SS Aberdeen

SS Aberdeen, the first steamship, shown at Peachland.

Until the 1950s, Okanagan Lake was the main highway for travellers, with 32 landings and wharves between Okanagan Landing in the north and Penticton in the south. For decades, the early boats and large sternwheelers comprised the main connection to the outside world for people living along the west side of the lake.

In the early 1890s, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) noticed the region’s growth and the potential economic value of providing regular lake transport. The first steamship was the SS Aberdeen, a sternwheeler constructed at Okanagan Landing and launched May 22, 1893. For the next 14 years, the Aberdeen made round trips from Penticton to Okanagan Landing three times a week, running south on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and returning from Penticton on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Service paused mid-winter, when the S.S. Penticton completed the route.

Anyone along the lake could call the boat to shore by signalling with a white cloth or building two fires by the water.

The SS Aberdeen was a classic wooden-hulled design, measuring 146.2 feet by 29.9 feet with hold 6.8 feet deep. She could carry up to 250 passengers and her cargo capacity was 200 tons. She burned wood until 1902, when crews switched to a coal burner. The Aberdeen was flat-bottomed, which allowed her to reach isolated communities. In the early days, most wharves along the lake were primitive and many west-side settlements lacked a wharf altogether. They were simply known as “landings.”

The Aberdeen’s shallow depth of hold, buoyant wooden hull and rear paddlewheel allowed her to be run ashore at the landings. The bow would be nosed up onto the bank or beach while the wheel remained in deep water. To re-launch, the boat’s wheel ran in reverse, forcing a rush of water against the rudders. A mechanism called dual control allowed the captain to shift the rudders, swinging the stern back and forth, to manoeuvre the boat off the bank. For years, this was the only way many settlements could be visited by boat.

When she was launched, the SS Aberdeen connected communities along Okanagan Lake for the first time with effective, reliable transportation that provided access to formerly isolated areas. She was fully retired in 1916, after the SS Okanagan replaced her in 1907. Aberdeen’s hull was sold for $35.

The SS Okanagan was the second CPR sternwheeler to travel Okanagan Lake. The 61-metre steamship was also constructed at Okanagan Landing and launched in 1907. She had almost double the tonnage of the SS Aberdeen, with more spacious and luxurious accommodations. She took over much of the passenger transport, freeing up the SS Aberdeen for freight deliveries and stops at smaller communities.

The SS Okanagan served the communities of Okanagan Lake for 27 years and improved service along the lake considerably, making stops to pick up and drop off passengers at Okanagan Landing, Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland and Penticton. She was nicknamed “greyhound” for her speed of 21 mph, travelling the 65 miles of the lake in just three hours and 15 minutes.

The SS Okanagan is also remembered as the crime scene that triggered one of the greatest manhunts in Okanagan history. In March 1912, Walter Poelke, using the name Walter Boyd James to emulate Jesse James, robbed Charter & Taylor’s general store in Kelowna Mission and made off with $15. He escaped on foot and met up with Frank Wilson in Penticton.

The men were arrested at a Penticton hotel by Chief Roche and Constable George H. Aston. While the policemen confiscated several weapons and the 200 rounds of ammunition James was packing, they missed a Colt revolver. Constable Aston escorted James and Wilson on the SS Okanagan, destined for Kelowna. As the boat neared Peachland, James shot and killed Aston and the two men escaped into the hills.

A posse was launched and 200 armed men hunted the fugitives. They were captured at Wilson Landing, placed back on the SS Okanagan under heavier guard, and taken to Kelowna. They were later transferred to jail in Kamloops and tried for the murder of Constable Aston.

Wilson testified against James at trial in Vernon, where the jury found him guilty of “a most cold-blooded and atrocious murder.” On Friday, August 9, 1912, Walter James Poelke, 24, was hanged at Kamloops.

The SS Okanagan was retired in 1934 and sold for scrap and spare parts. The ladies’ stern saloon was used as a beach hut for several years before being rescued and restored by the SS Sicamous Society. It is now part of the SS Sicamous Heritage Park, Penticton.

Friends of Fintry is a registered non-profit society dedicated to preserving the history of the Fintry Estate and Capt. James Cameron Dun-Waters’ legacy. We welcome new members and volunteers to assist with research, tours and sharing Fintry’s history with the public.

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This article is part of a series, submitted by the Kelowna Branch, Okanagan Historical Society. Additional information would be welcome at P.O. Box 22105, Capri P.O., Kelowna, B.C., V1Y 9N9.