Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway's British Columbia Lake and River Service


280 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-919203-15-9





Reviewed by William A. Waiser

Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.  His


The place of the shallow-draught, steam-powered sternwheeler in the opening and development of Canada is often downplayed. Yet, in many parts of the country, the sternwheeler was for many years the only feasible means of transportation and communication.

Robert Turner’s Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs is an examination of the history of these vessels in the relatively remote southeastern interior of British Columbia. Beginning in 1889, Turner describes how within five years the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company had created a sizeable fleet to service the Columbia River district between the Canadian Pacific main line to the north and the American-based Great Northern Railway to the south. This network was subsequently purchased in 1897 by the CPR in a move to consolidate its position in the rich mining district. Expansion plans were temporarily interrupted the following year, when the railway attempted to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush by servicing the all-Canadian Stikine River route. The potential of the route, however, was greatly exaggerated and the scheme collapsed; two of the vessels originally intended for the Stikine fleet were redirected to inland service. Here, the CPR constructed by the turn of the century a first-class fleet of sternwheelers and steam tugs to coincide with the completion of the Crowsnest line to Kootenay Landing. For the next two decades, the sternwheelers served as a vital lifeline to the otherwise isolated communities of the region; launchings, excursions, and races were festive occasions. But railway and road construction — ironically aided by the sternwheelers and tugs — eventually undermined the viability of the service in the 1930s and 1940s and the boats were gradually phased out of service.

Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs is a fine piece of work. The vessels and their varied histories are described in exacting detail, complete with scale drawings. These descriptions are complemented by a rich sampling of newspaper excerpts, route maps, timetables, promotional literature, and even menus. A number of appendices outline the routes, crews, and accommodation features of each sternwheeler. The most handsome feature of Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs, however, is the hundreds of period photographs.

Thanks to Turner’s work, it is easy to understand why the sternwheelers meant so much to the interior communities. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the vessels are not still operated today.


Turner, Robert D., “Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Pacific Railway's British Columbia Lake and River Service,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,