Commissioning and Building the Stern Wheeler S.S. Sicamous

The Sicamous was built in the same design as two earlier sister ships; the S.S. Bonnington and S.S. Nasookin. The designs were drawn up by Captain James Troup, and master ship builder Thomas J. Bulger. The ship was commissioned in 1913 and construction on the hull began soon after. The contract was awarded to the “Western Dry Dock& Ship Building Company” of present day Thunder Bay (formerly Port Arthur). The hull was to be built of steel with 20 water tight compartments. The frame for the hull was temporarily put together using bolts in place of rivets. The boiler and engines were also constructed and tested here. When the work was complete the structure was “knocked down”, taken apart and loaded into 19 railway cars. The hull and machinery then made their way across Canada, all the way to the Okanagan Landing Ship Yards in British Columbia.

Work at the ship yards started in September, and was very busy – with up to 150 men employed in the construction of the Sicamous, and the tug Naramata (commissioned and shipped at the same time!) More supplies arrived by train, and the ship builders set to work. The superstructures of the ship were all hand carved from imported woods (Mahogany from Australia, and Teak from Burma) and required great skill and precision to build. No expense was spared, and the ship had the finest furnishings. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Vernon newspaper:

“The large observation and smoking rooms back of the upper tier of staterooms is practically walled with glass and will afford a splendid point of vantage from which to view the scenery…writing desks and reading lamps will be installed and a piano is to be put on the balcony above the dining room. The most modern fire fighting devices will be provided…In addition to the usual staterooms for the crew there are special rooms for mail clerk and express messenger, a cold storage for meats and poultry, a pastry room, shower bath for the crew and other conveniences”

The Story of the Launch

The SS Sicamous was launched onto Okanagan Lake on May 19th, 1914. It was christened by Mrs. J Corbet to the “tooting of whistles and the cheering of the large crowd…the splendid new steamer Sicamous slid gracefully into the water…” wrote a reporter from the Vernon’s News. But there she stopped. Apparently the launching cradles stuck om shallow water, the lake not being as high as hoped. Heavy lines were run on board from the Okanagan and Castlegar but they could not pull the Sicamous free.

No one let the temporary difficulties mar the event however (though there were certainly worried moments for the ship yard crew and CPR officials). Mrs Corbet was presented with an upholstered chair from the ship yard works and a bouquet of carnations by the misses Stobo and Reid (daughters respectively of shipwright John Stobo – later master ship builder at the CPR ship yards in Nelson, BC, and Captain Mathew Reid of the Castlegar).

The Okanagan, which had brought many people to the landing to see the launching, had to return south before the ship could be pulled free. The tug Castlegar and the Aberdeen stern wheeler, working together, were finally able to pull the Sicamous free from the lake bottom at 7:00pm that evening.

The Maiden Voyage of the S.S. Sicamous

Although the SS Sicamous had been launched on May 19th, it was not yet complete, and her first journey on the lake would not be until June 12, 1914. The “inaugural excursion” as the trip was called, was a big event for residents of the Okanagan. A free train was provided for Vernon residents planning to board Sicamous at the OK Landing ship yards,

At each stop Captain Gore would shout “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].

 

A Quick Timeline of Events

  • The SS Sicamous is commissioned by Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR) to supplement the fleet of ships on Okanagan Lake.
  • Construction starts in 1913 with the steel hull, engine and boiler all built in Thunder Bay (formerly Port Arthur) on the Eastern coast of Canada.
  • The pieces were then transported across Canada by rail, to reach the Ship yards at Okanagan Landing
  • Up to 150 ship yard workers pieced the steel hull and machinery back together, then they began carving the wood of the upper levels by hand.
  • The ship was launched on Okanagan Lake on May 19th 1914.


Researching the Ships Under Your Own Steam

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 . We are also happy to offer guided tours for school groups.