Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries
Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries is the authoritative history of a century of ferry service across Kootenay Lake. Historian Michael A. Cone follows the service from its genesis in 1921, when it first linked the East and West Kootenays together as part of the visionary Southern Trans-Provincial highway, right up until its 100th anniversary in 2020, when the existing two-ferry operation is on the verge of turning another page with the introduction of a new ‘electric ready’ ferry with state-of-the-art technology. The story starts with coal-fired CPR sternwheelers – graceful and luxurious in their accommodations – carrying automobiles between Kuskanook and Nelson and then progresses to a ferry service owned and operated by the Provincial Government. From 1931 until 1947, the ferry ran between Fraser’s Landing and Gray Creek. In the post-War boom, the route was shortened to what it is today. For the next 73 years, Kootenay Lake ferries have crossed between Balfour and Kootenay Bay, always ready to provide a safe, convenient, sometimes vital year-round link to the communities they serve, regardless of how bad the weather is.
Michael Cone’s book chronicles the changes that have taken place over the century, from transformations in ferry designs and docking facilities, improvements in navigation techniques, evolution in crew uniforms and safety, to privatization of operations, revised scheduling and, not to forget, the removal of the ferry tolls in 1963. Over the years the operation has altered to keep pace with the changes in public taste, ranging from demands for shorter routes and less congestion, and improved on board and terminal conveniences, to changes in automobile styling, including the advent of RVs and larger commercial trucks.
Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries is a local history book you’ll want to curl up and read. It is filled with colourful first-hand accounts from crew members who were there, with black and white and period colour photos, many of which will be new for even the most ardent Kootenay historians.
Press: Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries
Book looks at history of Kootenay Lake ferries
Greg Nesteroff, My Nelson Now, Mar. 8, 2022
Several books have been devoted to the sternwheelers that once plied local lakes, but until now there’s never been a volume specifically about the ferries that served the same waterways.
Michael Cone rectifies that oversight with his recently published Connecting the Kootenays, which looks at a century of ferry service on Kootenay Lake.
“The sternwheeler stuff has been touched at various times in other publications,” Cone says. “Bob Turner’s books, Ted Affleck’s books. That’s been covered before. But the ferry service from 1947 when the Anscomb was built through to 2020 is all new material as far as I know.”
Cone has had a “longstanding interest in the history of navigation on Kootenay Lake,” most of it related to the sternwheelers. “But I thought this was a story that needed to be told because a lot of the oldtimers that joined the [ferry] service after the war were passing away. I didn’t want to lose their stories.
Cone started working on the project in earnest about five years ago. The book comes as the MV Balfour is set to be retired and replaced with a new ferry after nearly 70 years on the lake, although Cone says the timing is just coincidental.
“Sadly, this book is 15 years too late. Because a lot of the guys I interviewed, the senior captains from the Second World War on, are all gone. The modern audience you get is ‘My dad worked on the ferries’ or ‘My grandfather worked on the ferries.’”
The book opens with a discussion of the Grand Trunk Road, conceived in 1908 as a highway across the southern part of the province at a time when automobiles were still in their infancy. The government was unsure how to link the East and West Kootenay. Following World War I, they decided to extend the road from Sirdar to Kuskanook to connect with the CPR sternwheelers that were running to the south end of the lake anyway.
The new route, which opened in May 1921, allowed drivers to continue to the Crowsnest Pass.
“I never really full appreciated the fact that the steamer that was running from Nelson to Kootenay Landing was opening up the country,” Cone says. “It wasn’t a local service … Once you reached Kuskanook all of a sudden you could go all the way across British Columbia.”
The book also discusses the changing methods of ferry construction, beginning with hulled sternwheelers, followed by the riveted hull MV Anscomb, welded construction for the Balfour, and then plasma cutting for the MV Osprey 2000.
Cone says the detailed book will reward a careful reading.
“Some of the stories you won’t have read before. Those are based on interviews I got years and years ago with crew on the Nasookin, for instance. Those tidbits of information I’ve tried to put into the book as much as I can … I think the reader will get a lot of that if they are prepared to take the time to read it.”
