History of the SS Sicamous Stern Wheeler

Diagram of the SS Sicamous Penticton Okanagan TurnerHistory of the SS Sicamous Stern Wheeler

About the Ship

The SS Sicamous is a luxury passenger vessel that was used to transport passengers and cargo to remote communities along the shores of Okanagan Lake. The ship was launched in 1914 from the Okanagan Landing Shipyards, at the north of the lake. The Sicamous travelled from Penticton to Okanagan Landing with 14 scheduled stops throughout. Her luxury and beauty attracted crowds at each dock, while travellers experienced elegance in dining and service renowned by Canadian Pacific. The ship is a now preserved on the shore of Okanagan Lake, and is cared for by the SS Sicamous Marine Heritage Society. It is a unique part of Okanagan history and heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long was the SS Sicamous in service?

The S.S. Sicamous was launched on May 1914th 1914. The ship was in service for 22 years (until 1936).

Where did the SS Sicamous Travel?

The Sicamous travelled all along the shores of Okanagan lake, from Penticton in the south up to Vernon at the north of the lake. There were 14 scheduled stops throughout, and ship could also make unscheduled stops at smaller settlements (the residents would stand on the shore and wave a white flag, or light two fires at night, to get the attention of the Captain). The Sicamous would depart from Penticton at 5:30am every day, except Sundays. Weather and schedule permitting, it would be back in Penticton by 8pm each night. The Penticton wharf and railway station was at the base of Martin Street, close to where the peach concession stand is today. The Railway owned Incola Hotel was just across the road, and this is where many passengers would spend the night. Learn More

Has the Sicamous always been in the Okanagan Valley?

The steel hull and boiler were actually built in Eastern Canada (in Thunder Bay, Ontario). The hull was transported across Canada by 17 rail cars, and then put together at the Okanagan Landing Ship Yards (at the north of Okanagan Lake) by a team of 150 men. Ship yard workers then began carving the upper decks from imported wood. The Sicamous has been in the Okanagan ever since her launch in 1914.

What did the SS Sicamous do?

At the turn of the 20th century, the lake boats were central to life in the Okanagan, and would have carried everything needed for daily life and commerce. The cargo deck of the Sicamous would have contained: fruit and vegetables from the farms and orchards, livestock such as pigs or horses, machinery or supplies for building the KVR and many other items besides. The CPR also had a contract for the mail routes, so letters and parcels would be transported inside. The upper levels of the ship were reserved for passengers.

How fast could the ship travel?

The ship has a 101HP jet-condenser steam engine, and coal powered boiler. It could reach top speeds of 18 knots (21 mph). The engines were powered by steam from a coal powered boiler. To reach these speeds, the boiler burned up to 17 tons of coal each day. Coal had to be hand shoveled into the firebox, and it would have been tiring and dirty work. Luckily though, water from the boiler was used to provide hot water for the showers, so at least the coal passers could wash up afterwards.

How many Passengers could the SS Sicamous carry?

When the ship was first launched the Sicamous could officially carry up to 500 people at a time. After alterations to the ship in 1935, the maximum number of guests was reduced to 260.

Why is it called the SS Sicamous?

The S.S. stands for steam ship. The name “Sicamous” comes from a once important railway station at Sicamous, BC. This railway station was north of Okanagan Lake, and connected to the Okanagan by a spur line that reached the north of the lake. From there visitors could travel by ship. Canadian Pacific Rail had a tradition of naming ships after local communities. As well as the Sicamous, there was also a Tug boat Naramata, and Kelowna and a stern wheeler called the “S.S. Okanagan”.

Why does it say “Victoria” on the back?

Like ships today, the Sicamous had to be registered. At the turn of the 20th century, the port of registry was Victoria, so this was proudly written in gold paint on the back of the paddle wheel. Fun Fact: did you know? When the Sicamous was launched a mistake was made, and Vancouver was accidentally written. It was repainted soon after the launch.

When did the Sicamous last go out on the lake?

Sadly the Sicamous is now beached and no longer travels on the lake. There is still a little water under the hull, and in the spring the ship floats a little as the lake water rises! The Sicamous was retired from service in 1936. After many years waiting at the Okanagan Landing shipyards, the ship was purchased by the City of Penticton, with encouragement from the Penticton Gyro Club. The Sicamous made its final journey to Penticton in August of 1951. A trench was dug in the ground, and the ship was pushed in. She remains there to this day.

