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Lifeline of the Lake

“For many years the picturesque sterwheeler passenger ships which travelled up and down Okanagan Lake played a large part in the life of their time. They are still fondly remembered for their fine meals and comfortable accommodation. At first the people on the shores of the beautiful lake depended on the steamboat service provided by local firms, but soon the C.P.R. sternwheelers took over and a new way of life began.

SS Aberdeen, 1915
SS Aberdeen in 1915, loading Rainbow Ranche fruit at the wharf at the foot of Pixton Road in Okanagan Centre. Man on the right is RR manager Jim Goldie. Click on photos to enlarge.

The roads were very bad, the railways never interconnected, and so townsfolk, farmers and ranchers alike used these charming ships as their chief means of travel. They went on special excursions and moonlight dance cruises, to picnics, regattas and farm fairs. To the settlers homesteading on the side of a hill, the sight of the boat coming round the point was the centre of their lives. It meant mail, supplies and perhaps a chance to visit with friends and neighbours on the wharf. As one old timer put it, it made them feel far less isolated. and for many, a round trip was the only vacation they could afford.

Such travel was easy, for though it took more time than nowadays, it was much more relaxing. It was not uncommon for people to travel down the lake for dances, party all night and come back the next day. One person recalled that it was an entirely different way of life; people didn’t fret if the boat was late, they knew it would come sometime. The crews were a ‘fine bunch.’ and many a time helped out beyond their duties.

SS Okanagan
SS Okanagan on Okanagan Lake. This ship was built at Okanagan Landing in 1907.

Everyone speaks very highly of the superb meals. The tables were laid with gleaming silver, spotless linen, and the C.P.R.’s own monogrammed china and glass. There was always local fresh fruit and vegetables, with milk and cream from Fintry Farms and other lakeside dairies. And the menu was large, with a choice of as many as eight meat courses.

There was a quietness and a serenity in Lake travel in those days. In spring the delicate tints of the different fruit trees in bloom were lovely to see, and the fragrance of the apple blossoms seemed to float down to the lake and scent the air. In summer the lake breezes were cool on the hottest day. The feeling of timelessness ad tranquility when sailing on the old sternwheelers has become a long-ago memory, but one which many people can still recall with delight.”

Source: Staff of Vernon Museum. Steamboats of the Okanagan. Vernon, BC: Vernon Museum, 1978. p. 1.

Photo sources: SS Okanagan photograph by J. W. Fowler, Monahsee Pictures. SS Aberdeen photograph courtesy of the Lake Country Museum & Archives.

Steamfest, a celebration of 100 years of the launching of the SS Sicamous, is being celebrated for 18 months, beginning in May 2014, with many activities planned throughout the Okanagan Valley. Click on the Steamfest website to view events and dates.


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