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

The Rise and Fall of the Stern Wheelers on Okanagan Lake

Written by Mona (Xiao) Huang

As the first steamboat on Okanagan Lake, S.S. Mary Victoria Greenhow showed up on the Okanagan Beach of Penticton, the local settlers welcomed the crew and the ship with a twenty-one shotgun salute.[1] Although she was graceless and flawed, her arrival had a significant meaning to the communities. If the steamboats can develop a steady routine and make regular trips around the Okanagan Lake, which later on it did, then mail and supplies can arrive faster, and communities can be more connected. Captain Thomas Shorts, as the pioneer of steamboat travel on Okanagan Lake, opened a new page to transportation service in Okanagan. Many companies, with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) taking the lead, became involved in the industry. Soon, larger and swifter steamboats are built, and the most luxurious beauty of all was the S.S. Sicamous. Built by the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. and owned by the CPR.[2] To passengers, going to their destination was not the only purpose when one boarding the Sicamous; their world class dining service and enchanting sights were also praised upon.

The demand for the steamboat service continued and provided good profit for companies until the Kettle Valley Railway was finished in 1915,[3] and steamboats were no longer the only travelling option. Comparing to steamboats, trains does have a few significant advantages. The max speed of S.S. Sicamous, which was one of the fastest and finest steamboat on Okanagan Lake, is 20 miles per hour, while the passenger trains are able to maintain a pace of 26 miles per hour.[4] Using trains to transport passengers and haul freight can reduce up to a day of time needed. Besides that, they also have a larger capacity than steamboat that enables them to carry more cargo and passengers. As the railway connected the cities around the lake, the passenger service begin to decline.

However, the railway wasn’t the only factor that caused the downfall, after WWI, the automotive industry also expanded. From 1920 to 1930, the registered automobiles in B.C. rise from 28,000 to 98,938 in 10 years,[5] by then Canada was the second largest automobile producer in the world.[6] Consequently, in order to support the increasing traffic, highways and road systems are built. More travelling alternatives are invented, and steamboats are losing its passengers, who turned to trains and cars.

The inescapable end of the steamboat era came in between 1930-40, during this decade most of the steamboats on the Okanagan Lake stopped their passenger service, or entered complete retirement.[7] Queen of the Okanagan Lake, the S.S. Sicamous faced the same fate. She was taken to the shipyard for reconstruction, and was used only for shipping goods since then.[8] Similarly, the S.S. Okanagan retired in 1934, and was mostly dismantled except for the stern saloon, which is under restoring process by the Sicamous Restoration Society.[9]

Although building of the railway did bring more traffic for the steamboats, but the old-fashioned boats can no longer catch up with the trains, once the trains are put in service, the steamboats soon lost their business. The elimination of the steamboats was an unavoidable ending. But regardless, they have made great contribution to the Okanagan region in the early 20th century, their existence was the reason why the cities in Okanagan can exist, and had once delivered joy to the people who lived there.

References & Sources

[1] Leonard Norris, Sixth Report of Okanagan Historical Society, The First Steamboat of Okanagan Lake

[2] Vernon Museum staff, Steamboats of the Okanagan

[3] Wikipedia, Kettle Valley Railway

[4] sssicamous.ca, Kettle Valley Model Railway

[5] Ministry of Transportation and Highways, Frontier To Freeway,  p.7

[6] The Canadian Encyclopedia, Automotive Industry

[7] Robert D. Turner, Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs,  p.198

[8] Robert D. Turner, Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs,  p.198

[9] Wikipedia, SS Okanagan