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The first commercial boats to ply the waters of Okanagan Lake began service long before Penticton had been officially incorporated as a town. One of the first was a rowboat, the Ruth Shorts, captained by Thomas D. Shorts and used to haul freight across the lake. It first launched in 1883, and was a sign of things to come. Captain Shorts went on to launch the first steamboat on the lake three years later, the Mary Victoria Greenhow.
But it was not until the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) became involved that transportation really took off across the region, and Penticton's role as a transportation hub truly began. In 1892, a rail line built by the Shuswap & Okanagan Railway reached Okanagan Landing, at the north end of the lake. This line stretched to the CPR's main line at Sicamous, connecting the northern part of the Okanagan to the wider world via rail. All that was needed to breach the gap between the northern and southern parts of the region was a boat, and in 1892, CPR president William Van Horne announced that the Okanagan would get one.
The first CPR vessel to take to the waters of the Okanagan Lake was the SS Aberdeen, which ran between Okanagan Landing in the north and Penticton in the south. As one historian said, this new service transformed the region: "It was just as if the CPR had opened a branch line extending all the way from Okanagan Landing to Penticton. People living in communities down the valley had direct, reliable, comfortable access to the CPR main line."1
The popularity of the Aberdeen increased as farming and mining grew in the South Okanagan towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the service gradually expanded. Soon, the Aberdeen was making three return trips each week between Okanagan Landing and Penticton. The SS Okanagan was added to the route in 1907, allowing for daily steamer trips.
Then, in 1910, two years after Penticton was incorporated as a town of 600, transportation in the South Okanagan changed forever with the beginning of construction on the CPR-funded Kettle Valley Railway (KVR). On June 21, 1910, railway officials met with locals in Penticton, and an agreement was made to make the town the railway's headquarters.2 Penticton's destiny as a transportation hub was confirmed; the wharves and railway station on the shores of the Okanagan Lake would become the economic drivers of the town, propelling its growth and prosperity.
By 1914, the railway line between Penticton and Midway had been completed, and that same year, a brand new steamboat launched at Penticton: the SS Sicamous. The Sicamous was larger and more luxurious than the boats that had come before it, with amenities such as electricity and hot running water, which many of the local homesteads did not yet have. Travelling aboard the Sicamous was more of an experience than a simple act of transportation. The food cooked aboard was luxurious, the furnishings were rich and elegant, and passengers could even have hot baths for the small fee of 50 cents.3
As one passenger, Mary Orr, said when recalling the steamship, "...the SS Sicamous provided a stateliness, a dignity, a peacefulness, a nobility, to our lives that many of us will never forget."4
The SS Sicamous at the Penticton wharf, with the tugboat the Naramata beside her.
This stately steamship was only one part of a transportation system whose core was located in Penticton. Passengers on their way to the other communities in the South Okanagan would often stay overnight at the CPR's Penticton hotel, the Incola, which was located at the base of Martin Street beside the lake and the railway station. The location of this luxury hotel made a stop-over in Penticton an easy and enjoyable part of a passenger's journey through the Okanagan.5
The completion of the KVR in 1916 was another major milestone. Not only did the railway bring travellers and valuable freight through the town, but it also brought workers and supplies to Penticton throughout the six years of its construction. Penticton's railway station was the busiest station on the KVR, constantly thronged with travellers, businessmen, and workers. Okanagan fruit and other agricultural products flowed steadily through the town on its way to wider markets in the rest of Canada, and the region's mail travelled on the railway line and the steamships.
Yet this transportation system, so integral in the development of the region, was also relatively short lived. In 1936, the SS Sicamous was taken out of service, after years of struggling to make any profit. A combination of factors caused the end of steamship service on the lake. For one, highway construction and the rise of the automobile made the ships and trains obsolete. The Great Depression also hit the industry hard, as fewer people were travelling and fewer goods rushing off to market.
Penticton's waterfront grew quieter. The railway station declined in importance throughout the years, and the last train ran on the KVR in 1964. Highways became the main method of transportation, and cars zipped through the Okanagan far faster—though perhaps with far less elegance—than the steamships.
Yet in the South Okanagan, this important history was not allowed to slowly rot away. While the SS Sicamous did spend over a decade bobbing, abandoned, in the waters near Okanagan Landing, it was eventually brought home to Penticton in 1949 when the CPR sold it to the City of Penticton for the grand total of $1. The Penticton Gyro Club took over the ship, and for decades the Sicamous was used as a community gathering place and space for restaurants and businesses on the shores of the Okanagan Lake.
The SS Sicamous beached at Penticton.
In 1988, the SS Sicamous Restoration Society was formed to save the steamship from decay and graffiti. The restaurants and businesses were evicted, the upper deck was restored, and, after thousands of hours of restoration work, the vessel was reopened as a community centre and heritage space. Today, it remains a landmark on the shores of Okanagan Lake, telling the stories of the early days of transportation in the South Okanagan.
In a similar storyline, the Kettle Valley Railway was transformed from a railway line into a world-class biking and hiking path, drawing tourists and outdoor enthusiasts to the Okanagan from around the world. These important historical landmarks remain crucial and celebrated parts of Penticton and the wider community of the South Okanagan.
1. Turner, Robert D. The Sicamous & The Naramata: Steamboat Days in the Okanagan. Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1995, pp 10.
2. Sanford, Barrie. McCulloch's Wonder: The Story of the Kettle Valley Railway. White Cap Books, North Vancouver, 2002, pp 128.
3. "A History of the SS Sicamous Stern Wheeler." S.S. Sicamous. Accessed on April 12, 2021. URL: http://sssicamous.ca/history-of-the-sicamous/.
4. Turner, Robert D. 39.
5. "Penticton and the KVR." S.S. Sicamous. Accessed on May 21, 2021. URL: https://sssicamous.ca/kvr/.