In working on the book, Cone says the controversy over moving the Balfour terminal to Queens Bay (which the Ministry of Transportation ultimately opted against) caused some headaches for him in trying to get information from the government.
Historical Lifelines of Kootenay Lake
Art Joyce, chameleonfire1 blog, July 13, 2022
A review of Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries, by Michael A. Cone
For thousands of years prior to the building of the Roman roads, humanity’s highways were rivers, lakes, oceans and seas. It simply made more sense—it was faster and less labour intensive to sail a craft along known water routes. Well before the Age of Exploration, when sailing ships finally broke the barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, people in ancient times were maintaining extensive trading networks from the Mediterranean to the Orkney islands of northern Scotland. Cobalt glass beads found in Scandinavian Bronze Age tombs reveal trade connections between Egypt and Nordic countries 3,400 years ago.
So it’s no surprise that during the European settlement of the Kootenays the primary mode of travel was by water. This made eminent sense given the steeply mountainous terrain, and indeed, the region’s Indigenous peoples—the Ktunaxa and Sinixt—had already been navigating Kootenay waterways for thousands of years by canoe. Explorer David Thompson first charted the region in the late 18th century from the seat of a canoe with the help of Indigenous guides. Then, with the advent of the steamship era, the lakes and some of the rivers of the Kootenays were traversed by humble steam tugs and the more majestic sternwheelers, cruising at a gentle speed. For settlers living along the shorelines of Kootenay Lake, their only communication and supply line to the outside world came from these steam-powered craft. Lake dwellers would put up an agreed-upon signal on the beach and the shallow-draft steamboats would land to pick up or deliver mail and supplies. You can imagine the excitement of seeing one of these gleaming white structures—some of them with three or more decks topped with the wheelhouse—arrive on your lonely stretch of graveled shoreline.
Until the invention of the automobile and the profound transformation it wrought on transportation networks, Kootenay roads were little more than glorified pack trails—impassable to all but the hardiest of souls. Sadly, the impetus given to building proper roads and linking them all together provided by the automobile would spell the end of the noble steamboat era on Kootenay Lake. There was a brief crossover period during which the old steamboats such as the Nasookin—once practically a floating four-star hotel—were repurposed as car ferries. If you were a Greyhound bus driver during the 1930s and ’40s it would have taken a great deal of stamina to watch as your bus was chained across the bow of the Nasookin for the crossing from Gray Creek to Fraser’s Landing near Balfour. During a storm Kootenay Lake can be as dangerous as the sea. But as the price of automobiles became more affordable to the average family, car traffic exploded and a new and better kind of ferry had to be sought.
Michael A. Cone has done a superb job of chronicling the history of Kootenay Lake ferries, leading us from the crossover era through a century of ferry service up to the present with the state-of-the-art Osprey, launched in 2000. This is a beautifully put together and well-written book. The large, colour format of Connecting the Kootenays is a visual treat and its wealth of historical photographs help the reader chart their way through the chronology of the ferries, even what to the untrained eye would be subtle alterations to, for example, the Nasookin and the more modern Anscomb. Having researched and written two books of regional history and one of national history, I can attest to the work that goes into sourcing historical images, quite apart from the often-daunting task of composing the text.
Like the best histories, the book transports you back in time, giving you an almost palpable sense of what it would have been like to ride on a sternwheeler cutting through the waves of Kootenay Lake. The reader learns a lot about the operations of steamboats and ferries, especially the critical roles played by deckhands in assuring safe passage across this mercurial inland sea. Even though I grew up with two grandfathers who worked on the Kootenay Lake ferries—Roy Fisher, who worked as a relief captain on the Anscomb, and Herb Brown, an engineer on both the Balfour and the Anscomb—like most people I took for granted the work done by ferry staff, with little conception of the vital functions they fulfill. What may seem a simpleton’s job—guiding vehicles onto the ferry deck—is in fact an important way of creating stability for the vessel by ensuring the greatest weight is kept over the ferry’s centre of gravity. These skilled crews are a literal lifeline when things go wrong.