Who worked on the SS Sicamous?

The Sicamous had its own full time crew and cook staff. When first in service the ship had a crew of 31-33 staff, plus one mail room clerk, and two express room clerks. In the Kitchen there were four members of the  team, all recent migrants from China. Food was first class, and the CPR was renowned for the service in its lake boats and railways. Food was cooked from scratch in the kitchens, hidden away on the cargo deck. It was then sent up to the passenger decks by dumbwaiter. The crew had a mess room alongside and would knock on the wall to get the chefs attention. The Sicamous crew were fond of the cooks, who were even known to make them ice cream on occasion.

Why did the ships stop running

At the beginning of the 20th century, the lake boats were central to life in the Okanagan. After only a few short years life in the Okanagan began to change. The Kettle Valley Railway line to Penticton was complete in 1915, and the first train arrived in May of that year. This dramatically improved access to the South Okanagan. Cargo and passengers that had once travelled by ship, now had the option of alternative routes by rail. The ships were still important for linking the North and the South of the lake, but demand dropped. The motorways were also completed in the 1930s, and motorcars increased in importance, further reducing reliance on the lake boats.

Where can I find old photos of the lake boats?

The Penticton Museum and Archives has an extensive collection of photographs of the lake boats, railways and communities on the Okanagan. Many of the photographs have also been digitized, and are available free of charge from the Penticton Archives. The Kelowna Museum also has an extensive photography collection, and has framing and printing options available too.


A Quick Timeline of Events

  • The S. S. Sicamous is the largest stern wheeler left in Canada
  • Hull, engine and boiler were built in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) and transported by rail to the Ship yards at Okanagan Landing,
  • Launched on Okanagan Lake on May 19th 1914 (see a photo of the launch)
  • Made daily trips from Penticton to Okanagan Landing, with 14 stops along the way (see a map of the route)
  • Retired from service in 1936 after a decline in passenger numbers.
  • Tied up at Okanagan Landing shipyards for the next decade.
  • On June 24, 1949, sold to city of Penticton for $1.00
  • August 27, 1951 moved to Penticton.
  • The SS Sicamous Society was founded in 1988, and has cared for the ship ever since.

Detailed History of the SS Sicamous

(with Links to Sources and Further Information – In bullet points for easy reading)

Making History – Building the SS Sicamous

  • It took 17 train carloads to transfer the parts from Ontario to the shipyard at Okanagan Landing.
  • Built over several months, work started in September 1913, continued through winter 1913-14, and finished in spring 1914.
  • Built at Okanagan Landing
  • As many as 150 men were employed to build S. S. Sicamous and S. S. Naramata.
  • Shortage of accommodation at OK Landing, so men stayed in Vernon.
  • Morning and evening train ran between Okanagan Landing and Vernon for the workers.
  • Reported cost to build the ship was $180, 000, including $14, 000 for furnishings, CPR records show that the boat was only valued at $160, 000.[1]
  • CPR completely built sternwheelers before launching, different then sternwheelers on Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Sternwheelers built on the Mississippi and Ohio were launched as a hull and built while afloat[2]

Ship Yard Crew before the launch of the Sicamous - May 1914 - Vernon

Launching the SS Sicamous

  • Launched Tuesday, May 19, 1914, at 2:15 p.m.
  • Christened by Mrs. J. I. E. Corbet, daughter of Captain Gore and wife of CPR Superintendent Corbet
  • The Vernon News: “To the tooting of whistles and cheering of the large crowd…the splendid new steamer Sicamous slid gracefully into the water…”[3]
  • Water was more shallow than expected, boat was stuck
  • Heavy lines from SS Okanagan and SS Castlegar run on board Sicamous but were unable to free it.
  • Okanagan had taken passengers to see the launching and had to return south at 7 pm.
  • Aberdeen took its place and eventually was able to float the Sicamous
  • Mrs. Corbet was presented with an upholstered chair from shipyard workers and bouquet of carnations by Miss Stobo (daughter of Shipwright John Stobo, who later became CPR master builder at Nelson) and Miss Reid (daughter of Captain Matthew Reid of the Castlegar).

