“Gliding gracefully and majestically into the waters of Kootenay Lake to the accompaniment of a din of whistles which drowned the cheering crowd of 2,000, the Nasookin was yesterday launched at the Fairview shipyards.” — Nelson Daily News, May 1, 1913
First of two parts
It’s a big boat with a long history.
The SS Nasookin, which first kissed Kootenay Lake a century ago Tuesday, was the largest and grandest sternwheeler ever to ply BC’s inland waters, although its heyday as flagship of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Lake and River Service lasted less than 20 years.
Later, it was converted to a car ferry and later still portions were used as a gift shop, bathhouse, and finally a private home. Telling the Nasookin’s entire story in a few hundred words isn’t easy, so we’ve divided it into two installments, beginning with its working career.
Queen of the Lake
The Nasookin was part of the CPR’s plans to bolster tourism on its routes. Unfortunately, the First World War derailed those plans, but already a magnificent hotel had opened at Balfour and an equally magnificent ship, the Bonnington, was sailing the Arrow Lakes.
The Nasookin was very similar but not identical to the Bonnington, and cost either $161,000 or $200,000 ($3.3 million to $4.1 million today), depending on conflicting accounts. An Ontario company won the contract to build the hull, which was assembled at the Fairview shipyards, based on a design by CPR superintendent Capt. John C. Gore. Local workers built the wooden superstructure under master builder James Bulger.
The Nasookin is instantly recognizable in photographs as the only Kootenay Lake sternwheeler with four decks. The bottom level had a large freight area, galley, pantry, refrigerator, express room, and crew’s quarters. The lower cabin deck included a men’s smoking room, carpeted ladies salon, and long dining room that seated 48.
The upper cabin or balcony deck had men’s and women’s observation rooms, furnished in heavy oak and wicker respectively. Both had large plate glass windows. The staterooms opened onto a balcony that overlooked the dining room. The Texas deck, one level higher, had more staterooms, a narrow social hall, and officers’ quarters. At the top of the ship was the wheelhouse, some 50 feet above the water.
On April 30, 1913, thousands of people gathered on these decks as well as aboard special barges, and at every vantage point in the shipyard to watch the new boat’s launch. James Bulger’s daughter Bertha broke a bottle of champange, christening it Nasookin — supposedly a Ktunaxa word that meant “the high,” “the great,” or “the lord chief.” (“At least these were the interpretations given by A.D. Wheeler of Ainsworth, who had suggested the name,” historian Michael Cone writes.)
“That the Nasookin may have a long and prosperous career should be the wish of every resident of Nelson,” the Daily News editorialized. “Her success means much to this city as well as to Kootenay and the Boundary generally.”
The Nasookin made its maiden voyage on May 24 to Kaslo, with a capacity load of 550 passengers. Along the way, the ship was “royally received” with gun salutes, whistle blasts, and fireworks. Soon after it settled down to its daily run: it departed Nelson at 6:30 a.m., reached Procter at 8 a.m., and Kootenay Landing at 10:30 a.m. The return trip left at 4:30 p.m. and arrived in Nelson at 8:30 p.m.
Over the years, the Nasookin hosted such dignitaries as the Prince of Wales — the future King Edward — who led an hour-long singalong in the forward observation room. It also carried the men of the 54th Kootenay Battalion on their way to war and Japanese Canadians bound for internment at Kaslo.
Completion of the rail line between Procter and Kootenay Landing in 1930 made the Nasookin redundant for the CPR. But it was only out of service a few months before the provincial government leased it as a car ferry between Fraser’s Landing (near Balfour) and Gray Creek. (For a short while it continued on to Boswell, until the road between Boswell and Gray Creek was completed.)
In 1933, the province bought the Nasookin and made extensive alterations, removing the Texas deck and most of the upper cabin deck. The pilot house was lowered to the roof of the ladies’ forward observation room and the main deck cleared to make more room for vehicles.
Tom Lymbery, whose family ran the Gray Creek store, which served as an informal ferry depot, recalls the Nasookin landed alongside the wharf and cars had to make a sharp right when boarding and then jockey for space between the boiler and engines.
In its later CPR days, the Nasookin increasingly carried vehicles, but its bow had to be remodeled to accommodate buses. The image of a Greyhound perched on its prow remains unforgettable.
Bus passengers had to get off at the top of the wharf and walk onto the boat because the loading operation was considered too dangerous.
The Nasookin’s days on the lake ended June 27, 1947 following the launch of the new MV Anscomb. Longtime captain Malcolm MacKinnon also retired. Curiously, MacKinnon had been the Nasookin’s master during the ship’s trial runs and inaugural trip, but never piloted it again until its ferry days.
The Nasookin sat at the Nelson shipyard until it was sold to former mayor Norman Stibbs, who turned it over to the Navy League of Canada for use as a training ship by local sea cadets. The following year, the Nasookin broke loose and drifted upstream. It was then re-anchored in a different position, but according to historian Cone, little care was taken in finding a proper berth and during low water of 1949, the hull settled on a submerged concrete foundation from an old sawmill.
“At first she began to list dangerously to starboard, but as the water level continued to recede and the strain became too great, the gallant steamer broke her back and sank in shallow water,” Cone wrote. “The real tragedy was that the entire incident could so easily have been avoided.”
The Nasookin then became the centre of a lawsuit between the Navy League and City of Nelson, which was settled out of court for $1,000. But the old ship faced an uncertain future.
Next: The Nasookin’s new home
“Two thousand see launching,” Nelson Daily News, May 1, 1913
“Nasookin makes maiden voyage,” Nelson Daily News, May 26, 1913
“Builders busy with Nasookin,” Nelson Daily News, July 25, 1933
“Alberta man buys Nasookin,” Nelson Daily News, July 25, 1950
“SS Nasookin was Queen of interior waters,” Nelson Daily News, Michael Cone, August 31, 1981
“Once proud ship came to ignominious end,” Nelson Daily News, Michael Cone, September 1, 1981
100 Days, 100 Years: A Century of Nelson’s Top News Stories, Shawn Lamb, 1997