On a personal note, it was great to see Herb Brown repeatedly cited throughout the text for his contributions. One has to remember that Brown was a farm boy who never finished high school, raised in Alberta during the “dust bowl” conditions of the Great Depression. Yet due to an innate genius for mechanics, he was able to work his way up from dock labourer and deckhand to engineer. In fact, as Cone writes, some of Brown’s mechanical innovations not only improved the Balfour’s efficiency but lasted decades without needing major repair. Cone also relates the incident Herb used to tell me about when I was a boy—the exciting tale of the day the ferry was blown far off course on Kootenay Lake and he had to rush up from the engineering deck to help steer the ferry back on course. From Herb’s beaming countenance in some of the photos in this book, it’s clear that this was a man doing exactly what he was born to do in life.
It’s unfortunate that Cone had not heard of Roy Fisher, who served as relief captain on the Kootenay Lake ferries from 1964–1970. But there’s always the second edition! Fisher earned his qualifications at Vancouver, serving on a passenger freighter called the Princess Patricia that ran north to Dutch Harbor in the Alaska islands chain. After qualifying as steamship master, he joined the Kootenay Lake fleet, first serving as relief captain on the Anscomb. Roy was an affable, gregarious personality who relished the look on children’s faces when they were allowed to come up from the car deck to ‘steer’ the ferry. I remember being one of those kids, maybe five or six years old, breathless with wonder at the man in his brass buttoned uniform and peaked cap, as I hung on for dear life to the wheel with its seemingly endless spokes.
Cone’s book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in West Kootenay history or steamboat history generally. Just as the Mississippi had its classic era of the sternwheel-driven riverboats, we had our graceful era of steamboat travel in Western Canada. And it’s a reminder that newer is not always better where technology is concerned. I for one would far rather have been living in the classic age of the Kootenay Lake sternwheeler, riding from Nelson to Kaslo on the Moyie, leaning over the railings as the miles ticked lazily past with the froth, or having a four-course dinner in the luxurious dining room on the Kuskanook. Newer ferry technologies are probably safer and certainly faster, but they will never recapitulate the old world elegance and class of these steam-powered vessels that were a literal lifeline to Kootenay Lake residents prior to the development of public highways.
 Philippe Bostrom, “Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker,” March 9, 2016: https://oldnorse.org/2020/11/17/beads-found-in-3400-year-old-nordic-graves-were-made-by-king-tuts-glassmaker/
Ron Verzuh, British Columbia Review, July 3, 2022
Review of: Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries. A Hundred Years of Service, 1921-2020
by Michael A. Cone
Sternwheeler Majesty: A century of sailing the Kootenays on the “boats” that plied the region’s waterways
My childhood memory of the bygone era of sternwheelers on Kootenay waterways begins at the end of Michael Cone’s exhaustive pictorial account of the ferry system that tied the region’s mines, forests, and people together for 100 years.
I recall waiting on the shore of Kootenay Lake at Balfour on a hot summer’s day where the metal-hulled Anscomb would dock to take us across in our old 1951 Ford to Kootenay Bay on the eastern shore of the 60-mile-long lake.
It isn’t the largest, the cleanest or even the deepest of B.C.’s lakes, but it can fairly claim to be one of the most beautiful. And author Cone gives us plenty of visual and factual reasons why that is so. In fact, the large-sized book offers photographs, maps, and other helpful guides to assist in appreciating the age of the sternwheeler.
I never saw the Nasookin, the multi-decked early sternwheeler in the region, so seeing the extensive photo collection that featured it from many angles and eras was a special treat. Reading about its 16 years from 1931 to 1947 as the lake ferry, I could visualize its tall presence as it plied those waters, docking at small villages along the way.
There was a romantic feel to the Nasookin, and Cone spends much of the first half of his book sharing it with us. It was the largest of the “three queens” of the Kootenays, he writes. The other two were the Kuskanook and the Sicamous.
“Ranchers and homesteaders relied on elegant sternwheelers that regularly called at nearby landings for the mail, supplies and travel to and from Nelson,” Cone writes. His description extends to the early days of the automobile and motorists’ demands for better roads and faster ferries.
