The S.S. Moyie of Kootenay Lake

A Famous Ship

Kaslo, British Columbia, is the home of the oldest intact passenger-carrying sternwheel steamer in the world.  The S.S. Moyie was built at Nelson shipyard in the summer and fall of 1898, and launched on 22 October.  After 59 years of service on Kootenay Lake the S.S. Moyie was retired in 1957 by the Canadian Pacific Lake and River Service.  At high water the following spring she was sold for a dollar, towed to Kaslo and brought ashore. That same year the Kootenay Lake Historical Society was established and became her custodian. The S.S. Moyie is a National Historic Site of Canada, and on the BC Register of Historic Places.

Steam Power in the B.C. Interior

In the 1890s the mountainous southern part of British Columbia attracted the attention of miners and investors searching for silver, lead and zinc.  Transportation of equipment and supplies, and the shipment of ores, depended on the lakes and rivers, connected to the outer world by rail lines. A consortium of companies led by the Great Northern Railway competed with the Canadian Pacific Railway for boat and rail traffic on Kootenay Lake. A new CPR line built through the coal-rich Crowsnest Pass, in Alberta, reached Kootenay Landing late in 1898.  From there passengers and freight were to be carried to Nelson by a specially-built steamboat, the S.S. Moyie.

Building a Sternwheeler

The S.S. Moyie rests ashore on a steel cradle, so we can examine it from the keel up to the smokestack and steam whistle. The large paddlewheel at the stern is, of course, the most conspicuous characteristic of this kind of vessel.  Between it and the ship’s stern are four large rudders connected by chains to the great steering wheel in the pilot house, the uppermost enclosed space on the ship.

Between the pilot house and the hull are the two levels that earned much of the ship’s keep: the freight and saloon decks.  The freight deck’s heavy floor, large sliding doors and open space are typical of all ships of this kind.  A large area is occupied by the vessel’s machinery: the huge boiler and the two engines.  On this level there are sleeping cabins for the deck hands, and the galley.

The saloon deck’s layout includes three typical subdivisions: men’s and women’s saloons, with a dining saloon between them. At the forward end of this deck is the men’s saloon with its curving array of large windows, hard bench seating, spittoons and a lavatory.  Smoking was permitted here, and alcoholic drinks were sold by the ship’s bar (until prohibition arrived). Nearby is the Purser’s office, where the ship’s business was conducted.

The ladies’ saloon was more comfortably furnished, with curtains and cushioned seating.  Its high Victorian decoration has been restored, and today it is an unusually fine example of a period interior.  The dining saloon is another example, with a figured hardwood parquet floor, and clerestory windows with photographic scenes from along the CPR main line.  The pantry, in one corner, is connected to the galley below by a small dumb waiter. The dining saloon was deliberately made a generous size, with only a few sleeping cabins initially.

Beneath it all lies the ship’s hull.  It is relatively shallow, flat-bottomed and sheathed with wooden planks. Unlike most other sternwheelers of that day the Moyie’s hull has a steel frame.  The components were assembled at the Nelson yard by men from the Bertram Engine Works of Toronto, (who would have also overseen the installation of the engines and the original boiler). The SS Moyie’s unusually long working life is due largely to the strength of her hull.

The SS Moyie at Work

On December 7 1898 the CPR initiated the service connecting Kootenay Landing with Nelson.  Even at that date there were other sternwheelers on the lake, but the SS Moyie had been built and equipped for a specific role.  The trains carrying passengers from the east did not at first include dining cars.  Meals were served at specific stops along the way, such as Crowsnest, just inside the B.C.-Alberta boundary, where the new station included a dining hall.  The large handsome dining saloon aboard the Moyie provided a last opportunity for a meal before arriving in Nelson.  In 1906 the new larger and faster S.S. Kuskanook replaced the Moyie on this run.

In addition to the Kuskanook two other large Canadian Pacific sternwheelers were built before 1914, the S.S. Kokanee and the three-decker, steel-hulled  S.S. Nasookin. The Moyie was relegated to local and freight duties, and as relief vessel when other ships underwent inspections and repairs. She was also used to move barges: large flat-decked vessels with steel rails that could carry loaded railway freight cars.  A massive towing bitt on the Moyie’s bow was used to attach a barge alongside when being moved, the stress of which was sustained by the steel frame in her hull.

In popular memory the S.S. Moyie was a favourite excursion vessel, carrying as many as 200 or more passengers on special outings such as trips to Kaslo on May 24th to celebrate Victoria Day. In 1929 she received an extensive overhaul and boiler replacement. Nevertheless, as time went by the ship’s once handsome interior became plainer, while maintenance and service standards declined.  When the Crowsnest rail line was finally completed between Kootenay Landing and Procter in 1930 Canadian Pacific began to retire much of its lake fleet. By the 1950s improved highway connections made it possible to consider retirement for the last sternwheeler.  A major overhaul and another boiler replacement was due for the Moyie in 1957, but the expense and the reduced capacity of the Nelson shipyard ruled it out.  The tug Granthall would be retained to handle the barge run.  One of its duties was towing the Moyie to Kaslo.

The Oldest Sternwheeler

The S.S. Moyie was bought by the (then) City of Kaslo for $1.00, then handed over to the newly incorporated Kootenay Lake Historical Society under a 99-year lease.  The Society took on the tasks of preserving the historic vessel and telling its story to visitors and the general public.  At times the effort of maintaining the ship’s fabric, raising funding, seeking expertise and applying sheer physical effort has been challenging for a volunteer society.  Nevertheless, progress has been made.  A grand celebration was held in 1998 to mark the Moyie’s 100th birthday.  Thousands of visitors from all over the world have been aboard. Yet there are still challenges.  The fire suppression system installed in the early 1990s, that was to protect the ship from the fate of the S.S. Tutshi and other vessels, has now to be replaced at considerable cost.  We will rise to the challenge, as past crew, shipyard workers and friends of the S.S. Moyie have done.

For the full story of our famous ship read The S.S. Moyie: Memories of the Oldest Sternwheeler, by Robert D. Turner, Sono Nis Press, Victoria B.C. (1991).