Copper Island from Sorrento Beach

Shuswap Lake BC, winter view of Copper Island from the beach in Sorrento; Photo by JW Brown

THE STERNWHEELER DAYS         by Jim Cooperman

(Note: The web version of "The Sternwheeler Days" has two additional pictures and is formatted differently than the published version.)

Imagine a romantic cruise up the Thompson River on a steampowered paddlewheeler with the gentle sound of the paddles hitting the water or consider the convenience of shipping your produce on a government funded ship that pulls up to the shore next to your homestead. Before the age of roads and motor cars the sternwheelers served a vital role in the development of the Shuswap Lake region. From 1866 to 1916, nineteen stern and side wheeled steamships were built to provide transportation between Savona, the North Thompson, the Shuswap and as far south as Enderby (Fortune's Landing). They ranged in size from the 143 foot, 624 ton Distributor built in 1912 for the CNR to the 33 foot, 15 ton Red Star I built in 1887. These steamships hauled supplies to the goldfelds, carried men, equipment and rails for the construction of the railroads, hauled firewood, farm produce and building supplies for the settlers and carried passengers.

C R Lamb Sternwheller docking at Sorrento

C. R. Lamb docking at Sorrento - Photo: Fred Bischoff

From 1880 to 1906, sawmills in Kamloops and Kualt (near Tappen) had virtual control of the Shuswap Lake benchlands through the timber berths they held. These companies built most of the Thompson Shuswap steamboats to ship the loggers, horse teams and equipment to the logging sites and to tow the booms of logs to the mills. The Inland Sentinel reported on August 28, 1884,

"The 'Peerless' last Friday evening arrived towing down a large raft of saw logs for Mr. Hartney who has a contract with the Shuswap Mill Company. The logs were got up the Seymour Arm, and are stated to be a good class of logs ...."

Logging was often done in the winter with the snow facilitating hauling of the timber. The logs piled up along the shores on decks waiting to be rolled into the water and towed away in the spring. Often disputes occurred when these booms of logs created navigational hazards along the river. But the transportation advantages outweighed the disadvantages, as these steamships provided services throughout the Thompson Shuswap region.

The two ninety foot sister ships, the C. R. Lamb and the Andover, built by G.B. Ward for the Arrow Lakes Lumber Company in 1907 and 1908 for approximately $23,000 each, provided the greatest service to the North Shuswap. The Lamb was at first the logging ship while the Andover provided a mail, height and passenger service from Kamloops to Sicamous and Seymour Arm under a government subsidy of $1500 a month. The government also assisted each community in the construction of a wharf to facilitate loading and unloading the ships as well as to tie up private boats. The Celista wharf was built in the fall of 1912 in less than a month and sported a painted freight shed at one end. A dance was even held on a Monday night to celebrate the completion of the wharf.

C R Lamb Sternwheller loading freight

C. R. Lamb loading freight - Photo: NSHS Archives

The 1912 and 1913 editions of the Chase Tribune contain many references to the Andover and C.R. Lamb such as, "Mr. Dave Garland shipped seven tons of hay on the steamer Andover on the 14inst. to parties at Seymour Arm" and "The steamer C.R. Lamb, came up here on Wed. last bringing an outfit of men and teams belonging to the Arrow Lakes Lumber Co. to get out piling for the C.N. Railway. After looking over their limits at Celista, they did not find any timber to suit them and on Friday they moved their outfit up to Ross Creek, where they are now encamped." The April 11, 1913 edition contained the passenger and freight schedules and mileage tables. There were four classes of freight, the fourth, the least expensive to ship, included grain, vegetables and building supplies while livestock and farm implements were in the first class. Passengers were charged four cents a mile. A trip from Celista to Kamloops would have cost $2.28 per person and to ship a box of apples would have cost 90 cents.

The sternwheelers were constructed with very shallow draft to help prevent them from running aground on sandbars and to enable them to tie up on beaches. Ted Coubeaux, Sorrento pioneer, remembers how the sternwheelers were handier than the trains, "The Lamb came by about 11 a.m. If we had goods to ship we would simply wave a flag and Captain Ward would pull up to shore to load them up. He would even take boxes of apples and sacks of potatoes and trade them for flour and sugar. All the lumber for our new house came by steamboat." When the river level dropped in the fall, sometimes the Captain would find that the draft was not shallow enough. Magna Bay pioneer, Madge Noakes remembers an eventful journey on the C. R. Lamb during its last run to Kamloops in the fall of 1936.

"Captain Louie pulled up on our beach to take on the cordwood my Dad had cut. Lorna and I boarded the Lamb to go to school. It was a pleasant trip until we reached the 'Goodwin Sands.' Billy Louie attempted to avoid the sand bar but the ship ran aground and he was unable to back her off. We ended up staying the night in one of the statcrooms and Mrs. Louie cooked a fine meal. The next morning, Billy was forced to toss off the cordwood into the river to lighten the ship and eventually she floated off the bar and we continued on to town."

