easy access by the deckhands. Following the completion in 1898 of the BC Southern Railway to Kootenay Landing from the East, coal from the Crowsnest Pass became available. From that point on, the steam-powered vessels on Kootenay Lake no longer used wood.

From the first inkling among new settlers that the shores of Kootenay Lake and the West Arm held untold wealth in the form of sliver and lead, companies were formed to transport the ore out of the region. The Canadian Pacific Railway bought the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company in 1897, forming the BC Lakes and River Service. Other competitors to the lucrative shipping and transportation service were the Nelson and Lardo Steam Navigation Company, the Bonners Ferry and Kaslo Transportation Company, and the Alberta and British Columbia Exploration Company. The latter was reincorporated in 1895 as the International Trading Company Limited as part of Kootenay Railway & Navigation, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway.

Fortunes were made and lost on the lake in the boom-and-bust mining economy, and for the transportation companies it was no different. By 1910, the BC Lake and River Service, backed by the powerful CPR and its railway connections, was the last company standing.

The onset of World War I in 1914 meant the loss of young men in the area and an end to the blossoming tourism trade. The war marked the beginning of the end of steam transportation on Kootenay Lake. In the late 1920s, the CPR decided to continue the rail line from Procter to Kootenay Landing to ensure a consistent, rapid transportation route from the mine in Kimberley to the Smelter in Trail. This meant that the only route for the sternwheelers and tugs and barges would be the run from Procter to Kaslo and Lardeau. After the completion of the rail line in December 1930, the BC Government leased and later purchased the SS Nasookin as an automobile ferry. It was retired in 1947 when the MV Anscomb was built to replace the aging vessel. The SS Moyie continued to push barges and ferry passengers until 1957, when the establishment of a highway north from Kaslo to Lardeau ensured that all of the major settlements on Kootenay Lake were accessible by car.

Steam travel on Kootenay Lake ended when the barge service was discontinued in 1977.

SS Nelson at Nelson
SS Nelson at Nelson. Image courtesy of Touchstones Nelson Archives
Sternwheeler Nasookin with excursion group on board
A picnic group on the SS Nasookin at Procter, 1915. Postcard. Image courtesy of Kootenay Lake Archives, KLA 988.040.1648
Sternwheeler Moyie with barge
Henry Stevenson flew his own Cessna 172 over this scene of the Moyie on one of her last trips, pushing a barge from Lardeau to Procter to off load, then go to Kaslo, 1957. Image courtesy of Touchstones Nelson Archives
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