Steamboats of the Arrow Lakes

The era of steamboats on the Arrow Lakes and adjoining reaches of the Columbia River is long-gone but was an important part of the history of the West Kootenay and Columbia Country regions of British Columbia. The Arrow Lakes[1] are formed by the Columbia River in southeastern British Columbia. Steamboats were employed on both sides of the border in the upper reaches of the Columbia, linking port-towns on either side of the border, and sometimes boats would be built in one country and operated in the other. Tributaries of the Columbia include the Kootenay River which rises in Canada, then flows south into the United States, then bends north again back into Canada, where it widens into Kootenay Lake. As with the Arrow Lakes, steamboats once operated on the Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake.


The Arrow Lakes route was accessible from the north, by a rail connection with the Canadian Pacific Railway at Revelstoke, where the CPR crosses the Columbia River. The Arrow Lakes Route was also accessible from the south, at Northport, Washington, also on the Columbia River, where there was also a rail connection. The Columbia River crossed the border near Boundary, Washington, which was about 749 miles from the mouth of the Columbia, if traced along the river's route. Revelstoke was 937 miles from the mouth of the Columbia, so the total distance of the Arrow Lakes route was 182 miles from Revelstoke to Boundary.[2]

Towns along the route, from north to south were Northport, Washington, Fort Colvile, Washington, and Trail, BC. After Trail, the Columbia widened into Lower Arrow Lake. Towns and landings along Lower Arrow Lake were Robson, Edgewood, Needles, Fauquier, Burton, and Graham Landing. North of Grand Landing, the lake narrowed and became more like a river. After this stretch, it widened into Upper Arrow Lake. Towns and landings along Upper Arrow Lake included Nakusp, Arrowhead and on a short northeasterly branch of the lake, Comaplix and Beaton. North of Arrowhead, the lake narrowed and became the Columbia River again, up to the next major town, which was Revelstoke.

Initial steamboats placed on the route

The first steamboat on the route was the Forty-Nine, built to service a brief gold rush on the Big Bend of the Columbia River, attempting the run from Marcus, Washington Terr., just above Kettle Falls, to the La Porte, one of the main boomtowns of the rush, which was site at the foot of the infamous and also impassable Dalles des Morts or Death Rapids, which were at the head of river navigation but also just below the richest of the Big Bend's goldfields, on the Goldstream River which meets the Columbia just upstream. Another major goldfield, Downie Creek, joined the Columbia just below the rapids and was the site of the boomtown Downie Creek, British Columbia, another port-of-call on the run. When the gold rush ended, Forty-Nine was withdrawn for lack of clientele, and the captain gave free passage out of the Big Bend area for those who could not afford passage.[3][4][5] After that, the small steam launch Alpha ran supplies up to Revelstoke (then called Farwell) where the Canadian Pacific Railway was building a crossing over the Columbia River for its transcontinental line. In 1885, a much larger vessel, the sternwheeler Kootenai, was built at the Little Dalles at Northport, Washington Terr.,[3] for the CPR, but grounded in September of that year, and was laid up for a number of years afterwards. After that, three businessmen formed the Columbia Transportation Company, and put Dispatch on the Arrow Lakes route. The Dispatch (sometimes spelled "Despatch") was a clunky-looking catamaran, which first ran on August 9, 1888. Her owners made enough money from her operations to buy the Marion, which had been operating above the Big Bend. She was shipped over and launched at Revelstoke.[5]

The owners of the Columbia Transportation Company brought in some bigger businessmen, J.A. Mara, Frank S. Barnard, and Captain John Irving, who formed the Columbia River and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company on January 21, 1890, with a capital of $100,000. In 1889 through 1890, the new firm purchased the idle Kootenai for $10,000 and built and launched the Lytton at Revelstoke, which was ready for service in July, 1890. The first trip taken by the Lytton on July 2, 1890, was transporting rails and other track-building supplies south through the Arrow Lakes to Sproat's Landing, where the Kootenay River flowed into the Columbia, for a railroad that the CPR was building from the landing to Nelson on Kootenay Lake. The trip was 150 miles each way, and Lytton averaged 1213 miles an hour downstream and 11 miles an hour upstream, including stops for wooding up and minor repairs.[5]