Making History - The Launch of the SS Sicamous onto Okanagan Lake - May 1914 - Vernon

 The First Journey on Okanagan Lake

  • Although the SS Sicamous had been launched, it was not yet complete.
  • The “inaugural excursion” (first journey) was not until on June 12, 1914.
  • A free train was provided for Vernon residents planning to board Sicamous at OK Landing
  • Kelowna Courier, “Captain Gore repeated the procedure when the Okanagan made her maiden voyage,… shouted an invitation to all and sundry to board the boat and take a free trip. There was a hearty response, and young and old, male and female, to the estimated number of over 200 went aboard [at Kelowna] and after exploring the various decks settled themselves down to enjoy the voyage…. More were picked up at Peach land, making a total of about 400.”[4]
  • July 1, 1914, the Sicamous also carried passengers to Penticton for “Dominion Day” (BC Day) celebrations.

 


 Day to Day Operations of the Ship on Okanagan Lake  

  • The SS Sicamous made its first regular passenger trip on July 12, 1914.
  • The Sicamous carried passengers, mail, express items and freight to and from settlements along Okanagan Lake
  • Her daily schedule would consist of departure, from Penticton, at 5:30 a.m.  She would arrive at Okanagan Landing by noon, and arrive back in Penticton around 8:00 p.m.
  • Up to 14 stops were made daily so a total trip could be 140 miles.
  • When docked at the Okanagan Landing Shipyards, and at the Penticton docks the deck hands would be busy shovelling coal (from 7.5-8.5 tons of coal per trip!)
  • Deckhands would also load and unload cargo and take care of passenger pick-up and drop-off (at each and every stop).

 

History - SS Sicamous at Penticton Dock - Archive Photo - Okanagan Lake

 

The Route of the SS Sicamous on Okanagan Lake

History - Route of the SS Sicamous - Okanagan - Penticton

Reaching Penticton at the Turn of the Century

At the turn of the 20th Century Penticton was very isolated. There were only 2 routes in and out of Penticton:[5]

  • By stern wheeler to the station at Okanagan Landing, then taking the Canadian Pacific Train mainline to the station at Sicamous;
  • By stagecoach to Keremeos, then taking a subsidiary line of the Canadian National Railway to Orville, Washington.
  • The arrival of the Kettle Valley Railway (in 1915) dramatically improved access, and

 Unscheduled Lake Shore Landings

A feature unique to Sicamous was dual control: the vessel could be easily manoeuvred forward and backward. This meant that unscheduled landings could occur anywhere along the lake-shore whenever someone signalled for the vessel to “nose in” on a rocky shore. Signals could be made by anyone: trapper, citizen of a beginning settlement, or a homestead family.

Two different signals could be used to signal for an unscheduled landing:

  • signals were either a white cloth or two fires on a shore[6]
  • Rarely was a signal missed[7] but some felt more secure asking for a call ahead of time. (Although sometimes a captain would forget).

“Nosing In” on the Shore

This Okanagan adaptation of sternwheelers allowed the ship to go up on shore. To get back into the lake, the engineer would reverse the paddle and the paddle would send water underneath the boat.  The water would suck the boat off the beach.[8]  When a ship nosed-in a wood plank would lowered to allow passengers to board.[9]Passengers who were not used to walking on planks or crossing creeks on wood logs often needed help from crew.  –  There was always a danger that the current might push the ship away from the shore with a passenger on the plank. Because hulls were built strong to nose-in sometimes captains would be careless[10]If this happened the ship would not be able to reverse because could not give enough force to free the hull

Travelling in Storms and Rough Weather

Around Squally Point waves could reach 8 ft. and the wind can blow to over 100 km/h[11]

  • In rough weather it took 2-3 people to hold wheel straight.
  • Captains, pilots and maters personally handled the wheel at dangerous moments.
  •  Deck hands or the watchman could handle it a peaceful places to gain experience.
  • Crashing ashore at full speed in fog was an eventuality: “If the captain was at the wheel, something must have gone wrong with that compass! If a mate, hoping for promotion, was in high command at such an unfortunate time, he had better quickly think up some excuse never before offered – or else!”[12]