Back in the 1890s, “two railway giants, the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) and the Great Northern, were locked together in a competitive bid to control the rail and steam lines serving the West Kootenays,” Cone explains. The CPR’s Kootenay and Columbia Railway eventually won that war and it transported silver hunters, gold diggers and settler families to the region with help from the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company.
Cone documents the history of the ferries that connected the natural resources of the Kootenay-Columbia River systems to markets to the west and south when there was no other way to efficiently get there. His book necessarily covers capitalist development of region as well as its displacement of First Nations who had lived in the region for millennia.
The great sternwheelers represented progress in the old days and the book is chockablock full of statistics, marking each advance and inexorably each step toward the demise of the boats. Eventually their time would end as the Southern Highway tied the entire system together.
It is difficult to imagine today what passage on the lake boats would have been like, but Cone helps us do so. Passengers could enjoy the ride in a stateroom and enjoy meals in a well-equipped dining room. On deck, they could watch the crew of able mariners keeping the ship afloat, as Cone admiringly describes.
Male travellers enjoyed a smoking lounge while women could partake of “the long-standing practice of serving afternoon tea in the ladies parlour at three o’clock.” There were spittoons in the men’s lounge and an upright piano in the ladies.
“Amidships, between the men’s smoking room and the ladies’ parlour, was the showpiece of the steamer, her dining saloon,” Cone explained. Here, the large rectangular tables covered in spotless white linen were adorned with place settings of monogrammed china, gleaming polished silverware and folded napkins.”
The menu could include clam chowder, stuffed baked salmon, baked potatoes, fresh vegetables, French pancakes for dessert, finishing with Stilton or McLaren’s cheeses. A full staff of servers and cooks prepared the meals that gave the sailings an elegance that attracted tourists far and wide.
As I completed this review, I had just visited the last of the big “boats” at Kaslo, the sweet little Kootenay Lake town where the old Moyie is docked. It has been preserved as a museum. Farther down the lake near Nelson, parts of the Nasookin have been converted into a home.
Michael Cone’s book had more fully informed me to enjoy the visit, but I was both pleased to see the old-time vessel and saddened that she was covered in scaffolding. She was long overdue for a refurbishing.
Between the planks that partially hid her, I could still see the decks that once teemed with travellers, everyone needing to traverse massive Kootenay Lake, stopping at the many destinations along the route before debarking en route to Creston.
As I cast an eye over her nose and the big wheel at her stern, I envisaged the scenes author Cone writes about so lovingly. Now history provides a docking place for these once majestic vessels.
Cranbrook History Centre presents Ed Talks – Boats and Trains in the Kootenays
Carolyn Grant, Trail Times, April 21, 2022
At 7 pm on April 28 2022 the Cranbrook History Centre, you will have an opportunity to connect with two Kootenay authors who have recently written books around Kootenay transportation history.
Ed Talks – Boats and Trains in the Kootenays will present authors Michael Cone and Terry Gainer talking about their recently released books ‘Connecting the Kootenays’ and ‘When Rails Ruled the Kootenays’. They will be signing their books, which are on sale at the History Centre.
Michael Cone’s book Connecting the Kootenays’ is a 100 year history of the Kootenay Lake ferries.
Cone takes you through the history of the ferries, beginning with the sternwheeler Nasookin in 1921, a vital water link as the rail line didn’t fully connect the east and west Kootenay until 1931. Cone has done significant research and includes pictures and staff interviews of the Moyie, the MV Anscomb, the Balfour and the Osprey 2000. Local history buff Tom Lymberry of Gray Creek calls the book a triumph of accuracy and detail.
Terry Gainer’s ‘When Trains Ruled the Kootenays’ is a history of railways in southeastern BC. It sold out on first printing and has been reprinted this year. It includes a selection of historic photographs, and details the considerable rail traffic in and out of Nelson and area in the early 1900s.
Both books will be of interest to those who appreciate Kootenay history, and an opportunity to meet both authors at once shouldn’t be missed.
Talking Kootenay Books Podcast – Episode 045 (Michael A. Cone)
Keith Powell, Talking Kootenay Books, May 9, 2022
Cranbrook author and publisher Keith Powell interviews: Michael A. Cone, author of Connecting the Kootenays: The Kootenay Lake Ferries.