By August 1890, American interests had completed a railroad, called the Spokane Falls and Northern, from Spokane Falls (later simply Spokane) to Little Dalles, Washington (Northport). Lytton, Kootenai and the Arrow Lakes route formed a link between the northern CPR railhead at Revelstoke the Arrow Lake to the southern railhead at Little Dalles.[5]

Expansion of the fleet

After the successful 1890 season, the Columbia & Kootenay Steam Navigation Company decided to expand the fleet by adding a new sternwheeler, Columbia, built at Little Dalles, and launched in 1891, at price of $75,000. She remained under American registry. Once Columbia was in service, C&KSN was able to run two roundtrip boats weekly from Revelstoke to Little Dalles. The critical nature of the Arrow Lakes steamboat route can be judged by the fact that when the steamboats were not running, mail from Revelstoke to Nelson, on Kootenay Lake, took 10 to 14 days, as opposed to the two days during the summer steamboat season.[5]

C&KSN also brought up from Oregon one of the best steamboat captains on the Columbia River, James W. Troup, to manage its operations on Arrow and Kootenay lakes. Troup had to deal with a number of challenges, including irregular schedules, and ice and low water blocking operations. At one point, the water level, apparently in the narrows between upper and lower Arrow Lakes, was so low that only the small Dispatch and Marion could make the run between the lakes. Troup built Illecillewaet at Revelstoke, launched October 30, 1892, and "'designed to float on dew.'" She was small, and apparently ugly, but was a big improvement over dispatch, and could operate in low water when no other boat could.[5]

In 1893, a rail extension was built from Arrowhead to a junction with the CPR mainline at Revelstoke. Boats no longer needed to steam up the shallow waters of the Columbia between the north end of Upper Arrow Lake and Revelstoke, and Arrowhead now became the effective northern head of navigation.[5]

Lytton was driven ashore by a storm on July 26, 1896, near Nakusp, and had to be withdrawn from service for emergency repair work at Nakusp. On August 2, 1894, Columbia was destroyed by fire just north of the international border. This took out both of the C&KSN's passenger steamers, leaving only Illecillewaet and Kootenai were moving the freight business, which was mostly related to rail construction. Troup needed a replacement for Columbia right way, so he brought in the Bulger family, experienced steamboat builders from Portland, Oregon, to run the shipyards at Nakusp and at Nelson, and to build Columbia's replacement.[5]

On July 1, 1895, the new sternwheeler, Nakusp, was launched from the shipyard at the city of the same name. This vessel was the largest yet seen on the Arrow Lakes, 1034 tons, almost twice the tonnage of Columbia. She was luxurious in a way other vessels never had been.[5]



Smaller vessels

List of Vessels

The following steamboats and related vessels operated on these lakes:

Steamboats and other vessels on the Arrow Lakes, British Columbia[4][5]
Name Type Year Built Where Built Owners Builder Gross Tons Reg. Tons Length Beam Depth[6] Engines Disposition
Forty-Nine sternwheeler 1865 Colville Landing, WA Leonard White Leonard White and C.W. Briggs 219 114' 20' 5' 12" by 48" little used after 1870
Alpha steam launch 1882 Hong Kong[7] unknown
Dispatch sternwheeler 1888 Revelstoke Columbia Transportation Co. 37 23 54' 22'[8] 4.5' 8"x24" Last used as snag boat, dismantled 1893, engines to Illecillewaet.
sternwheeler circa 1888 Golden, BC[9] Columbia Trans. Co. Alexander Watson 15 9 61' 10.3' 3.6' 5.5" by 8" sank on Kootenay Lake in 1901
sternwheeler 1890 Revelstoke C&KSN Co. Alexander Watson 452 285 131' 25.5' 4.8' 16'x62" Dismantled 1902 or 1904
Kootenai sternwheeler 1885 Little Dalles Henderson & McCartney Paquet & Smith/E.G.Thomason 371 269 139' 22' 5' 14"x60" Grounded and dismantled 1895
Columbia sternwheeler 1891 Little Dalles, WA Alexander Watson/Joseph Paquet C&KSN Co. 534 378 153' 28' 6.3' 18"x72" Burned, 1894, total loss
Illecillewaet sternwheel scow 1892 Revelstoke C&KSN Co. Alexander Watson 98 62 78' 15' 4' 8"x24" (from Dispatch) Sold for barge use, 1902
sternwheeler 1895 Nakusp, BC C&KSN Thomas J. Bulger 1083 832 171' 33.5' 6.3' 20"x72" Destroyed by fire at dock at Arrowhead, BC, 23 Dec 1897
Trail sternwheeler 1896 Nakusp, BC C&KSN Thomas J. Bulger 663 418 165' 31 4.9' 14" by 60" destroyed by fire at Robson West, BC, June 1900
Columbia steam tug 1896[10] Nakusp, BC C&KSN Thomas J. Bulger 50 34 77' 14.5' 6.4' 9" / 18" by 12" In service until 1947, sold 1948, later disposition unknown
Kootenay sternwheeler 1897 Nakusp, BC Canadian Pacific Railway Thomas J. Bulger 1117 732 184' 33 6.2' 18" by 72" Used as houseboat after about 1920, eventually abandoned below Nakusp.
sternwheeler 1897 Nakusp, BC C.P.R. Thomas J. Bulger 884 532 183' 29' 7' 22" by 96" sank 1917, raised, but proved to be unsalvageable, and sold for use as landing barge.
Minto sternwheeler 1898 Nakusp, BC[11] C.P.R. J. M. Bulger 830 522 162' 30' 5.1' 16" by 72" abandoned on beach 1955, fittings and sternwheel stripped, deliberately burned August 1, 1968, after restoration efforts failed.
Revelstoke sternwheeler 1902 Nakusp, BC Columbia River Steamship Co. 309 179 127' 22.7' 4.3' 12" by 60" Destroyed by fire at Comaplix, April 1915, possibly arson.
Whatshan steam tug 1909 Nakusp, BC C.P.R. 106 72 90' 19' 8.1' 12" / 26" by 18" Out of service 1919, scrapped 1920
sternwheeler 1911 Nakusp, BC[11] C.P.R. J. M. Bulger 1700 1010 203' 39 7.5' 16"/ 34" by 96" Dismantled 1950s
Nipigonian motor launch (steel hull) 1929 Penetang, ON[12] 10 7 40' 9.5' 4.8' gasoline Only used from February 1 to late April 1948
Widget diesel tug Vancouver, BC Ivan Horie[13] 9 6 36.5' 9.5' 4.8 diesel
Columbia[14] motor pass. tug 1928[15] Vancouver, BC C.P.R. 22 15 50' 11.4 5.6' diesel

See also


  1. The lakes are now merged into one lake by the construction of a hydroelectric dam
  2. Timmen, Fritz, Blow for the Landing, at page 228, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, ID 1973 ISBN 0-87004-221-1
  3. "Steamboats of the Columbia" article in Trails In Time website by Walter Volovsek
  4. Mills, Randall V., Sternwheelers up Columbia, pages 86, 189-203, University of Nebraska, Lincoln 1947 ISBN 0-8032-5874-7
  5. Turner, Robert D., Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs, pages 1–2, 4-8, 9, 13-20, 21, 28, 33-34, 251-263, Sono Nis Press, Victoria, BC 1984 ISBN 0-919203-15-9
  6. Measurement is to depth of hold, that is, how deep the ship's hull was from the bottom of the hold to the first weather, or main, deck.
  7. shipped to Spokane Falls, carried overland to Colville Landing, and launched there circa 1884
  8. twin hulled catamaran
  9. Shipped to Revelstoke 1889
  10. rebuilt 1912 and 1920
  11. Prefabricated components of hull were manufactured in Ontario, then shipped west, where they were assembled. Upper works were built from scratch at Nakusp.
  12. Primary service area for this vessel was on the Lake of the Woods in Ontario, and was only in operation briefly on lower Arrow Lake.
  13. C.P.R. chartered Widget but used the vessel only briefly on Arrow Lakes, from February 1 to late April 1948
  14. ex Surfco, exUchuck
  15. Purchased 1948 by C.P.R.

The Columbia was bought by the Waldie lumber Co. and refitted from steam to a Vivian Diesel in 1948

Further reading

  • Downs, Art, Paddlewheels on the Frontier, (1st Ed.), Superior Publishing, Seattle, WA 1972
  • Mills, Randall V., Sternwheelers up Columbia, University of Nebraska, Lincoln 1947 ISBN 0-8032-5874-7
  • Timmen, Fritz, Blow for the Landing, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, ID 1973 ISBN 0-87004-221-1
  • Turner, Robert D., Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs, Sono Nis Press, Victoria, BC 1984 ISBN 0-919203-15-9
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