Despite the excellent service the Andover provided the settlers on the lake, it proved to be uneconomical. In 1913, the deficit from running expenses amounted to $400 in June and $300 in July. In August, the Chase Tribune reported that the combined Boards of Trade from around the lake petitioned the government for increased subsidy to fund the steamboat service. Despite continued funding, the service was discontinued in 1915, probably as a result of men leaving to fight in World War 1. In 1919, the Andover returned under Captain J.J. Smith to run a service on the Shuswap. But by 1930, the combination of better roads and economic depressions brought the steamboat service nearly to an end.

During the summers, Smith ran two or three special excursions to Seymour Arm. These excursions were popular family outings for many of the settlers on the lake. The ship would stop at each community's wharf to take on passengers for only fifty cents each. Magna Bay pioneer, Stan Noakes, remembers taking these excursions with his family when he was a teenager from 1922 to 1924, "Often the boat would fill up with over a hundred people. Captain Smith's daughter played the piano on the top deck and people would catch up on the gossip and make deals while enjoying the two hour cruise to Seymour Arm." Once the boat docked, some folks ate their picnic lunches, while others went swimming or hiked up to visit the famous Colling's Estate. The excursions were true family affairs with no alcoholic beverages allowed. But, occasionally, a passenger would board with a suspicious looking suitcase and he would be escorted up to the pilot house where Captain Smith could have a nip or two while keeping a watchful eye over the bag!

Steamer Andover Shuswap Lake Summer Service Schedule

Steamer Andover Shuswap Lake Summer Service Schedule

The Andover ran with a crew of five for the excursions; the Captain, the first mate, the fireman, the engineer and the cook. A larger crew was required for towing and hauling freight. The C.R. Lamb had a bar that held the tow lines above the paddles. When the ship had to back up, one of the crew had to haul in the massive two and one half inch hemp rope. Other steamers, such as the Hellen up on Adams Lake, hauled log booms from the front while they cruised along in reverse. All the boats had steam-powered generators to run electric lights including good search lights for night landings on beaches or docks. As a boy, Stan Noakes spent many hours exploring the Andover, fascinated by the machinery and the jobs of the crew. He especially remembers the communication system, " The captain or mate would signal the engineer with a system of bells worked with cables." Both ships had two decks, the lower one for freight and cordwood for the boiler and the upper one for passengers. On top was a truss post that held cables used to brace the structure. The design was similar to a bowstring-truss bridge; the hull was strung like a bow which kept it from buckling in the middle in heavy seas.

In the early thirties, the only steamer left on the Shuswap, was the screw driven Whitesmith, which provided regular service between Sicamous and the isolated Seymour Arm and hauled freight on a contract basis. In September of 1932, Billy Louie surprised the community and the Provincial Government by purchasing the C.R. Lamb. He had been the part-time captain of the ship in previous years as well as operating the Crombie for the Adam's River Lumber

Company. But Louie had some political lobbying to do before he could operate in the spring. He wrote the City of Kamloops that fall, "I have recently bought the C.R. Lamb steamboat with the intention of running it between this city and Shuswap Lake and expect to use it not only for transport of passengers but also of cordwood, fruit and farm produce generally. I find that there are impediments to navigation along the South Thompson River which may seriously interfere with the operation of this steamboat." He went on to explain how the lift span had been removed from the highway bridge at Pritchard and that a ferry cable and high tension wires were strung too low at Ducks (Monte Creek). The city helped him win the fight, and the Department of Public Works was forced to install a lift-span at considerable expense.

C R Lamb Sternwheller steaming by Copper Island circa 1910

C. R. Lamb steaming by Copper Island circa 1910 - Photo: NSHS Archives

Billy Louie operated the Lamb without a government subsidy for six years. Many settlers made their winter grubstake by selling firewood to Billy for $2.50 a cord. The ship became famous for its excursions again, from Kamloops to Sorrento and from Sorrento to Seymour Arm for the Shuswap residents. Billy added moonlight cruises to the schedule and he hired bands to play. A dance floor was built to provide a level surface on top of the deck which had a rise in the center. Stan Noakes was in his family's band, the Noakes Orchestra, which often played voluntarily on both the cruises and excursions. Celista pioneer, Chasey Brown, remembers a moonlight cruise when a passenger began to entertain everyone with his yodeling, "Billy stopped the boat in the middle of the lake when someone on shore began to answer back with his yodels. The two yodeled back and forth for nearly an hour to the delight of the passengers and crew." Every year, Billy Louie found it more difficult to make a profit. By 1938 the boat was becoming dilapidated and Billy had to beach her at the foot of Eighth Avenue in Kamloops. The sternwheeler era was over. Today some parts of the C. R. Lamb - the wheel, lights, bell and other items are on display in the Kamloops Museum. Also, a 66 foot sternwheeler replica, the Wanda Sue, is once again entertaining passengers with excursions and night cruises on the Thompson River.