Transportation historians like to highlight the big CPR sternwheelers, and the role they played in the development of the Kootenays and Okanagan during the influx of settler populations in the years leading up to the First World War. The smaller CPR freight boats, less glamorous, often get left out of the picture. On Okanagan Lake the first of these smaller boats was the SS York, assembled at the CPR’s Okanagan Landing shipyard in 1902. The CPR had originally intended to put her into service on Trout Lake in the Kootenays, but by 1902 the mining boom there had fizzled out; the need for a back-up boat in the Okanagan for the SS Aberdeen gave the new boat a new role.
Compared to the 544 gross tons of the Aberdeen, The York was small, only a quarter the size, and with only limited passenger accommodation, not really a practical replacement for the Aberdeen. She seems to have often been used for non-scheduled freight runs, at least in her later years of service. The Kelowna newspapers mention a variety of cargos: a load of vehicles, a load of canning machinery, a portable steam engine. She was also used for Canadian Pacific company work: towing a boom of poles for wharf construction, bringing a barge with a pile driver aboard down to Summerland. A winter photo shows her on ice breaking duty, pushing a loaded scow ahead of her to clear a channel for a bigger stern wheeler.
By 1909 the CPR had a railway barge on the Lake, initially put into service between Okanagan Landing and Kelowna. This signalled the beginning of the end for freight boats. The big barges could handle far more fruit during the fall fruit rush and more efficiently. The York and the Aberdeen were briefly used to handle the new barge before the CPR launched its first Okanagan Lake tug, the Castlegar.
The York achieved a brief moment of notoriety in the early spring of 1909, when the sternwheeler Okanagan lost her funnel in a storm. The Orchard City Record (a Kelowna newspaper) recounts the event:
The non-arrival of the Okanagan last Tuesday afternoon was the cause of much anxiety, and it was not until late that news came to hand to the effect that she had met with an accident and that she was put out of commission for a short space of time at any rate.
It appears that the boat, started from the Landing [Okanagan Landing, near Vernon] with her passengers as usual, and although a severe gale was blowing at the time very little was thought of it. When nearing Shorts Point, a severe gust of wind struck the vessel and carried away the smoke stack, which went rolling overboard into the lake. The engineer tried to keep up steam, but could not retain sufficient to make any headway against the stormy wind, and consequently it was decided to attempt a landing and wait until more favourable weather appeared.
A landing was found impossible, and it was decided to let the vessel drift in shore, and there under the shelter of the hills to await the arrival of the Aberdeen which was due in about half an hour. This was done, and it was not long before the passengers were being taken back to the landing, on the sister vessel, and there safely landed.
Meanwhile the Okanagan was lying to waiting for the fury of the storm to abate, and presently she managed to get up sufficient steam, to make a passage with the wind toward the Landing.
When about two miles from the Landing however, a fresh gale sprang, up, and the Aberdeen had again to come to the rescue, and to tow her safely into port…. It was found that very little damage was done to the boat, except to the smoke stack which was completely torn away and it was found necessary to send a wire to Nelson to order a fresh funnel
Mr. Watson of Kelowna, who was returning from Vernon at the time, gives a graphic description of the accident and the fury of the storm. Several people were seasick, the boat pitching and rolling so badly. The return on the Aberdeen was much easier, that boat appearing far more steady. It is understood that the passenger service will be somewhat hampered until the repair can be made.
The sequel to the story came a few days later. The Orchard City Record reports:
On Thursday [Captain Estabrook] somewhat startled the inhabitants by bringing in the Okanagan on schedule time, although it was considered that the mishap to her smoke-stack had put her out of commission for a few days at least. First of all negotiations were made to borrow the smokestack and whistle from our power house, as it was considered they were not much good, but after that a ‘happy thought’ struck the captain. Remembering that the York was out of commission, and that she had a little funnel all to herself, it was decided to steal it, together with her whistle. The theft was committed in broad daylight, and on Thursday afternoon she started her usual daily trip down the lake, looking extremely odd with a diminutive smoke-stack and a whistle something a kin to a small boy’s penny trumpet.
By end of the First World War, the York was out of service, tied up at Okanagan Landing. She received an unexpected reprieve in 1921, when the CPR decided to save construction costs on its new railway line from Penticton to Oliver by opening a railway barge service on Skaha Lake, between South Penticton and Okanagan Falls. The York was brought back to work as a tug pushing a single railway barge, usually loaded with a complete train: a locomotive, caboose, and three or four freight cars. When the CPR finally built a railway line along the west shore of Skaha Lake in 1932, the barge service was discontinued, and the York’s career as a freight boat and tug came to an end.