Cold Winters on Okanagan Lake

  • The tugs Naramata and M.V Okanagan would usually run ahead of Sicamous to create a channel in the ice.
  • Paddle wheel was used every once and a while to break the ice, the Sicamous would reverse and create a channel that way[13]
  • Boats where sometimes unable to break the ice in lake shore bays and inlets
  • The boat would still be used, but many times passengers would have to complete their journey on foot
  • Wheel was as wide as the boat so it could cast a wide, swift current.[14]
  • The history of freezing over – In the last 100 years the lake froze over 5 times:1893, 1916, 1929, 1935, 1950[15]
  • Barges could be used to break ice[16]
  • If the Sicamous could not break the ice ramming the ice with barge head on, the captain would maneuver the barge on top of the ice and the weight of the barge would break the ice
  • The wood hammer hung on the wall at the back of the ship , was used to break up ice one the stern wheel during the winter

History - Penticton - SS Sicamous - in Ice at dock - 1916


The Decline of the Stern Wheelers on Okanagan Lake

Structural Changes to the SS Sicamous

In 1935 the CPR made structural changes to the ship. This was in response to a decrease in passengers. It was hoped that the changes would cut down weight and wind resistance, so the ship would need less fuel. With the reduced passenger capacity, the ship could focus on transporting freight instead.

  • The Sicamous made her last official passenger service Saturday, January 4, 1935
  • During the spring of 1935, CPR renovated the Sicamous at the Okanagan Landing ship yards. The following changes were made: Took off 2/3 of Gallery Deck (C Deck) – Removed the mezzanine balcony area, the men’s observation deck and staterooms – Removed the Texas deck (which held the captain and mate’s quarters, and crews mess) and lastly, the pilot house was lowered.
  • See the diagram below for details of the changes:
  • History - Diagram - Picture - SS Sicamous - 1935 - 1914 - Missing Deck

Spot the difference! In 1935 the SS Sicamous had decks removed. Illustration by Robert Turner.

The Retirement of the SS Sicamous

  • The Sicamous made her last official passenger service Saturday, January 4, 1935
  • Tied up at 12:00, Sunday, January 5, 1935.
  • The Sicamous operated for the last time in 1936 as a cargo carrier.
  • It was taken out of retirement for the summer of 1936 to help CPR barge service keep-up with the fruit transportation demand.

Reasons for the changes, and the end of Service

At the beginning of the century the lake boats were integral to life in the Okanagan, but by the 1930’s the valley had changed considerably, and the stern wheelers were no longer needed.

The Service of the SS Sicamous ended because:

    • A Highway was built during the 20s along both sides of Okanagan Lake[17]
    • CPR and CN railways built between Penticton and Kelowna and Vernon
    • No longer a passenger demand for boat
    • Increased population and orchard production, as well as technological advancement meant quicker, increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles that could carry more freight were available.

Life in Retirement (at the Okanagan Landing Ship Yards)

The SS Sicamous was retired from service in 1936. For over a decade the SS Sicamous floated quietly at Okanagan Landing. Through the Second World War and into the busy post-war years there was little to attract attention to the steamer, and it was clear that the CPR would never run the ship again. In 1947 there were rumors that a buyer in Yellow Knife had plans for the ship, and after that Kelowna showed an interest too. However the CPR intended for the Sicamous to be preserved as a historical vessel and refused to sell.

The Arrival of the SS Sicamous in Penticton

The City of Penticton purchased the Sicamous for $1.00, and arranged for the ship to be returned to Penticton (where she has docked each evening, and departed from every morning over her 22 years of service the lake) . On August 27, 1951, the Sicamous was towed to Penticton by the M.V. Okanagan.[18] The weather was poor, drizzling with rain, but the beach was lined with Pentictonites. Hundreds of people turned up to watch as the Sicamous was eased into a trench, and sand back filled to keep the vessel in place.

The Penticton Herald wrote:

“There was something rather tragic in the motionless stern wheel, the wheel that had pushed the Queen of the Okanagan through thousands of miles of lake water. And it is evident that the Queen would have been happier to make her last trip under her own power, without the assistance of the diminutive but powerful M.S. Okanagan.”[19]

The Sicamous was home again. The Penticton Gyro Club had agreed to take the project on. In September and October 1951, the Gyro Club began renovations in preparation for the winter.[20]  On November 15, 1951, Mayor Rathburn presented the keys to the Sicamous pilothouse to the Gyro Club president.[21] This signified Gyro’s adoption of Sicamous.


