Upper Kootenay River Sternwheelers

S.S. Annerly   Navigation on the Kootenay River (the Kootenai in the United States) in the East Kootenay was very important in the 1890s before the completion of the Crowsnest Pass railway route. The Kootenay has its source in the marshes and wetlands near Canal Flats about half way between the present day cities of Golden and Cranbrook. From there it flows to the south and crosses the border into Montana before swinging north again to enter British Columbia south of Creston. The river enters the southern end of Kootenay Lake and then flows out of the lake west of Nelson. This short section of river was marked by many spectacular waterfalls and cascades - later developed for hydro-electric power - before the Kootenay joined the Columbia near Castlegar.

The source of the Kootenay is very close to the source of the Columbia in Columbia Lake and the possibility of building a canal between the two rivers looked feasible. The scheme was promoted and developed by W.A. Baillie-Grohamn, an Englishman, who travelled extensively in the Kootenay and became involved in a number of land development schemes. Although a canal with a lock was built between the two rivers, the scheme proved impractical and was used very little before being abandoned. Baillie-Grohamn also invested in and promoted the diking and draining schemes to develop agricultural lands at the southern end of Kootenay Lake through the Alberta & B.C. Exploration Company.

The Kootenay River formed a natural route for travel south from British Columbia to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways built across the northern states in the 1880s and 1890s.1 The early sternwheelers that operated on this route were primitive vessels with few luxuries but they were serviceable and generally reliable. Navigation on the Kootenay was seasonal in nature and the boats could not operate because of ice and low water in the winter months.

S.S. North Star  

The first significant steam vessel to operate on the Upper Kootenay was the sternwheeler Annerly which steamed north from Jennings, Montana, in May 1893. This was a rather crude vessel with few comforts for travellers except that it was faster than walking or paddling a canoe. The Annerley was followed by the steamer Gwendoline built in 1894. These independently owned vessels carried ore south into Montana and brought supplies from the railroads back north to Fort Steele, which was then the most important town on the Canadian side of the border, and other communities. The next vessel to appear was the more spacious steamer Ruth, built in 1896, which provided travellers with cabins and a dining room. The small sternwheeler Rustler was launched that year but she was wrecked in Jennings Canyon a few weeks after entering service in 1896. To make matters worse, the next spring, both the Gwendoline and the Ruth were wrecked in Jennings Canyon but fortunately the Gwendoline was saved and rebuilt. The larger steamer North Star, registered in the United States, was built later in 1897 but was laid up the following year after the Crowsnest Pass railway was completed. It was used again for Great Northern branch line construction to the Crowsnest coal fields and finally was taken north to Golden where it was laid up permanently.


The substantial steamer, J. D. Farrell, built at Jennings, arrived at Fort Steele in 1898, in time for a brief season of carrying supplies for the ongoing construction of the CPR's new railway westward from the Crowsnest Pass. The Farrell was 130 feet (long 39.6 m) and 26 feet (7.9 m) in breath and the hull depth was 4.5 feet (7.2 m) and was similar in size to the Ruth and the North Star. These three steamers were the largest to operate on the Upper Kootenay.

Although the careers of the vessels on the Upper Kootenay were brief, they provided an important service to the people of the region in the 1890s before the Crowsnest Pass route was completed. They also supported the construction by bringing in supplies and materials from the south.

Several small sternwheelers operated south from Golden on the Upper Columbia from the mid-1880s until the completion of the CPR's Kootenay Central Railway. After that, there was little business for the vessels. The railway was a faster and more efficient means of travel and the sternwheelers could not compete.

1 Downs, Art. 1972. Paddlewheels on the Frontier. Gray's Publishing Ltd., Sidney, B.C.

This book provides an excellent and entertaining overview of sternwheeler operations on the Upper Columbia and Kootenay Rivers. Details of the vessels are available in a list by E. L. Affleck. 1993. Affleck's list of Sternwheelers and other Larger Steamboats Working on the Columbia River Waterways North of the 47th Parallel of Latitude, 1865-1965. Alexander Nicholls Press, Vancouver, B.C.

Steam NavigationSteam Navigation