 

History - SS Sicamous Arrives in Penticton - August 1951 - For Social Media

About the S.S. Sicamous Society

The SS Sicamous Marine Heritage Society is operated by volunteers, and relies upon the support of the City of Penticton and numerous charitable foundations. Members have worked tirelessly since that first day in 1988, to restore the SS Sicamous and make the ship enjoyable and informative for all that visit. Over the years the scope of the society has increased, with several other heritage lake vessels now in their care, but the aim of the society remains the same. It is a big job and the crew like to joke that it will never be finished, but we have come a long way. We hope to go much further.

 


Sources

[1]Turner, The Sicamous & the Naramata, 36.

[2]Larry R. Little, “Steamer Sicamous: The Great White Swan of Okanagan Lake,” The Egregious Steamboat Journal, no. 7 (May/June 1992): 7.

[3]Turner, The Sicamous & the Naramata, 31.

[4]Turner, The Sicamous & the Naramata, 36.

[5]Bridget Trainor, “The Kettle Valley Railway:” 8.

[6]Estabrooks, “Some Reasons for Stern Wheel Boats on Okanagan Lake:” 28.

[7]Estabrooks, Sternwheel Boats in British Columbia, 23.

[8]Captain Robertson had a habit of nosing in to hard and eventually wore a hole through the hull. (Interview with Ludwig Weeks.)

[9]Estabrooks, “Some Reasons for Stern Wheel Boats on Okanagan Lake:” 24.

[10]Estabrooks, “Some Reasons for Stern Wheel Boats on Okanagan Lake:” 28.

[11]Estabrooks, Sternwheel Boats in British Columbia, 32.

[12]Estabrooks, “Some Reasons for the Stern Wheel Boats on Okanagan Lake:” 28.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]“Tugs Tied Up: Lake Completely Frozen Over,” The Penticton Herald, 2 February 1950: Section 1, p. 1.

[16]Ibid: 28-29.

[17]Greyhound buses began running through Penticton in 1931 with Lyall Chambers as the bus driver. The service ran from Kamloops to Oroville. (A. David MacDonald, 1908-1985: 75 Years to Remember: Penticton (Penticton: BC: City of Penticton, 1983), 45)

[18]“Sicamous Comes Home; City Royalty Welcomes Famous Stern-Wheeler,” The Penticton Herald, 30 August 1951: Section 1, p. 1.

[19]Ibid.

[20]“Gyros Busy Renovating SS Sicamous,” The Penticton Herald, 4 October 1951: Section 2, p. 1.

[21]“SS Sicamous Finally Turned Over To Gyros At Installation Banquet,” The Penticton Herald, 22 November 1951: Section 3, p. 1.


More information

The members of the crew are happy to answer any questions, and if they do not know the answer will be happy to direct you to someone who does!

Finding History Books and Articles

If you would like to research the history of the Okanagan lake ships under your own steam, there are plenty of books available to you, and the local Penticton Library has an extensive local history section. Click here to see the online catalogue: The Penticton Library

Finding Newspaper Articles

The Penticton Museum and Archives has the full collection of Penticton Herald Newspapers, dating from the early 1900’s onward. Contact the archives to book an appointment. The SS Sicamous Society also has a selection of typed articles and text online. Click here to see a snap shot of life in the valley: SS Sicamous and the Penticton Herald Newspaper

More Reading (Online History Collections)

The Okanagan Historical Society has an extensive collection of articles about the Sicamous, the lake boats and life in the early Okanagan (the lives of 20th Century European settlers). The collections have been digitized and can be accessed for free from the University of British Columbia’s online collections. Click here to see the online collections from the Okanagan Historical Society: Okanagan Historical Society

 Archive Photos

For archive photos of the lake ships you can contact the Penticton Museum and Archives. This is in the same building as the Penticton Library, so you can easily combine a visit to the museum, archives and library too. Many of the photos in the collection are already digitized and can be searched in-house, on the archive collections computer.  The archives are open from Wednesday to Friday( 10am to 4:30pm) . Booking a visit in advance is highly recommended, as it means the archives volunteers can find the information you need, ahead of your visit. To book a visit, or to learn more please call: 250-490-2453.

Extra Information for Teachers 

Have a look at the Canadian Pacific Rail History Teaching Pack – Canadian Pacific Rail Children’s Information Pack .


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